- Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during his first news conference in Tehran on June 21. | AFP-JIJI
The latest U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia groups come at a delicate time for Washington and Tehran, with a conservative president-elect in Iran and talks expected to restart shortly on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
U.S. President Joe Biden ordered strikes on “operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq” on Sunday evening Washington time to deter future attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, where the U.S. is aiding government forces in efforts to defeat Islamic State, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Kirby’s statement made clear that Iran was the common denominator in the targets but also that the U.S. move was meant to be defensive in nature.
“Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the president directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks,” Kirby said. “The United States took necessary, appropriate and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation — but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.”
The strikes could mark an early test for Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, who takes office in August and has been seen as a harder-line leader than departing President Hassan Rouhani. Yet the fact that the U.S. hit Iranian proxies outside the country could give both sides plausible deniability to avoid escalating tensions.
Even before the military strikes, indirect talks in Vienna aimed at getting the U.S. and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — were already dragging past initial timetables. The negotiations took a pause for Iran’s elections earlier this month and weren’t expected to restart until early July.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the airstrikes would force a postponement in those meetings, but it’s not the first time the Biden administration has carried out such a move. His first military action as president in February involved airstrikes in eastern Syria on sites connected to Iranian-backed groups after a series of rocket attacks on facilities in Iraq used by the U.S., including one that killed a contractor working with the U.S.-led coalition in the country.
Whatever Raisi’s calculus as president-elect, the latest U.S. strikes and the ones in February are likely to be far less provocative than then-President Donald Trump’s move to kill a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, outside Baghdad’s airport in early 2020. That move sparked fears of a resurgence of Iranian-sponsored terrorist activities or even a broader war between Iran and the U.S.
Now the bigger risk may be to the timetable for the nuclear talks. Even before the latest military tensions, Iran had missed a deadline to renew its temporary atomic-monitoring pact with international inspectors, raising the prospect that it could delete sensitive enrichment information and complicating the broader negotiations in Vienna.
The government in Tehran has yet to inform monitors whether it will renew the agreement after earlier saying it would make a decision following the pact’s expiration at midnight on Thursday. Iran let a previous deadline lapse by 24 hours last month before agreeing to extend the pact, which preserves video and enrichment data captured at Iranian nuclear installations.
Intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency were originally seen as the centerpiece of Iran’s landmark 2015 agreement with world powers, which verifiably rolled back its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. Though he is weeks from officially taking power, Raisi last week demanded an end to U.S. sanctions on his country and Washington’s fully compliant return to the 2015 nuclear accord.
U.S. officials say Iran, which has been enriching uranium beyond levels agreed to in the nuclear deal, should take the first step to return to compliance.
The U.S. strikes could temporarily stifle criticism — mostly among Republicans — that the Biden administration’s efforts to reach a new agreement with Iran represent a capitulation to the Islamic Republic after years in which Trump ramped up pressure on Tehran.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Italy and will likely face questions about the U.S. actions and potential repercussions following meetings with officials there. Over the weekend, Blinken met with Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who said his country has “serious reservations” about the talks in Vienna.