As Iran attacks Israel, Biden faces the Middle East crisis he wanted to avoid.

Adam Schultz / The White House

President Joe Biden meets with members of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room on Saturday, April 13, 2024, regarding missile attacks on Israel from Iran. Some parts of this manual photo are blurred by the source.



CNN

For President Joe Biden, a Israel was attacked from Iranian soil It amounts to a scenario he has tried hard to avoid since the start of the current Middle East conflict.

The reprisals raise the risk of a broader regional conflict that could come directly from the United States, along with other countries.

They put Biden — again — in the vulnerable position of pledging firm support for Israel while trying to prevent a new flare-up with the United States.

I don't know what will come next. After Iran's attacks, US officials admitted they were entering unidentified territory. A significant question mark is how proxies might join Iranian efforts to target Israel, adding a new layer of unpredictability. As Israel's plans to respond are still being developed, Biden administration officials are expected to continue advising their Israeli counterparts — with the desire for containment in mind.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, Biden told Netanyahu to consider Saturday a victory as the US assessed Iran's attacks as largely unsuccessful and demonstrated Israel's superior military capabilities. Any offensive actions against Iran would be retaliatory, a senior administration official told CNN.

But in the hours following Iran's attack, it became clear that the president faces a serious challenge in closing the gap between Iran and Israel and stopping a full-scale regional war from erupting.

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Israel will respond to an attack by Iran, but the scope of that response has not yet been determined, an Israeli official told CNN's Jeremy Diamond on Sunday.

The official said Israel has not yet decided whether to try to “break all the food” or do something more measured.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned of a conflict with Iran “Not done yet.” The country's response options are expected to be discussed in detail during a meeting of Israel's war cabinet on Sunday.

Hossein Salami, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned that Tehran would respond directly if Israel retaliated, saying a “new equation” had been created.

Biden also operates within a fraught polity Election year, placing more emphasis on his upcoming results. An explosion of Israel-Hamas war That hurt Biden at home on October 7, eroding his support in key constituencies as he refused to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

One of the reasons Biden rushed back to the White House from his beach home in Delaware on Saturday afternoon was the immediate nature of the attack, an official said, with a situation room specially equipped to monitor events in real time.

Administration officials saw Iran's attacks on Israel on Saturday as disproportionate to Israel's strikes in Damascus, prompting retaliation, a US official told CNN.

That comment was a key factor in White House discussions throughout the day on next steps, as Biden remains determined to prevent the eruption of a full-scale regional conflict.

There is also a recognition that what Israel will do in response depends on a full damage assessment, including potential casualties, so the Biden administration's advice to Israel depends on a focused picture, the official added.

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After Israeli strikes in Syria killed top Iranian commanders, U.S. officials watched Iran prepare for a major attack on Israel. As the U.S. consults closely with Israel to figure out how, when, and exactly where Iran might retaliate, administration officials have not completely ruled out Iran trying to attack inside Israel and U.S. personnel and assets in the region.

A senior administration official said there was a “worse situation” in the days before Iran's Saturday attacks, which sparked a direct Iranian attack on Israel and a state-by-state conflict. The immediate aftermath of the October 7 attack by Hamas was the beginning of a wider regional conflict that the US has been working to prevent.

Despite his ongoing tensions with Netanyahu over the war in Gaza, Biden and his top brass have sought over the past week to reduce any daylight between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's defense against Iran.

Hours before Iran launched its attack, the US defense secretary and national security adviser spoke with their counterparts in Israel to reiterate that support. Last week, General Eric Guerrilla, commander of US Central Command, was discussing contingencies with officials ahead of the expected attack.

Biden kept his Friday promise that “the United States remains committed to the defense of Israel,” with defense officials telling CNN that the U.S. military successfully intercepted some Iranian missiles on Saturday.

Officials familiar with the matter said talks about preparations for an Iranian attack and coordination of response implicitly encouraged the Israeli government not to allow the situation to spiral out of control if Iran's response was limited in nature.

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The U.S. warned Iran publicly and privately of further escalation of the crisis and pressured European and Arab allies to use their own strength to deliver similar messages to Tehran.

As Iran's plans to attack Israel grew clear, U.S. officials assessed that Tehran was not seeking direct confrontation with the United States. Ahead of Saturday's drone strike by Iran, U.S. officials said they did not anticipate targets involving U.S. forces in the region.

It was a shift from the conflict, when pro-Iranian militias have repeatedly attacked US troops in the Middle East, including a strike that killed three Americans stationed in Jordan. After the US retaliated, attacks by Iranian proxies decreased.

But the tension between Iran and Israel has not subsided. With no direct lines of communication between the two countries, the risk of miscalculations increases.

CNN's Oren Liebermann contributed reporting.

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