Tehran and its proxies may wait until after inauguration to take any action, potentially leaving Biden to decide how to balance the safety of American personnel with the chance for reengagement.
On January 3, Iran’s leadership will mourn the one-year anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. And the world seems preoccupied with the possibility of imminent armed conflict in the Middle East as Iraqi militias sponsored by Iran ramp up both rocket attacks on U.S. sites and roadside bombings of convoys, and the U.S. flies B-52 bombers and positions the Navy’s hardest-hitting strike forces to the Gulf.
A number of observers have speculated that a violent clash with Iran would be President Donald Trump’s final and most destabilizing act in office. But there is every possibility that revenge for Soleimani and Muhandis might be the first crisis of the Biden administration instead.
The evidence for a post-January 20 confrontation has been accumulating for some weeks. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei cautioned on December 16 that Iran’s revenge would come “at its own time and place,” and thus not necessarily under Trump, who has pledged to strike back hard if Americans are harmed. Inside Iraq, the key Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, has warned against revenge attacks until Trump is gone, and even Mohammed al-Hashemi, an Iraqi government envoy sent to Iran, was quoted in Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper as beseeching Tehran to maintain calm “until the Biden administration takes over the presidency from Trump.”
Iran might restrain its militia partners until the end of the Trump administration but maybe not much beyond. In the inner circles of the U.S. government where threats are assessed, the January 20 transition is seen to represent a dangerous (and overlooked) window for escalation. One of Joe Biden’s first duties could be to respond to a fatal attack on Americans in Iraq, Syria or the Gulf region.
Iraq has a habit of serving up early challenges for new presidents: Bill Clinton’s first use of force was in Iraq, the June 1993 cruise missile strikes that avenged Saddam Hussein’s efforts to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush two months earlier. President George W. Bush’s first use of force was also in Iraq—a flurry of airstrikes in February 2001 that irked Bush when they disrupted his first foreign trip (to Mexico).
A new president’s first military crisis can be a foundational moment, particularly as great power competitors and rogue states alike take the measure of the new leader. Biden would need to weigh the consequences of action or inaction: one part of his political base would want to distinguish the new administration from the old, and extend an open hand to Iran, while foreign policy traditionalists would underline the need to demonstrate firmness, especially if an American is killed.
The best outcome for everyone is that Iran and its proxies recognize that striking U.S. interests on Biden’s watch is not, in any sense, safer or less consequential than risking such a move under Trump. The president-elect should clearly communicate before January 20 that he will be ready, minute one, day one, to firmly respond to any threat to Americans. On January 20, the new administration should also quietly signal to Iran that its hand is outstretched but that revenge against Trump is still revenge against America and would place additional obstacles on the road to sanctions relief.
The incoming Biden team is having problems gaining access to the information that is typically provided during a transition. A very early priority should be a review of the military options that have been prepared, in order to familiarize the team and allow it to quickly request additions and make deletions. Biden’s experienced national security team, particularly Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd Austin, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, knows that the fraught moments after an attack are not the right time to play catch-up or to discover you have no military options that pass muster.
If Iran or Iran-backed militias in Iraq do attack American interests at too late a stage for Trump to react, or early in the Biden presidency, there will be a tension between quickly achieving deterrence and establishing U.S. credibility, on the one hand, and carefully weighing the facts and options, on the other. If the attack is powerful enough to kill Americans—who are typically well-protected—then it may have received a go-ahead from Iran, but the incoming administration can wait to ascertain that connection. Clinton waited 72 days until he struck Iraq’s intelligence service for its role in the attempt on Bush’s life in 1993.
If evidence does emerge of an Iranian role, then a Biden administration—like Clinto