By Teymour Nsouli
New York City, New York
When an American contractor was killed in December 2020 by a rocket attack—conducted by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah—in northern Iraq, the Trump administration responded by launching airstrikes on Hezbollah’s military facilities, which killed dozens of fighters. A few days later, the U.S. assassinated Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, Hezbollah’s leader. More recently, on February 15, the terror group Saraya Awlia al-Dam—rumored to be backed by Iran—fired multiple rockets at the Erbil airbase in northern Iraq, resulting in a contractor’s death and multiple other injuries amongst Americans. Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden team did little to respond; in fact, there was no response except for verbal condemnations. In response to the attack in Erbil and another that occurred days later, a U.S. State Department spokesman said on February 23, “We have seen the reports of the rocket fire today ... as you heard us say in the aftermath of the tragic attack in Erbil, we are outraged by the recent attacks.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that the U.S. would “hold accountable those responsible.”
It is unlikely that the Biden administration would consider any significant military response to these events because they do not want to cross the proverbial line with Iran—a decision that contrasts the track record of the aggressive Trump administration. Many, including the Washington Institute, posit that the group acquired missiles from Iran and could be taking orders to attack U.S. forces; however, this isn’t confirmed. The American verbal condemnations have failed (there have been two more missile attacks against U.S. forces since February 15) and will continue to fail in preventing more attacks.
The U.S. cannot afford to seem weak by letting these strikes go unnoticed just because they want to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. However, on February 25 the U.S. conducted an airstrike in Syria against an Iranian-backed militia in response to recent aggressions in Iraq. It will be interesting to see if this strike prevents more attacks from happening against U.S. forces. A passive approach to Iranian-backed militias would leave the U.S. vulnerable to more strikes. One could view the attacks, if this was indeed part of Iran’s strategy, as being successful in pressuring the U.S. to offer to restart the nuclear talks, which ended up happening on February 19. However, this invitation was not met with open arms, as Iran demanded that all sanctions be lifted before they come to the table, but the proposal was the right first step in opening an albeit small window for negotiations. Iran and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) reached a deal a few days later that would continue to allow its inspectors to access and monitor Iranian nuclear activity for the next three months at a limited capacity helping ease tensions between Iran and the United States. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini still threatened to accelerate uranium enrichment up to 60% purity (weapons-grade is 90%). It is essential to keep in mind that the U.S. withdrew from the Nuclear Deal in 2018 and was the first to step out of compliance with the agreement, inevitably upsetting Iran, which spent years negotiating with the U.S. Every move by Iran since Trump withdrew from the deal has been a reactionary measure to the United States’ lack of compliance and crippling sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s move to abandon the deal proved that it was an unreliable partner, and, as a consequence, the Biden administration must do everything in its power to prove that the U.S. can be trusted again. President Biden can not afford to be weak with Iran and its proxy militias, especially if they continue their attacks on U.S. interests. American airstrikes in Syria reaffirmed that the U.S. is ready to act strategically by sending a strong message to Iran.
Diplomacy can prevail if the U.S. takes a pragmatic approach to the failed policies in the Middle East and drift away from their obsession with military adventurism. The U.S. must be ready to come into negotiations by addressing Iran’s proxy militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. These proxies cannot be allowed to entrench themselves in other nations and use the land as a playground for Iranian agendas, which ultimately undermine the people’s sovereignty, as in the cases of Lebanon and Iraq. Another point of issue would be Iran’s ballistic missile program, but it is unlikely that the U.S. would reach an agreement as Iran would like the talks to be strictly about nuclear activity. Foreign Minister of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, when addressing the European parliament in 2016, claimed that Iran relies on missiles to defend itself because, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, they were isolated from the international community, with no means to protect their territory besides using missiles, indicating that foreign powers have no right to dictate their means of defense. The Biden administration has a chance to address these flaws of the nuclear deal and should focus on doing what’s best for the region. In the end, the U.S. must seriously rethink its decisions in the Middle East and should not act on the basis of either military might or the desire to leave a foreign policy legacy, which often is substandard.