WASHINGTON – President Biden’s decision to hit Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria early Monday illustrated the delicate balancing act of his approach to Tehran: showing he is willing to use force to defend American interests while at the same time keeping open a fragile diplomacy line of communication as the two countries seek to revive the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
In public, administrators insisted that the two subjects be separate.
Mr Biden, they said Monday, acted under his constitutional authority to defend American forces by launching air strikes on locations used for drone strikes on American forces in Iraq. You said this shouldn’t detract from the latest push to bring both countries back into line with the nuclear deal.
In fact, the issues are closely interwoven.
For the Iranians, the march on the ability to build a nuclear weapon was in part an attempt to show that Tehran is a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East and beyond. Now the country’s power has been expanded with a new arsenal of high-precision drones, long-range missiles and increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons, some of which incorporate technologies that exceeded Tehran’s capabilities when the 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated.
Part of Mr Biden’s aim in trying to revive the nuclear deal is to use it as a first step to get Iran to address other issues, including its support for terrorist groups in the region and its expanded arsenal. On this front, the attacks ordered on Sunday and carried out early Monday by US Air Force combat bombers will be nothing more than a temporary setback for Iran.
There is also a risk of escalation. Later on Monday, Iran-backed militias were suspected of firing rockets at American forces in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto. Kurdish Syrian media said the targets were US troops near an oil field.
Even if the government manages to bring the nuclear deal back together, Mr Biden will still face the challenge of finding a way to further contain the Iranians – a step taken the day after he was elected the country’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi said that he would never agree.
In that sense, the air strikes have only underscored how many contradicting currents Mr Biden is exposed to when trying to shape a coherent policy on Iran. He is facing pressure in various directions from Congress, Israel and Arab allies, not to mention Tehran’s next hard-line government, led by Mr Raisi, who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2019, which concluded that he was ” at a “death commission” that ordered the extrajudicial execution of thousands of political prisoners more than 30 years ago.
In Congress, some Democrats saw the military strikes ordered by Mr Biden as a continuation of a pattern of the president’s superiority in the use of war powers without the consultation or approval of Congress. Connecticut Democrat Senator Christopher S. Murphy asked Monday whether Iran’s repeated attacks by its proxies in Iraq amount to a “low intensity war”.
“You cannot keep declaring Article II in authority,” he said, referring to the constitutional authority as commander-in-chief that Mr Biden cited to justify the strikes “without ever triggering the authorities of Congress.” War.
In an interview, Mr. Murphy said that “the repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxies are starting to look like a pattern of hostility” that would require Congress to consider a declaration of war or other authorization for the president’s military power.
“Both the Constitution and the War Powers Act require the president to come to Congress to declare war under these circumstances,” Murphy said.
Mr Biden’s argument, of course, is that targeted attacks and re-entry into the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump withdrew three years ago is all about avoiding war – and White House officials say they do have no intention of pursuing a declaration of war against Iran or its proxies. Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken, who was traveling in Europe, called the strikes “necessary, appropriate, deliberate measures aimed at limiting the risk of escalation but also sending a clear and unequivocal dissuasive message”.
At the same time, such strikes are part of Mr Biden’s response to the Republicans at home, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the 2015 agreement and want to portray the president as weak in the face of Iranian aggression.
June 28, 2021, 8:09 p.m. ET
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday the logic was simple: “The attacks on our forces must stop, and that is why the president ordered our personnel’s self-defense operation last night. ”
She said Iranian officials had launched five unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on U.S. forces since April, and it was time to draw the line.
For Mr Biden, Congress is only part of the complications in dealing with Iran. The new Israeli administration has expressed persistent, deep reservations about the restoration of the 2015 deal, much like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he opposed the original deal, including in an address to Congress given by President Barack Obama and Mr Biden angry Vice President.
As the government began briefing allies and Congress of the attack on Monday, Mr Biden met with Israel’s outgoing President Reuven Rivlin. It was largely a farewell session to thank him for years of partnership with the United States, including seven years as Israeli president before Rivlin resigns. Mr. Biden used the moment in the Oval Office with Mr. Rivlin to reaffirm his vow that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my guard”.
It should be a signal that Israel and the US are pursuing the same goal, even if they have very different ideas about how to disarm the Iranians. But the differences play out over what kind of nuclear deal is needed now, six years after the original came into force. Iran’s capabilities and advances in other weapon systems have developed significantly since the original agreement entered into force.
Senior officials in the Biden government, from Mr Blinken onwards, have admitted that one of the shortcomings of the old nuclear deal is that it must be “longer and stronger” and that it addresses Iran’s missile development program and support for terrorism.
Now the opening seems to be opening even further: it is becoming increasingly clear that a comprehensive agreement that takes up America’s many complaints about Iranian behavior must also include a broad spectrum of new weapons that the Iranian armed forces only worked on six years ago have tinkered with.
Today, these weapons – drones that can fire a small conventional weapon with deadly accuracy against American troops, missiles that can target the entire Middle East and the edges of Europe, and cyber weapons that can target American financial institutions – are regularly used by Iranian forces .
None of these weapons are included in the 2015 agreement, despite the fact that there was also a separate missile deal approved by the United Nations Security Council that Iran has largely ignored. There is growing awareness that if Mr Blinken is to deliver on his promise of a “longer and stronger” deal, it must include many of these weapons, not just missiles.
The question is whether Iran can be included in an agreement that covers these technologies after the core of the 2015 deal is restored, if that is the case. Mr Biden’s advisors say that is their goal – and that they will have leverage because Iran wants better access to Western banking systems for its oil sales.
But the theory that Washington can negotiate with the new hard-line government has not yet been tested. And there are some worrying signs.
Iran has refused, without explanation, to renew an agreement with international nuclear inspectors that expired Thursday and has attached security cameras and other sensors to the country’s nuclear fuel stocks, even though inspectors were not allowed into Iranian facilities during the negotiations. This is crucial for the government, which must convince Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others that no nuclear material has been secretly diverted to bomb projects during the negotiations.
While American officials said Monday they had no reason to believe the cameras would stop working, Iranian officials are clearly trying to increase the pressure – suggesting that the West is coming in its understanding of what is not on their terms That could get dark if a deal on their terms does not happen on Iran’s nuclear supplies.
If that leads to a major crisis, it could jeopardize the nuclear deal – and throw the government into a new cycle of escalation, which is exactly what it wants to avoid.
Lara Jakes, Michael Crowley, Jane Arraf and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed to the coverage.