Each of these actions emboldened Iran or staved off war — depending on who you ask. When it comes to Iran policy, both sides are right in some respects and wrong in others, but they have one thing in common: Both are spinning.
“It’s good to highlight the perennial principle that weakness is provocative, but one shouldn’t rewrite history to make the point,” said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, criticizing both Trump and Biden for failing to respond to Iran’s military actions on multiple occasions since 2019. “It’s astonishing that the context, and several important parts of the story, are being left out.”
Mere hours after the strike on Sunday, the accusations started rolling in. Top national security officials who served under Trump, as well as congressional Republicans, accused Biden of failing to prevent the deaths, and argued that the strike would not have happened if Trump had been president.
“The biggest problem is a failure of deterrence. Iran and its proxies believe they can attack the United States with impunity, which has been the case for three years,” Robert O’Brien, Trump’s last national security adviser, said in an interview. “Our weakness is provocative.”
Biden officials shot back that deadly Iranian attacks did happen on Trump’s watch, and insisted that the former president’s actions — including withdrawing from the nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama — emboldened Tehran and cast aside safeguards that helped provide stability to the region. Administration officials have argued
in congressional testimony and
to reporters that the killing of Soleimani spurred Iran and its proxies to look for chances to retaliate.
Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates accused the former Trump officials and congressional Republicans of attempting to “politicize” Sunday’s attack. He also said they should “stop giving Iran a pass for helping Russia attack Ukraine,” a reference to Iran’s shipment of drones and other weapons to Moscow for strikes on Kyiv.
“Attempts by far-right congressional Republicans and former Trump officials to politicize our national security are illogical and detrimental to our safety and security,” Bates said in a Tuesday statement to POLITICO.
But that has not stopped Trump’s top national security officials from blaming Biden for the soldiers’ deaths. They argue that Biden has not struck back forcefully enough to the more than 160 attacks by Iran-backed proxies on U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and now Jordan, since October — showing a weakness that emboldened Tehran to continue encouraging the drone and missile strikes.
John Bolton, Trump’s first national security adviser, noted that one reason the attacks have continued and intensified is “because Iran is paying no price for its belligerence at all.”
“When you look at this, at the situation overall, it’s clear that Iran’s proxies have not been deterred,” he said in an interview. “Ultimately, until Iran begins to suffer costs, its calculus is it’s getting away with what it wants.”
Ric Grenell, who served as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence and his ambassador to Germany, said the attack would not have happened under Trump because the former president “had an extremely credible threat of military action. … Joe Biden does not have that credibility.”
“The president of the United States needs two powerful people sitting in front of him when he’s at the Oval Office desk. One is the secretary of Defense who’s not in the ICU, but actually in front of the president, calling for a military plan and a military option,” said Grenell, referring to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent weekslong hospitalization, which
he initially kept from Biden and other top national security leaders.
Former Trump officials and congressional Republicans have also
argued in recent weeks that the former president’s ordered assassination of Soleimani in a January 2020 drone strike restored deterrence after a similar escalation cycle with Iran. Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) said on Fox on Wednesday that Trump “went after Soleimani, made him a martyr… that’s deterrence.”
The defense of the Trump-era actions aren’t necessarily coming from loyalists, and in some cases, come from those who are heavily critical of Trump himself. Mark Esper, Trump’s defense secretary, said Monday on CNN that killing Soleimani was “the right decision.” Bolton, meanwhile, argued Soleimani’s “early exit” did not go far enough, but “there was a lot more deterrence out there than we’ve seen in the last three years.”
But those attacks didn’t stop after Soleimani was killed. Five days later, on Jan. 8, 15 missiles hit a U.S. base in Iraq, injuring more than 100 Americans. U.S. personnel and contractors were also killed in separate attacks
and Syria that spring and the conditions in Baghdad deteriorated so much that then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to shut the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The attacks continued over the course of 2020, including a barrage of rockets launched at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that then-commander of U.S. Central Command said at the time marked the
largest attack on the Green Zone since 2010.
Karako added that there’s a key event missing from the Trump administration’s version of the events of 2019 and 2020.
On June 20, 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. Global Hawk drone over the Strait of Hormuz. After vowing a response, Trump ultimately called off a retaliatory airstrike against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That incident “emboldened Iran to continue its mischief,” culminating in the Soleimani strike, Karako said.
When Biden entered office in 2021, his national security team inherited “a rising tempo of attacks,” according to one of two administration officials granted anonymity to discuss security matters.
The officials also rejected the Trump team’s criticism that the Biden administration has been too selective in choosing when to respond to Iranian proxy attacks. They noted that the Trump national security team also chose, at times, not to respond, as have previous presidents of both parties.
Moreover, Biden has authorized a series of strikes since taking office including the recent bombardment of Houthi camps, infrastructure and weapons and the killing of a militia leader in Baghdad in the first week of January. The officials also pointed to a record of oil seizures and implementing more than 50 sanctions and other measures to devastate the Iranian economy. The Treasury Department on Wednesday
sanctioned the IRGC and Hezbollah’s financial network.
“The claim that we are not tough on Iran doesn’t hold up,” according to the same official.
But Karako agrees that Biden responded far too late to the Iran-backed Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, which went on for months before the president ordered strikes on Yemen.
On the diplomatic side, Grenell argued that Biden’s decision to lift Trump’s sanctions on Iran ended up funneling billions of dollars to the Iranian regime “in sanctions relief, credit and cash” that Tehran then used to fund terrorism and pursue nuclear weapons and satellites.
“All of this is squarely because the Biden administration decided to unleash the sanctions that we had on Iran and somehow convince themselves that Iran could be negotiated with,” Grenell said, referring to the administration’s attempts to restart negotiations on a new nuclear deal.
Biden “made things far worse” by lifting the sanctions and attempting to renegotiate the nuclear deal, Bolton said. He also criticized Biden for “boasting” about
warning Iran about an impending terrorism attack this month.
“I think the Biden approach clearly failed,” Bolton said.
But the Biden officials pointed out that a controversial
$6 billion fund that they released to Iran after a prisoner swap was purely for humanitarian purposes and had not been accessed by Tehran.
They also defended the decision to warn Iran about the ISIS-K terror attack. The administration had a legal responsibility to warn Iran about the attack, they said, citing a long-running intelligence community statute called “duty to warn.”
Had the U.S. not informed the Iranians about the impending attack, it would have broken the law; just as the Trump administration would have had they not followed through, they said.