Nov 16, 2023

What should the U.S. do about Iran?

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Image courtesy of
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Image courtesy of

Plus, a reader question about Joe Biden's constituency.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we are breaking down U.S. relations with Iran. Also, a question about which voters Joe Biden should focus on.


We are publishing a transcribed interview with Ben Miller, an economist who believes a recession in the United States is on the horizon. We discussed why Miller thinks differently than other economists, and what evidence he is looking at that leads him to his conclusion.

Quick hits.

  1. The Senate passed a stopgap funding bill on an 87-11 vote, averting a government shutdown until at least early 2024. (The deal
  2. President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person for four hours in San Francisco. The two discussed reducing fentanyl production and improving military ties. (The talks)
  3. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) told NBC News he would consider running for president. (The comments) Separately, New Hampshire continues to defy the Democratic Party's plan to shift its first primary to South Carolina, setting its own primary for January 23. (The primary
  4. Israel and Hamas are negotiating a ceasefire with talks centered around how many days Israel would allow a ceasefire in exchange for the release of hostages. (The negotiations
  5. New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy (D) announced she is running for Sen. Bob Menendez's (D) Senate seat in 2024. Menendez is facing a federal bribery indictment. (The run
  6. BREAKING: The House Ethics Committee found evidence Rep. George Santos (R-NY) broke federal law. Santos said he will not seek re-election after the release of the findings. (The news)

Today's topic.

Iran. Since Hamas's attack on Israel, U.S. politicians and pundits have been debating how the United States should position its foreign policy toward Iran.

Back up: Iran and Israel are former allies whose relationship soured after the pro-Islamic Iranian Revolution in 1979. Iran and Israel have never been in direct war, but Iran’s proxies — the armed militant groups that work on behalf of certain states — are active throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Central to much of their activity is the Sunni-Shia divide in the Muslim world, which is especially relevant in the rift between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Hamas, the group that executed the attack against Israel, is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and is actually a Sunni group. However, it has received funding and training from Iran due to their shared interests in combating Israel.

Speculation about Iran's role in the Hamas attack has run rampant, sparked in part by a Wall Street Journal article accusing Iranian leadership of helping to plan it. While Iran denied any role in orchestrating the attack, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised it.

“We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime,” he said. “The Zionist regime’s own actions are to blame for this disaster.”

At the same time, the U.S. has long been navigating a rocky relationship with Iran, as evidenced over the past decade by repeated efforts to strike a lasting deal that would limit its nuclear arms development. The U.S. has also had competing interests with Iran in the Middle East for decades, and has spent the last few weeks bombing Iranian proxies in Syria after those groups targeted U.S. troops in Iraq. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, has also been firing rockets into Israel.

Then last week, candidates brought the issue of Iran onto center stage during the third Republican debate. The entire field of candidates, save for Vivek Ramaswamy, made the case that the Biden administration should implement far stiffer policies against Iran. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly called for bombing Iran. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) proposed bombing Iranian infrastructure anytime an Iranian proxy group struck U.S. troops in Iraq or Syria.

The attacks in Israel and the GOP candidates' positions have set off a wave of debate about how the U.S. should approach Iran going forward. Today, we're going to share some opinions from the left and right, then my take. 

What the left is saying.

  • The left is concerned about the prospect of war with Iran but thinks that outcome is still avoidable.
  • Some say the U.S. should focus its efforts on supporting the Iranian people who want to change their country from within.
  • Others question Republicans’ rhetoric in support of a war with Iran.

In Bloomberg, James Stavridis outlined “what the U.S. should do about Iran.”

“Iran is increasingly likely to push Israel and the US, and I’d say the chances of a serious attack by Iran have risen uncomfortably high, to over 20%. It could close the Strait of Hormuz, spike oil prices, and move forward in unpredictable ways, especially with two US carrier strike groups, multiple Air Force attack aircraft squadrons, and an expeditionary Marine strike group on station today. Direct combat between US and Iranian forces is not out of the question.”

“If Iran decides to lash out either through more proxy activity — notably from Hezbollah — or even directly, Biden will be receiving a detailed list of options to take in response,” Stavridis wrote. These options include “Cyberattacks conducted by US Cyber Command,” “Special forces operations against Hezbollah,” “Long range strikes,” and “Air strikes [to] destroy Iranian infrastructure in the Gulf.” These actions “would not produce significant collateral civilian damage but would have both deep military effect and crippling economic impact.”

In The Hill, Sima Sabet asked “what is America’s Plan B against Iran?”

