President Joe Biden’s decision to strike Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria early on Monday illustrated the delicate balancing act of his approach to Tehran: He must demonstrate that he is willing to use force to defend American interests, while keeping open a fragile diplomatic line of communication as the two countries try to resuscitate the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
In public, administration officials insisted that the two issues are separate.
Biden, they said Monday, acted under his constitutional authority to defend U.S. troops by carrying out airstrikes on sites used to launch drone attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. They said that should not interfere with the final push to bring both countries back into compliance with the nuclear accord.
In fact, the issues are deeply intertwined.
To the Iranians, the march toward the capacity to build a nuclear weapon has been in part an effort to demonstrate that Tehran is a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East and beyond. Now, the country’s power has been augmented by a new arsenal of highly accurate drones, longer-range missiles and increasingly sophisticated cyberweapons, some of which involve technologies that seemed beyond Tehran’s skills when the nuclear deal was negotiated in 2015.
Part of Biden’s goal in trying to revive the nuclear deal is to use it as a first step toward pressing Iran into addressing other issues, including its support for terrorist groups in the region and its expanded arsenal. On that front, the strikes ordered Sunday and carried out early Monday by U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers are not expected to be any more than a temporary setback to Iran.
There is also the danger of escalation. Later on Monday, Iranian-backed militias were suspected of firing rockets at American forces in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto. Kurdish-Syrian news media said the targets were U.S. troops near an oil field.
Even if the administration succeeds in putting the nuclear deal back together, Biden will still face the challenge of finding a way to further rein in the Iranians — a step the country’s new president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, said the day after his election that he would never agree to.
In that sense, the airstrikes only underscored how many conflicting currents Biden faces as he attempts to fashion a coherent Iran policy. He faces pressures in various directions from Congress, Israel and Arab allies, never mind Tehran’s incoming, hard-line government, led by Raisi, who was placed under sanctions in 2019 by the Treasury Department, which concluded that he “participated in a so-called ‘death commission’ that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners” more than 30 years ago.
In Congress, some Democrats saw the military strikes ordered by Biden as continuing a pattern of presidential overreach in the use of war powers without congressional consultation or consent. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., questioned Monday whether Iran’s repeated attacks through its proxies in Iraq amount to what he termed a “low-intensity war.”
“You can’t continue to declare Article II authorities over and over again,” he said, referring to the constitutional authority as commander in chief that Biden cited to justify the strikes, “without at some point triggering Congress’ authorities” to declare war.
In an interview, Murphy said the “repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy forces are starting to look like what would qualify as a pattern of hostilities” that would require Congress to debate a war declaration, or some other authorization for the president to use military force.
“Both the Constitution and the War Powers Act require the president to come to Congress for a war declaration under those circumstances,” Murphy said.
Biden’s argument, of course, is that targeted strikes and re-entering the nuclear deal that President Donald Trump pulled out of three years ago are all about avoiding war — and White House officials say they have no intention of seeking a war declaration against Iran or its proxies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, traveling in Europe, called the strikes “necessary, appropriate, deliberate action that is designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.”
But at the same time, such strikes are also part of Biden’s answer to Republicans at home, who overwhelmingly opposed the 2015 accord and are looking to portray the president as weak in the face of Iranian aggression.
At the White House on Monday, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said the logic was simple: “The attacks against our troops need to stop, and that is why the president ordered the operation last night, in self-defense of our personnel.”
She said the Iranian proxies had launched five drone attacks on U.S. forces since April, and it was time to draw the line.
For Biden, Congress is only part of the complications surrounding dealing with Iran. The new Israeli government has expressed continuing, deep reservations about restoring the 2015 accord, much as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did when he lobbied against the original accord, including in an address to Congress that angered President Barack Obama and Biden, then his vice president.
On Monday, as the administration began briefing allies and Congress about the attack, 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 as Israel’s president, before Rivlin steps down. Biden used the moment in the Oval Office with Rivlin to restate his vow that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”
It was intended as a signal that Israel and the United States share the same goal, even if they have very different concepts of how to disarm the Iranians. But the differences are playing out on the question of what kind of nuclear agreement is needed now, six years after the original went into effect. Iran’s capabilities, and its progress on other weapons systems, have advanced considerably since the original agreement went into effect.
Senior Biden administration officials, from Blinken on down, have conceded that among the shortcomings of the old nuclear accord is that it needs to be “longer and stronger,” and address Iran’s missile development program and support of terrorism.
Now the aperture appears to be widening even further: It is increasingly clear that any comprehensive agreement that addresses America’s many complaints about Iranian behavior must also cover a broad range of new weaponry that Iran’s forces were only tinkering with six years ago.
Today, those weapons — drones that can deliver a small conventional weapon with deadly accuracy against U.S. troops, missiles that can target all of the Middle East and the edges of Europe, and cyberweapons turned against American financial institutions — are used regularly by Iranian forces.
None of those weapons are covered in the 2015 accord, though there was a simultaneous, separate missile agreement, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, which Iran has largely ignored. There is a growing recognition that if Blinken is to make good on his pledge of a “longer and stronger” agreement, it will have to include many of those weapons, not just missiles.
The question is whether Iran can be drawn into an agreement that covers those technologies after the core of the 2015 accord is restored, assuming it is. Biden’s aides say that is their goal — and that they will have leverage, because Iran wants greater access to Western banking systems for its oil sales.
But the theory that Washington can negotiate with the new hard-line government is still untested. And there are some worrisome signs.
Without explanation, Iran has refused to extend an agreement with international nuclear inspectors that expired Thursday and has kept security cameras and other sensors fixed on the country’s stockpile of nuclear fuel even though inspectors have not been allowed inside Iran’s facilities during the negotiations. That is critical for the administration, which will have to convince Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others that no nuclear material was secretly diverted to bomb projects while the negotiations were underway.
While U.S. officials said Monday that they had no reason to believe the cameras had stopped operating, Iranian officials are clearly trying to increase the pressure — suggesting that unless a deal comes together on their terms, the West could go dark in its understanding of what is happening to Iran’s nuclear stockpiles.
If that blows into a full-scale crisis, it could imperil the nuclear accord — and pitch the administration into a new cycle of escalation, exactly what it wants to avoid.
By David E. Sangerc.2021 The New York Times Company