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Biden seeks to avoid wider war after Iran strike on Israel

President Biden is hoping to avoid an all-out eruption in the Middle East after Iran sent hundreds of missiles and drones, nearly all of them intercepted, toward Israel in retaliation for an attack on an Iranian facility in Damascus that took out a top general.

Biden now has to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other allies not to escalate tensions in the region that have become beyond frayed since the start of the war in Gaza in October. Biden reportedly told Israel’s leader that the U.S. would not participate in any offensive operations against Iran going forward.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby was peppered with questions Sunday about whether the administration was confident Biden’s mission to deter war with Iran was understood effectively by Netanyahu.

When asked about reports that Biden told Netanyahu to “take the win” on the interception of the missiles, Kirby instead focused on what he called Israel’s “success” on Saturday.

“It was very clearly, you know, ‘We stand with you in your self-defense,’” Kirby said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked about Biden’s message to the prime minister. “That was the main message that the president delivered to the prime minister and congratulated the prime minister and the [Israel Defense Forces] for the extraordinary job they did knocking things out of the sky.”

“But I won’t go into more detail. Again, I just go back to what the president has said time and time again: We don’t seek an escalation. We don’t seek a wider war in the region,” he added.

However, some of Israel’s war Cabinet appear to already be disagreeing with that sentiment.

“We will exact a price on Iran, in the manner and at the time that is right for us,” war Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz said Sunday on his military intentions.

Biden will also have to quell pressures at home to strike back on Tehran.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) called for as much on Saturday shortly after Iran launched drones and cruise missiles toward Israel, some of which also rained down on parts of Jordan’s capital Amman and areas of the West Bank.

“Iran has begun launching drone strikes on Israel,” Blackburn said Saturday on the social platform X. “@POTUS — we must move quickly and launch aggressive retaliatory strikes on Iran.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, assessed that the administration had hit “rock bottom on dumb policy decisions” in considering Israel’s efforts to stop the missiles and drones from inflicting more significant damage a “win.”

“When you think the Biden Administration has hit rock bottom on dumb policy decisions or statements on national security, unfortunately that’s not the case,” Graham wrote Sunday on X.

“Only the Biden Administration would consider hundreds of missiles and drones being launched at your country by Iran ‘a win,’” he added.

For Biden, there is also the matter of U.S. military personnel in places like Iraq and Syria who have been under a barrage of attacks by Iranian proxies since late last year.

When asked by CBS’s Margaret Brennan whether Israel’s attack in Damascus raised the risk of danger for American troops in the Middle East — and whether Israel should let the U.S. know before targeting any Iranian assets — Kirby wouldn’t go into details about the strike in Syria.

“We want to make sure the conversations we’re having with the Israelis are as contextual as possible, so that we can make the necessary preparations for our own troops and facilities,” Kirby said. “The other message the president sent over the last few days, and certainly it was discussed last night, is we’re going to take whatever steps we need to take to protect our troops, our ships, our facilities in the region going forward.”

Kirby added that Biden was speaking with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday about the potential need to draw down or reposition any of the U.S. presence in the region.

Saturday’s attack by Iran stands to also change the tune of at least some Democrats who had expressed serious concerns about Israel’s military operation in Gaza and its heavy toll on Palestinian civilians.

These concerns were only elevated earlier this month, when Israeli forces inadvertently killed seven aid workers who were assisting with desperately needed food distribution in the devastated coastal enclave.

“The way this has been conducted in Gaza, I have serious concerns, I’ve expressed those,” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, told CBS.

While he called the attack on the aid workers “reckless and irresponsible,” he then added: “We provide [Israel] with significant aid, and we’re going to need to provide them with more by the way here because of what happened last night, we were going to need to replenish their rounds.”

When asked if Iran’s attack risked a wider war, Kirby told CNN that the way the U.S. responded to Saturday’s attack was an example of how Biden sought to de-escalate the matter.

“The president, I mean, almost everything he’s been doing since the beginning, since October 7, has been to try to de-escalate, to try to limit the opportunities here for a broader regional war,” Kirby said.

“And if you think about it, just last night, the pre-positioning that the president ordered, additional ships, additional aircraft, fighter pilots into the region to help take down these drones and these missiles, I mean, everything he’s doing is trying to set the conditions so that does not happen,” he added.

A senior administration official told reporters on Sunday the U.S. remains steadfast in containing what he called a “crisis” to only Gaza. Biden officials maintain that while they don’t want to see the conflict get any worse, they stopped short of publicly advising Israel on how to respond to Iran.

“No one wants to run up the escalation ladder here,” the official said. “Israel has to think through carefully what it wants to do next.”

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