“We’re not going to prejudge.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price deployed this classic Washington euphemism last week to avoid responding to a question over how much culpability Iran and its Shiite militias bear for recent rocket attacks against a U.S. military base in northern Iraq. The strikes killed one contractor and wounded several other service persons, including Americans.
Biden’s approach draws directly from Obama’s playbook: turning a blind eye to regional aggression and offering economic relief to signal support for engagement.
Twice since then, rockets have been fired at positions affiliated with the U.S. presence in Iraq: a military base on Saturday and at the area around the U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad on Monday. These strikes are not new. Since May 2019, Iran-backed militias have been behind at least 83 such strikes on U.S. positions, a damning pattern consistent with almost two decades of Iran-linked attacks against the U.S. in Iraq.
The administration’s refusal to directly call out this time-tested method of Iranian escalation also follows its public unwillingness to blame Hezbollah — Iran’s most deadly proxy group — when condemning the assassination of Lokman Slim, a prominent anti-Hezbollah activist, in an attack in Lebanon this month.
Why is the Biden administration not connecting the dots between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies — and not doing more to publicly deter this behavior? Is it simply that the new administration is still finding its feet after just one month in office?
Possibly. 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 back into the nuclear deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program that his former boss, Barack Obama, concluded in 2015 only to have Donald Trump abandon in 2018.
The Biden administration’s strategy for getting Iran to play ball clearly involves making upfront concessions to Tehran, including de-linking the nuclear and regional threats it poses. In contrast, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy was characterized by forthright condemnations and more direct responses to Iran-backed aggression. Team Trump also believed that sanctions relief should occur only in exchange for a wholesale change in behavior by the Islamic Republic that included nullifying 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 support for engagement to get back to the negotiating table. And it’s unfortunate, because the result is sure to be the same as before as well: an overly deferential and defective deal that offers Iran patient pathways to nuclear weapons because its restrictions eventually sunset, while handcuffing Washington from using its most powerful economic punishments and doing nothing to stop the improvement of the clerical regime’s warfighting abilities or that of its proxies.
It’s not just the willingness to overlook Iran’s role in recent attacks in the region that makes this clear. It’s that the Biden administration has done this while going out of its way to tempt Tehran to talk through a policy of unilateral concessions while continuing to declare American interest in renewed nuclear negotiations.
Absent any reciprocity, the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s restoration of U.N. penalties on Iran’s military-related procurement and proliferation activity. Moscow and Beijing will now be able to arm Tehran free of international censure and the Islamic Republic’s weapons proliferation activities will face fewer impediments. Also at the U.N., the State Department is easing travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York. The regime in Iran has used its diplomatic personnel and facilities in the past to support terrorism.
Furthermore, the administration signaled that it doesn’t oppose a $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Iran. While ostensibly for Covid-19 relief, this windfall will fill the regime’s coffers with little accountability at a time when it’s down to less than $10 billion in foreign exchange reserves. The more cash Iran has on hand means the more it can fund its regional proxies and bolster its missile, military and nuclear programs, regardless of what the IMF money is designated for.
Price did speak of “consequences” for the recent rocket attack, and to be fair, Washington so far has maintained the bulk of the penalties Trump imposed on Iran. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press release on the attack contained zero mentions of Iran, or any other indication of what type of concrete action would be taken.
Similarly, 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 failed to mention Iran despite it providing 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 for demanding reciprocity.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before. As the Obama administration courted Tehran for nuclear talks from 2012 to 2015, it restricted its counterterrorism and counternarcotics policies toward the regime’s proxies like Hezbollah. As Politico exposed in 2017, U.S. efforts against Hezbollah lessened as the importance of getting a nuclear deal with Iran grew.
The desire to achieve and maintain the Iran nuclear deal also had other negative regional effects. Some of those in the Obama administration arguing for a more robust Syria policy in support of protestors and against the atrocities of President Bashar al-Assad — Tehran’s man in Damascus — were overridden since targeting his regime would have necessarily aggravated the Islamic Republic.
Absent any reciprocity, the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s restoration of U.N. penalties on Iran’s military-related procurement and proliferation.
The Biden administration’s eagerness for diplomacy will likely be read by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as a vulnerability to exploit. And in response, Tehran will do what it has done for decades: intensify its aggression and only back down if presented with no other alternative.
Iran is watching Washington begin to dismantle maximum pressure in favor of “maximum diplomacy.” Absent a willingness to add to or even maintain existing sanctions, as well lacking broader efforts to tackle the clerical regime’s regional threat network, such an approach is indeed possible to prejudge: It will end in failure.