“We are not going to prejudge.” State Department spokesman Ned Price deployed this classic Washington euphemism last week to avoid answering a question about the guilt of Iran and its Shiite militias for the recent rocket attacks on an American military base in northern Iraq. The strikes killed a contractor and injured several other soldiers, including Americans.
Biden’s approach draws directly from Obama’s playbook: Turning a blind eye to regional aggression and offering economic aid to signal his support for the engagement.
Since then, rockets have been fired twice at positions affiliated with the US presence in Iraq: a military base on Saturday and the area around the US Embassy complex in Baghdad on Monday. These strikes are not new. Since May 2019, Iranian-backed militias have launched at least 83 such strikes against U.S. positions, a damning pattern consistent with nearly two decades of Iran-related attacks on U.S. United States in Iraq.
The administration’s refusal to directly call on this proven method of Iranian escalation also follows its public reluctance to blame Hezbollah – Iran’s deadliest proxy group – by condemning the assassination of Lokman Slim, a prominent anti-Hezbollah activist, during an attack in Lebanon. this month.
Why isn’t the Biden administration connecting the dots between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies – and not doing more to publicly deter this behavior? Is it just that the new administration is still finding its feet after only a month in power?
Perhaps. But there is a better explanation.
President Joe Biden is actively signaling a change in approach from his predecessor. He wants to find a way to return to the nuclear deal aimed at curbing the Iranian nuclear program that his former boss, Barack Obama, concluded in 2015 to have Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
The Biden administration’s strategy to get Iran to play ball clearly involves making initial concessions to Tehran, including decoupling the nuclear and regional threats it poses. In contrast, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy was characterized by direct condemnations and more direct responses to Iranian-backed aggression. The Trump team also felt that sanctions relief should only come in exchange for a comprehensive change in the Islamic Republic’s behavior, which included the cancellation of its regional threats.
Biden’s approach draws directly from Obama’s playbook: Turning a blind eye to regional aggression and offering economic relief to signal his support for the pledge to return to the negotiating table. And that’s unfortunate, because the result will certainly be the same as before: an overly deferential and flawed deal that offers Iran avenues of access to nuclear weapons because its restrictions end up disappearing, while handcuffing Washington to ‘use its most powerful economic punishments and do. nothing to stop the improvement of the fighting capacities of the clerical regime or those of its representatives.
It is not only the willingness to neglect Iran’s role in the recent attacks in the region that makes this clear. It is because the Biden administration has done this by doing everything possible to try Tehran to speak through a policy of unilateral concessions while continuing to declare the American interest in the resumption of nuclear negotiations.
In the absence of reciprocity, the Biden administration rescinded the Trump administration’s reinstatement of UN sanctions on procurement and proliferation activities related to the Iranian military. Moscow and Beijing will now be able to arm Tehran safe from international censorship, and the Islamic Republic’s arms proliferation activities will face fewer obstacles. Also at the UN, the State Department is easing travel restrictions for Iranian diplomats in New York. The Iranian regime has used its diplomatic personnel and facilities in the past to support terrorism.
In addition, the administration has indicated that it does not oppose a $ 5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to Iran. Although purportedly for the relief of Covid-19, this windfall will fill the regime’s coffers with little liability at a time when it has fallen to less than $ 10 billion in foreign exchange reserves. The more liquid Iran has, the more it can finance its regional proxies and strengthen its missile, military and nuclear programs, regardless of where the IMF money goes.
Price has spoken of “consequences” for the recent rocket attack, and to be fair, Washington has so far upheld most of the sanctions Trump has imposed on Iran. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press release on the attack contained no mention of Iran, nor any other indication of the type of concrete action that would be taken.
Likewise, in Yemen, where Houthi rebels continue to fire drones and missiles at Saudi civilian targets, a recent State Department press release urging the rebels to end their assaults did not mention the Iran although it provides the rebels with weapons and training. The Biden team even decided to remove the group from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations – another missed opportunity to demand reciprocity.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before. While the Obama administration courted Tehran for nuclear talks from 2012 to 2015, it limited its counterterrorism and anti-narcotics policies towards regime proxies like Hezbollah. As Politico exposed in 2017, US efforts against Hezbollah have waned as the importance of concluding a nuclear deal with Iran has increased.
The desire to conclude and maintain the Iran nuclear deal has also had other negative regional effects. Some of those in the Obama administration who advocate for a more robust Syrian policy of supporting demonstrators and against the atrocities of President Bashar al-Assad – the man from Tehran in Damascus – have been dismissed because targeting his regime would necessarily have worsened the Islamic Republic.
In the absence of reciprocity, the Biden administration rolled back the Trump administration’s reinstatement of UN sanctions on Iranian military-related procurement and proliferation.
The diplomatic eagerness of the Biden administration will likely be read by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a vulnerability to be exploited. And in response, Tehran will do what it has been doing for decades: step up its aggression and only back down if it is not presented with any other alternative.
Iran watches Washington begin to dismantle maximum pressure for “maximum diplomacy”. In the absence of a willingness to add or even maintain existing sanctions, as well as broader efforts to tackle the regional network of threats from the clerical regime, such an approach is indeed possible to prejudge: it will end in failure.