“The most significant principle that American decision-makers need to formally recognize is this: there is no possibility of interaction, cooperation or behavior change with the Iranian government. The death of this fantasy or optimism in American foreign policy is a prerequisite for any breakthrough or alternative solution,” Sabet said. “America’s understanding of Iranian reality needs to be updated. The tactics of Iran’s government against America over the last four decades have evolved, and the dynamics of changes within Iranian society have been very fluid.”

“Although the Islamic Republic is a natural enemy of America, the people of Iran are naturally friends of America and the West. Various American administrations, to the extent that their eyes are on agreements with the Iranian government, have not seriously supported the people who wish to change their fate. Therefore, instead of exhausting and low-yield talks with a ‘stubborn enemy,’ America should have a comprehensive strategy to support the people of Iran and the opponents of the Islamic Republic.”

In The Daily Beast, Ben Burgis criticized Republican presidential candidates who are “warming to the idea of war with Iran.”

At the GOP debate last week, it was surprising “how eager some of these people seem to be to start a war with Iran,” Burgis wrote. “Even if you don’t care about the ocean of death and suffering this would bring to Iranian civilians just trying to live their lives, how many Americans would die or come home physically or psychologically broken by the time it was all over?” And at a time of broad American support for Israel, “saying ‘Hey, let’s at least make sure this doesn’t escalate into a broader war’ would make them look like maybe they weren’t waving those flags hard enough.”

“Donald Trump, who’s creaming all of these people in the polls, is no better. This is the guy who, the last time he was in office, ripped up Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and brought us closer to the war Haley wants than we’ve been in decades. Whatever else you want to say about all this, one thing everyone should stop saying — forever — is that any of these people are ‘anti-war.’”

What the right is saying.

  • The right is warming to the idea of preemptive military action against Iran.
  • Some argue that by allowing Israel to destroy Hamas without any constraints, the U.S. can deal a blow to Iran’s standing in the region. 
  • Others say Republicans should back off their hawkish posturing about starting another war.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “Iran isn’t impressed” by the U.S. response to its proxies’ attacks. 

“The war in the Middle East could still morph into a larger regional conflict, and the Biden Administration is calibrating its actions to manage that risk. But the confounding reality is that President Biden’s weak responses to attacks on U.S. forces aren’t deterring Iran and its proxies, which increases the risk of escalation,” the board wrote. “The surgical U.S. military strikes in response aren’t making Tehran think twice about hitting American troops.”

“The central fact is that Iranian proxies are now routinely trying to kill American service members abroad, while the U.S. is responding by shooting at ammunition. The militias will continue to do this, and eventually they may succeed. The Biden Administration has been touting its addition of air defenses to the region and an Ohio-class submarine is lurking in the neighborhood. But what’s the point of military assets if America’s enemies don’t fear that the U.S. will use them?”

In The New York Post, Avi Melamed argued the U.S. should “exploit the tensions” within Iran’s alliances.

“Hamas’ war exposed tensions between members of the axis of resistance. Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias disliked, to say the least, the fact Hamas initiated the war without consulting them. Hamas and [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], for their part, do not hide their ire and frustration that the axis of resistance does not stand by them with its full military capacities. Anger at Hamas in the Arab world is skyrocketing,” Melamed said. “The ‘unification of the arenas’ Hamas marketed to the Palestinians turned out to be an empty promise.”

In response, the U.S. should “deal a severe blow to Iran’s axis by allowing Israel to collapse Hamas’ control in Gaza while damaging Iran’s military capabilities in Syria. By ending Hamas rule in Gaza, not only would the most insurmountable obstacle to peacefully ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be removed; it would also significantly diminish Tehran’s ability to continue fueling the flames of the conflict. And it would provide momentum and conditions for stability in the region,” Melamed wrote. “Ending Hamas’ rule in Gaza and smashing Tehran’s land corridor in Syria — proving the ‘unify the arenas’ narrative to be false — will substantially disrupt Tehran’s master plan.”

In Reason, Eric Boehm wrote about the “pivot to bombing Iran” by Republican politicians.

“After two debates full of promises to bomb Mexico, the Republican presidential candidates turned their eyes toward a more traditional target for saber rattling: Iran,” Boehm said. “None of the candidates grappled with the most relevant question regarding the Iranian-backed militia strikes on American troops in Iraq and Syria: Why are American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria in the first place? Surely, a better way to protect those American lives would be to remove them from a place where they are at risk—and where they might draw America into a broader war with Iran.”

