Iran’s strike on Iraq puts US in awkward position amid nuclear talks

Abu Dhabi, UAE (CNN) — The United States appears to be keen to tell the world that it wasn’t the target of Iranian missile strikes in Iraq on Sunday.

Iran said it was targeting Israeli “strategic centers” in the northern city of Erbil, but Iraqi-Kurdish authorities said the missiles fell close to a US consulate under construction. Baghdad summoned the Iranian ambassador. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment on the Iranian claim.

It was the first Iranian attack to strike so close to US interests since Tehran struck the Ain Al Asad air base in western Iraq in January 2020 in retaliation for the US killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.

“The US was not the intended target,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “Press speculation otherwise is simply wrong.” The White House said the attack targeted a “civilian residence.” 

The attack came as world powers are engaged in talks with Tehran to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. A conclusion of the talks could see over a million barrels a day of currently sanctioned Iranian oil coming to the world market, giving reprieve to an oil price rally as Western states scramble to find alternatives to Russian energy exports.

Crude prices last week hit an eight-year high on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions on Moscow. The US has so far failed to convince its oil-producing allies in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to raise supply and help tame the rise in prices. 

“The message is clear,” said Saman Vakil, senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank. “That regional stability is not something we should take for granted and that Iran, as a regional state that projects power beyond its border, has the potential to be destabilizing.” 

Some Republican politicians weren’t convinced by the Biden administration’s narrative of the events. Lisa McClain, a representative for Michigan, called for an “immediate halt in negotiations with Iran,” while Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said sanctions relief should be “off the table.” 

An acknowledgement by the Biden administration that the US was the target of the attack would oblige it to retaliate at a time when it wants to settle disputes with Tehran diplomatically, said Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC. The Iranians were likely sending a message to Israel as “they’ve been taking a lot of hits in Syria, where the Israelis have been targeting them.”

“There is probably a signaling at the US as well, since the US is essentially allowing the Israelis to do what they are doing in Syria,” he said. “The Iranians [are saying] they will not tolerate it. They are striking close to the consulate and not at the consulate.” 

Paris said it was “reckless” of Iran to conduct the strike amid the nuclear talks but added that it may not have an impact on the negotiations. 

“The US is trying to compartmentalize regional issues from the nuclear ones,” said Vakil. “Iran’s accelerating nuclear program remains a problem if not a crisis for the international community.” 

The fate of the nuclear talks was uncertain last week after a surprise last-minute demand by Russia for guarantees that its trade with Iran wouldn’t be affected by Western sanctions on Moscow. The US rejected the demand and the talks were paused.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian will visit Russia on Tuesday for “frank and forward-looking talks,” Iran’s Nour News reported. Despite Moscow’s stalling, Tehran on Monday placed the blame for delays on the US, saying the decision to conclude the talks lies with Washington. 

The Iranian strike in Iraq could also be aimed at putting pressure on the US to come to an agreement, giving it a preview of what’s to come if nuclear talks fall through, Parsi said. “But the question is why is the pressure on the US and not on the Russians?” 

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