The United States launched an airstrike on Thursday evening against a border crossing point on the Syria-Iraq border that has been utilized by a Iranian-supported militant groups in the past. The attacks came in response to recent rocket attacks against US and coalition personnel in Iraq and the continued threat that Iranian proxy groups pose to them and their operations. This was the first US military action taken under the direction of President Biden. The decision for the attack was made after the Biden administration consulted with US allies. Shortly after 6 PM Eastern Time two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped JDAMs on multiple targets at the border crossing point.
The United States has stated it ultimately holds Tehran responsible for the actions of Iranian proxies. Thursday’s airstrike is proof that the Biden administration plans to hold firm to this policy. At least on the surface. A single US airstrike against a target with no viable connection to the recent rocket attacks in Iraq gives the impression of being little more than a slap on the wrist, as well as a message to Iran at best. These renewed attacks are a tactic being used by Tehran to increase pressure on Iraq’s government and simultaneously seeking leverage over the new US administration. After a brief period of calm late last year, the situation in Iraq returned to one more reminiscent of earlier in 2020 with regular attacks being made against Iraqi government and US military targets.
Practically speaking, last night’s airstrike should have no effect on US attempts to negotiate with Iran over the future of JCPOA compliance. Of course, should Tehran find it in their best interests to use the attack as a bargaining chip, it will. The White House needs to keep that in mind.
The Biden administration has signaled its willingness to restart talks with Iran aimed at either a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or wiping the slate clean and coming up with a new Iranian nuclear deal. On Thursday, a State Department spokesman said the administration would “accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program.” The timing of the announcement could’ve been better with it coming just days after Iranian-connected militant groups in Iraq launched rockets at a US-led coalition airbase in Erbil. One US civilian contractor was killed and nine people injured including one US soldier. No administration officials have publicly acknowledged that an Iranian-backed group is responsible for the Erbil attack. Which makes sense given that the administration’s main foreign policy goal at the moment is to figure a way back into a nuclear deal with Iran. Admitting that an Iranian supported group is responsible for the attack will force Biden to respond, thus dimming the prospects for future talks with Iran.
Whatever the response may be, it will contrast sharply with the Trump administration’s strategy of retaliating militarily against the militias and going after top Iranian military leaders like Qasem Soleimani. This was a risky strategy. However, it paid dividends by neutralizing Iranian proxy groups inside Iraq and pushed back Tehran’s regional ambitions considerably. In contrast, Joe Biden will be searching first for non-military responses. This runs the risk of presenting a weak response that encourages Iranian proxies inside Iraq and other areas of the region. If these groups reach a point where they feel they can attack US troops and installations without fear of retaliation or other consequence, it will only be a matter of time until a major attack is launched against US troops and interests in Iraq and perhaps on the Arabian Peninsula as well.
The United States is in the process of downsizing the staff of its embassy in Baghdad and other diplomatic facilities around Iraq. The Trump administration is taking the action in light of rising tensions with Iran. The recent death of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the approaching one-year anniversary of Qasem Soleimani’s death are the catalysts for the spike in tensions. According to a State Department official, the reduction will not be permanent. The number of diplomats and staff members expected to depart Iraq has not been released, nor have any other specifics. U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller will remain at his post for the time being.
The US embassy in Baghdad was targeted by Iranian-aligned militias earlier in the year, prompting a threat by President Trump to close the embassy indefinitely. The closure never came about, yet the threat was real enough to worry Iraq’s leadership, which has been striving to maintain profitable relationships with both Iran, and the United States.
The Trump administration continues to place sanctions on Iran for the purpose of undermining Tehran’s efforts to further progress on its nuclear program. As an added incentive, the administration is hoping further sanctions will make it increasingly difficult for an incoming Biden administration to return the US to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA). Even though Biden’s foreign policy advisers seem to be giving the impression that a Biden administration’s first challenge will be China, recent moves by Tehran make it clear that Iran and its nuclear ambitions could demand the new administration’s full attention very early on.
Some things never change. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, animosity between Iran and the United States continue on. Now it appears as if tension between the two nations is on the rise again after President Trump’s warnings on Wednesday. Trump warned Iran and its proxies against attacking US troops in Iraq. The president spoke of receiving information which suggested a sneak attack against US forces could be in the works. On Twitter, Trump posted the following: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” The president did not elaborate further on the information mentioned in his post.
Hours before Trump’s tweet, Iran had earlier warned the US about taking provocative actions in Iraq. General Yahya Rahim Safavi made the statement and concluded with, “Any US action will mark an even larger strategic failure in the current president’s record.” Given the context of the statements coming out of Tehran and Washington it is safe to assume that some type of action against US troops in Iraq has at least been considered by Iran’s leadership.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to suffer tremendously from the COVID-19 pandemic. 3,000 Iranians have died from the virus, and nearly 50,000 are confirmed to be infected. The situation has grown so bad inside of Iran that the UN, and China have asked the US to ease sanctions on Iran for the time being. The Trump administration did offer humanitarian aid to Iran in order to help the nation contend with the coronavirus outbreak but Tehran rejected the offer.
With the multitude of problems facing Iran right now its difficult to believe the government could be looking for trouble. Yet if Iran’s leaders view the United States as being overly distracted by the pandemic, it could sense an opportunity developing to inflict damage upon US forces in Iraq and possibly get away with it.
President Trump’s address to the nation this morning laid out the US position in clear terms. Barring any further action by Iran, this crisis is and the ball is now in Tehran’s court. Trump opened the door to future negotiations, calling for a new, revised nuclear deal to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) that was implemented in January of 2016. Trump pointed out that Iran is standing down, a move that certainly helps to reduce tension, and open a pathway for future discussion. The president went on to call for NATO to adopt a larger role in the region, likely hinting at an increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Last summer an effort was made to create a multinational naval force to escort oil tankers through the Gulf and Red Sea waters, however, many European allies of the US balked.
Iran’s internal dynamics are certain to play a large role in the coming weeks and months. As I spoke about this morning, the regime’s priority for the moment is likely centered on survival. Hence the moves to arrest many IRGC commanders who were seen as excessively loyal to Qasem Soleimani. With them out of the picture, Iran’s security apparatus will become a trustworthy instrument with loyalty to the regime and not simply one man. This is a signal that a thawing of US-Iran tensions could be coming in the future, and the regime wants to assure that its vaunted IRGC will not act on its own to stoke the flames.
Alas, it is time to move on to other hotspots around the world. Libya, and North Korea first and foremost. We will continue to monitor and discuss Iran in the coming weeks, but for now, with this crisis concluded, other topics can be highlighted and talked about.