When he was president, “Trump's foreign policy toward Iran was noteworthy for his relative restraint—so much so that notorious Iran hawk John Bolton fumed for years about how Trump thwarted his plans to start another Middle Eastern war,” Boehm added. “Other candidates looking to stand out in the Republican field ought to remember that GOP primary voters have favored foreign policy restraint, not dangerous threats to start new foreign wars.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • It’s tough to know the best path forward or even who to listen to.
  • The best place to start is avoiding war with Iran and empowering the Iranian people, not its rulers.
  • That means helping the Iranians pursue change and opposing Iran’s military proxies rather than Iran itself.

Let me first start with a little bit of humility here: I genuinely don't know the best path forward.

Consider the basic facts: Iranian leaders continue to call for the destruction of Israel and death to America. They fund proxy groups across the Middle East that worsen civil and religious wars in the Muslim and Arab world, and directly undermine the interests of the U.S. and other Western governments. They continue to stockpile uranium in order to develop a nuclear weapon (though, of course, we've been hearing that for years). And perhaps most importantly, the Iranian people continue to live under an oppressive, corrupt regime that affords them little freedom and can't support its citizens with the basic necessities.

To put that differently: The current situation is bad for everyone, in almost every way.

One thing that strikes me about the commentary on this issue is that it is led by a lot of the same people who have been commenting on (and shaping) U.S. policy for decades. Those people, collectively, have put us in the position we are in today. But they’re also among the most informed on the region’s dynamics, so it is hard to know who to trust.

Fundamentally, there are two things I feel pretty confident about:

1) Advocating for a direct war with Iran should be absolutely disqualifying for any presidential candidate or politician. In 2019, about 18% of Americans supported military action against Iran. I haven't seen more recent polling, but I can only presume — or hope — that number is even lower now. Not only would a hot war with Iran be deeply unpopular here at home, it would likely be even more destabilizing in the Middle East than previous wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The only half-decent argument for it is that a direct war with Iran is one of the few things we haven't tried in the region, and perhaps winning such a war would open a new door to the future. But the downsides and risks are too numerous to list, and of course the human toll is unacceptable.

2) If the West wants to have a cohesive policy in Iran, it should focus on empowering the Iranian people. Iranian authorities responded to the 2021-2022 uprisings with brutal force. But that response didn’t make the problem go away, it only temporarily muted the very real desire amongst the Iranian people for something different. After decades of jihad, extremism, and failed domestic policy, Iranians are done. Polling from Iran shows an overwhelming majority — 80%, according to some surveys — want to rid themselves of the Islamic Republic.

So, how do we do #2 without #1? That is the difficult question at the heart of the issue — and one I don't feel qualified to answer. But answering it should provide the north star for our policy. I thought Sima Sabet, the former host at Iran International TV, made the most compelling points in this regard (under "What the left is saying"). The most important thing for American decision-makers to formally recognize is that "there is no possibility of interaction, cooperation or behavior change with the Iranian government." Focusing so much on Iran's nuclear program distracts us from the challenge of confronting its proxy groups and supporting the desires of its people for different leadership.

Instead, the U.S. needs to internalize the fact that this Iranian people's movement is stronger than any before it, and that the people of Iran for the most part are secular, desire relationships with the West, and understand the reality of their situation. Sabet smartly points out the protest chants heard on the streets: “They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here.”

However we go forward, one thing is nearly certain: The strategies of the last two decades — hot and cold engagement with the Iranian regime, obsession over the nuclear program's advances and sputters, intermittent attacks and assassinations, and oscillating approaches from friendly to aggressive and back again — aren’t working. We need a cohesive policy, one much more focused on uplifting and supporting the Iranian people's desire for change. Militarily, that means focusing on limiting the attacks from Iran's proxies across the region. And we have to try to do all this while avoiding a direct conflict.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Is it possible that Biden’s ratings are just Democrats showing their frustrations with some of his policies and decisions? I'm an old guy, but it seems that Biden’s policies are focused on keeping my generation happy, and not making the best decisions for the future (and the current younger Democratic voters). Personally, I can see a pro-choice voter using their vote for Trump or the Republicans.

— Dan from Maricopa, Arizona

Tangle: There are two things I found interesting about this question that I wanted to dive into. First off, I think the idea that Biden is keeping the older generation happy and not making the best decisions for the future is out of step with how most people would criticize the Biden administration. 

