MIDDLE East is heating up and making headlines once again. There is an escalation of tension between Tehran and Washington following a US air-strike on Syria, allegedly housing pro-Iranian militia
. Apparently, Iran retaliated by attacking a sprawling air base in Iraq that serves as one of the most consequential hubs of the US-led military presence.
It came under attack by ten rockets. Officials in Washington did not identify the group responsible for the attack.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, an Iran-backed militia’s news outlet says three US soldiers were killed in the attack.
The Iraqi officials issued a very carefully crafted statement, saying Iran was behind the attack, but, more importantly, gave a very important message, almost a warning, to Iran and its Iraqi proxies.
It warns Iran and its proxies not to use Iraqi land in their escalation with the United States, says Randa Slim, a Regional Expert and Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute.
Iraq wants to distance itself from the ongoing regional and international competition for power.
The rocket attack risks further spikes and violence at a time when the Biden Administration is trying to coerce Iran to return to the negotiating table. Iran has responded with caution to Biden’s offer of negotiations.
However, the strike carried out by the US against pro-Iranian forces in Syria has complicated the security matrix further.
The strike had bipartisan support in the US and was aimed at giving the US a position of power prior to the negotiations.
The retaliation from Iran has forced White House to warn Iran of a military response.
It has stroked fears of another cyclic ‘tit for tat’ attacks that happened in 2020.
Those attacks included the one that killed Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad and set off months of increased troop levels in the region.
The deterioration in US-Iran relations takes place against the backdrop of a battle for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as strategic competition in Lebanon and more recently Iraq.
Iran’s cold and measured response to the Biden Administration’s push for diplomatic engagement along with the rising tension in the region makes salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal extremely difficult.
Both the US and Iran are caught in a diplomatic dance that seems to be moving in circles.
Iran insists on immediate withdrawal of sanctions whereas the US wants to work around compliance, inspections, and conditionalities.
Iran is still open to negotiation; however, the window of opportunity is shrinking. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani before the recent escalation said on record that, “The new US Administration should immediately stop economic terrorism operations against Iran.
Such a move will open the way. That is the key to opening the door and holding talks together.”
Post the attack, Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs Iran, tweeted on 01 March 2021, that “considering US/E3 positions and actions, time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting. Remember: Trump failed to meet because of his ill-advised ‘Max Failure’.
With sanctions in place, same still applies. Censuring is NOT diplomacy. It doesn’t work with Iran.”
Embedded in the situation, is the lingering question, whether a US-Iran reconciliation 2.0 is an option? This needs to be urgently answered as there may only be little time left to save the deal.
Rafael Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran’s nuclear activity flew to Tehran for inspection of Iranian nuclear program, expected to take three months to complete.
But the inspection data, including surveillance images, will be held by Iran in the meantime.
Moreover, the 2015 deal has its flaws and fails to address Iran’s missile program and regional activity. If an agreement is reached, Iran may hand over the data.
If there is no agreement, Iran has said it will destroy the data—and along with it, perhaps the last good chance to save the nuclear deal and find a diplomatic solution.
The growing tension may result in Iran doing the extreme.
The biggest misstep by the Biden Administration is perhaps that by taking a hard line, it has reawakened old fears in Tehran dating back decades that Washington will always renege on a deal and end up demonizing Iran.
This goes back at least to 9/11, when Iranian moderates such as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (later a key architect of the 2015 deal) sought rapprochement with Washington.
Tehran even helped Washington form the post-Taliban government in neighbouring Afghanistan—only to find itself attacked weeks later in former President George Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech.
More importantly, the Iranian political system has multiple centers of power and the President and his Cabinet are, by no means, in control of all aspects of policy.
At the top of the political system sits the Supreme Leader, who remains the ultimate arbitrator of Iran’s dealings with the US.
The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp is a state within a state and has a central role in Iran’s foreign policy, particularly its support for militant groups in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Complicating it further, is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s indirect criticism of Biden Administration for its intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal, where he said, he was prepared to “stand against the entire world” to stop it.
This is a major change of tune for Netanyahu, who had been careful in his statements on the Iran deal and avoided publicly criticizing Biden. This came before the Israeli election on 23 March 2021.
The elections in Iran is due in June 2021. This indeed shrinks the manoeuvring ground for the Biden Administration.
Ellie Geranmayeh, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is of the view that if the United States wants to get Iran back to the negotiating table, it is likely to take precisely the sort of gesture that the Administration has been so far unwilling to make.
That could mean issuing waivers to allow foreign companies to work with Iran’s civil nuclear program, and a little bit more besides.
What Biden has to do, is to balance the revival of a deal that many in his Administration invested heavily in, with continuous opposition by the Congress.
The confrontation on each side that insists the other has to make the first move, must stop.
It is in both parties’ interests to move forward and compromise if they are to ensure the survival of an agreement designed to prevent a Middle East arms race.
Failure at the start in result of airstrikes against each other will only lead to greater instability in the region.
—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.