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Joe Biden steps into a high-wire dance with Iran hardliners over nuclear deal

The US is trying to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action before Iranian President Rouhani leaves office in June, but the Revolutionary Guard is escalating provocations

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 February 2021, 3.28pm
The last months of Rouhani’s presidency will be difficult
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Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0)

The administration of the new US president, Joe Biden, is squaring up to challenges from home and abroad – with Iran and Afghanistan requiring the most foreign policy attention. It is now clear that the US wants to salvage the Iran nuclear deal following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018.

Saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would likely be approved by three of the five participants – Germany, France and the UK – while the other two, China and Russia, would be unlikely to object. There may be opposition in the US to saving the deal, but it’s Iran’s attitude that really counts.

This is especially pertinent as Iran’s relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, wants an agreement against the wishes of the hardline IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and conservative religious leaders. This would be difficult to achieve in the best of times, but particularly since a presidential election looms in June, which Rouhani cannot stand in. The deal must either be cemented before then, or the future of the whole JCPOA apparatus will be delayed until after the election.

Inspired by North Korea

Rouhani recently repeated that Iran does not have nuclear weapons ambitions and he is still allowing UN nuclear inspectors in, but IRGC leaders see it differently. They are looking to North Korea’s success in out-playing Trump and developing long-range nuclear-armed missiles. This, alone, is an urgent indication of the need for a deal within the next couple of months.

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The current interplay is similar to what played out between Trump and Iran in early January, although now it’s likely less dangerous since the hawks are no longer in control in Washington. However, the recent events suggest that the transition to the Biden administration may not be enough to ensure stability.

The signs are mixed, not least because Biden is unlikely to withdraw further forces from Iraq because of the security situation there and the presumed need for continued air support against the challenge from insurgents. There is a widespread assumption that the Islamic State is finished, but aside from its operations across the Sahel, it still has substantial support in Iraq and Syria, with numbers estimated at between 8,000 and 16,000 paramilitaries.

IRGC leaders are looking to North Korea’s success in out-playing Trump and developing long-range nuclear-armed missiles. This, alone, is an urgent indication of the need for a deal within the next couple of months

A new complication is a series of paramilitary attacks in Iraq – two on bases with a US presence and the third on the sprawling US embassy compound in Baghdad. These started ten days ago with a missile assault on a base near Irbil in Kurdish Iraq, when a series of 107mm rockets were fired at an area that included a civilian airport and a military base used by US and Iraqi forces. Three of the 14 total rockets hit the military base, killing a private military contractor working for the US, and wounding nine others, including one US troop.

A little-known Shi’a-linked paramilitary group claimed responsibility but Kurdish and US sources immediately linked it to Iran. However, the most surprising aspect was the intensity of the attack, especially given that the Kurdish region has endured far less paramilitary action than many other parts of Iraq. Until this attack, the most recent one in Irbil was September 2020.

Five days after that attack there was another, this time on the Iraqi air force’s Balad base, near Baghdad. At least four rockets struck the base, wounding one person. US military personnel do not normally use the base, but an American company, Sallyport, has its Iraqi headquarters there, with 46 private contractors employed to support the Iraqi air force’s US-supplied F-16 strike aircraft.

That alone is a useful reminder of the real size of the US presence in Iraq, with much of it coming from companies such as Sallyport, which describes itself on its LinkedIn page as a global provider of security solutions. It says that it offers support to the “US government, foreign allied governments and a wide range of private and commercial clients”.

Another attack came on Monday – when three rockets were fired towards the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, home to Iraqi government buildings and foreign embassies, including the sprawling US compound. One of the rockets hit the US compound but no one was hurt there or elsewhere. The Green Zone was a frequent target during the Trump era but this eased off during the Biden changeover until this incident.

Avoiding confrontation

If the reasonable assumption is made that Iran’s hardliners are actively encouraging these attacks to incite a crisis that demands a US military response that would wreck the JCPOA deal, then the reaction of the Biden administration is interesting. After the first attack in Irbil, the official line was that Biden would not rule out retaliation but the mood then changed rapidly, with talk of not prejudging who was responsible.

Most recently, the Pentagon would not assign blame after the direct attack on the embassy in Baghdad. This conciliatory approach suggests that, in contrast to Trump, Biden is against confrontation and is determined to maintain the JCPOA.

Instead Biden agreed to an attack yesterday on a paramilitary group in Syrian presumed to be linked to the IRGC. The Pentagon called the attack a “proportionate military response” – but that is a matter of judgement given that 17 people were reported killed.

The risk now is that the Iranian hardliners will escalate provocation until Biden is pushed into a corner and made to order a major show of force. If the hardliners don't act in this way, then the signs are good for an improvement in US-Iran relations and JCPOA survival, which would be much to the dismay of the Israeli and Saudi leadership. If further provocation from Iran does come, it will turn into a hugely significant test for the new administration.

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