That criticism usually goes something like this: Biden is captive to the agenda of the progressive left, but he isn’t advancing that agenda sufficiently for them. This can be seen in his striking with union members, the Inflation Reduction Act’s emphasis on green energy, the size of the Covid relief package, and his repeated attempts to cancel student debt. On one hand, many in the center and the right view him as a president too keen on spending and advancing policy positions of progressives. On the other hand, progressives see Biden as not doing enough

That doesn’t sound like a president who’s especially focused on the older generation, but I do think there’s an argument there. That argument goes like this: Two of Biden’s signature pieces of legislation, the Build Back Better Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, are large investments in American infrastructure and domestic industry — something that benefits the older generation more than, say, an investment in education and childcare. Simultaneously, Biden has picked fights with Republicans for being open to cutting Medicare or Social Security, programs very popular with older Americans.

I don’t personally find that argument too persuasive, since Biden’s legislation doesn’t sound like an investment that favors older Americans more than younger ones, and since preserving Social Security and Medicare is a more mainstream Democratic position (one that he once opposed). But I do think your question shows how varied the opinions on Biden’s administration are.

Secondly, I wanted to talk briefly about the much-sought-after “pro-choice voter,” because I think the way people usually talk about these voters is wrong. Republicans haven’t been losing elections since Roe fell because they are failing to keep the votes of people they once carried, they’re losing these elections because people who didn’t care enough to vote previously are motivated to cast a ballot against Republicans just on this issue. I can show that with two of the numbers we shared after last week’s election. 3% — the difference in the people who said they voted for Biden than said they voted for Trump in Ohio this year when abortion was on the ballot. That’s an 11-point swing in a state Trump carried by 8% in 2020. 7% — the proportion of registered voters in New York City who cast a ballot this year. That’s a whole lot of people who could potentially be brought off the sidelines.

So, we aren’t seeing some frustration with Biden from the big bloc of pro-choice voters, we’re seeing that a big bloc of voters are frustrated, but a very decisive slice of those voters are singly driven to vote because they’re pro-choice.

All of that said, my answer for why Biden’s approval rating is so low isn’t that progressives are angry at him, or that the pro-choice vote is venting frustration. It's that nobody is totally thrilled with him on the left, that his age is becoming a bigger and bigger factor, and that he’s getting hammered on the one thing voters have always cared about above all else. And it’s not abortion — it’s the economy.

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Under the radar.

Dissatisfaction with the 2024 presidential field is strongly concentrated among Democrats and independents. Republicans, meanwhile, are more satisfied with their options than other groups. Overall, 52% of respondents to a Quinnipiac University poll said they would like to see other candidates in the race, including 72% of independents and 58% of Democrats. However, just 29% of Republican respondents said they wanted new candidates. Axios has the story.


  • 55. The number of times U.S. and coalition troops have been attacked in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17, according to U.S. officials.
  • 59. The number of American personnel injured in those attacks. 
  • 12%. The percentage of world oil reserves that Iran accounted for in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration. 
  • $40 billion. The estimated net oil export revenues for Iran’s oil companies in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration. 
  • 39.5%. The rate of inflation in Iran’s economy in September 2023.
  • 9%. The unemployment rate in Iran in 2022. 
  • $700 million. The annual funding Hezbollah receives from Iran, according to the U.S. State Department. 
  • $100 million. The annual funding Hamas receives from Iran.
  • 150,000. The estimated number of rockets and missiles currently aimed at Israel by Hezbollah.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about Trump announcing his 2024 presidential run.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was our video about how Israel has no good options.
  • It's a start: 671 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about the Supreme Court's Code of Conduct, with 37% saying the code is somewhat sufficient. 31% said it is highly insufficient, 25% said it is somewhat insufficient, and 8% said it is highly sufficient. "If the code doesn’t address the actual ethical lapses that made it necessary (inappropriate gifts), it is not sufficient," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The arms race in the global hunt for sunken treasure.
  • Take the poll. What do you think should be the U.S. military policy towards Iran? Let us know!

Don't forget...

We have a new video up:

Have a nice day.

Daisy may be a springer spaniel who lives in Cornwall, England, but she channeled her inner Lassie to help save her feline friend. Michele Rose noticed her dog, Daisy, “going berserk” in the woods near their home, zooming around trees and trying to get her attention; so Rose decided to listen, following Daisy into the woods. Daisy took off down a path before she “stopped dead in her tracks” next to an abandoned mineshaft. That’s when Rose’s thoughts turned to her cat, Mowgli, who had been missing for six days, and with whom Daisy has a strong bond. Rose trusted that Daisy was trying to tell her something, and decided to call authorities to search the mineshaft for her missing cat. The next day, a rescue team found Mowgli, miraculously uninjured, and retrieved him. “Without Daisy doing that Mowgli could still be down there, that’s for sure. She was persistent in making me follow her, it was amazing. Daisy is a superstar. She’s an amazing dog,” Rose said. Global News has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.