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It’s Time for Biden to Press for a Regional Cease-Fire With Teeth

Israel and Iran have flexed their muscles. But all this must stop here and now. Time to lead, Joe.

Joe Biden
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

The old saying about wars is always worth repeating: You can choose when to start a war, but you can’t choose when it will end. When Israel bombed the Iranian diplomatic mission in Damascus on April 1, killing 12, including a senior Iranian military official, it knew what it was doing.

Having attacked Syria numerous times without Syrian retaliation, the Israelis thought that the same thing would happen here. Having clandestinely assassinated Iranian scientists without making a claim of responsibility, they were able to get away with it. But the brazen act of violating the 1961 Vienna Convention, which makes it a war crime to attack a diplomatic mission, was one act that Iranians could not take quietly.

Israel has prided itself on a high level of deterrence with its neighbors and has used its military (largely the Air Force) dominance to declare its superiority and hegemony in the area. Iran too has similar ambitions, although usually it acts via proxies like Hezbollah. But the April 1 attack was too obvious and impossible to ignore or to allow to be forgotten. The Iranians decided that they needed to respond, and they needed to respond from Iranian territory since the attack on their diplomatic mission was an attack on sovereign Iranian territory (albeit in Syria).

Iranians, though, didn’t want to start a war—rather, they wanted to draw a marker in the sand. They wanted to make sure that the Israelis understood that they had crossed a red line and that a response would take place. To ensure that the attack didn’t turn into a vicious cycle, they telegrammed via Arab countries to the United States the date and time that they would attack. And their attack was, according to an official Iranian statement, a “limited” attack. Sure, they used a variety of projectiles, probably to be able to assess for future research what the Israeli and American methods of intervention will be, but they moved across the sky slowly and gave Israel and its allies plenty of time to attack.

The U.S.-led alliance that included regional countries seems to have downed most of the projectiles. President Joe Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and suggested that since no one was hurt (except for one injured girl who has survived), then the best way to de-escalate was to call it even stephen. The George H. Bush administration had succeeded back in 1990 in convincing the Israelis not to retaliate against the Scud missiles that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used against Israel, which also had no impact or loss of life.

However, this time things are different. Netanyahu, who has been stuck in the Gaza quagmire and who had approved the attack on the Iranian mission, was waiting for the Iranian response and would not give up the option of his own response, even if it would lead to a vicious cycle.

Biden has warned Israel not to respond. If the advice of the American president is not accepted, then a global response will be necessary. The United Nations Security Council must step in and discuss a regional cease-fire. Russia (a supporter of Iran) and the U.S. (a strong ally of Israel) need to put their differences on Ukraine aside and work together to draft a binding regional cease-fire resolution with teeth.

Unlike UNSC Resolution 2377, which passed March 25 as a result of a rare U.S. abstention and called for an immediate cease-fire that the U.S. envoy to the United Nations mistakenly stated was not binding, the new resolution must contain a real enforcement mechanism, possibly by referring to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. Chapter VII is the part that allows for economic and military accountability for any member state that violates the U.N. Charter.

Such a regional cease-fire needs to include Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, and Israel, as well as the waterways on the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf and of course Gaza and the West Bank. Multinational peacekeeping forces might be required, especially in occupied Gaza and the West Bank, to ensure compliance by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Six months of U.S. foot-dragging has left death and misery in the Palestinian areas, and there is no doubt that the toxicity of the lack of a solution to the Palestinian conflict helped push Iran to its unprecedented, albeit limited, act by a non-Arab country against Israel. The danger of a regional war is now much more serious, and the American foot-dragging that resulted in such devastation in Gaza will not work this time either.

When the U.S. and other Western countries moved in to save Israel, they took risks and therefore they have a right to demand a de-escalation. If Israel doesn’t heed U.S. advice and the region falls into a vicious round of violence, the world community, represented by the U.N. Security Council, needs to intervene.

Netanyahu has been looking for such a situation to deflect from his failures and to avoid accountability. This is not a time for decisions to please one person or to save him from his people. The Biden administration has a unique and short window of opportunity. It needs to act fast and lead the world community into an act of peace by pushing for a permanent regional cease-fire with teeth. Anyone violating it will be answerable to the world community.