The Biden administration acknowledges that any delay in reviving the Iran deal will lead to further instability in Iraq.
On 15 February, a relatively obscure Iraqi militia, Saraya Awliya al Dam (Guardians of Blood Brigade), launched a volley of 14 rockets at American forces stationed at a military base in Erbil.
By Friday 19 February, the US announced it would consider sending more troops to the NATO training mission in Iraq. On Saturday night another four rockets struck the Balad airbase in Iraq, where a US contracting company services fighter aircraft, resulting only in injuries.
The proposed deployment represents Biden’s new multilateral approach to the region. While Trump unilaterally retaliated for such attacks, only increasing the cycle of violence, the current US administration is taking a more measured approach.
Nonetheless, the ultimate solution to this conflict is also a multilateral one: recommitting Washington to the Iran nuclear deal.
In its first 100 days, the Biden administration needs to realise that to maintain stability in Iraq, it needs to respect its sovereignty - a policy that eluded his predecessor - and to re-engage Iran immediately, despite pressing domestic issues, including managing the Covid-19 outbreak.
Latest rocket attacks
The first attack resulted in the death of one contractor working for the US and significant damage to the buildings at the facility. The contractor this time was not an American citizen, however.
The death in December 2019 of an American citizen, working as a translator for the US military, led to the Trump administration ordering the drone strike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis in the beginning of January 2020.
The rationale for the latest attacks was vague, in the name of avenging the death of “martyred leaders,” ostensibly the aforementioned figures.
The latest attacks raise questions about what the Biden’s administration’s policy looks like in Iraq, which invariably is an outcome of its relations with Iran.
Reviving the Iran nuclear deal
The latest attacks are the culmination of Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the “Iran deal.” A few years ago I argued that this decision would result in the Islamic Republic retaliating by manipulating even further Iraq’s domestic politics through its proxy militias, undermining American influence there.
In response to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran has launched a low intensity war against America and its allies in the region, culminating in the most recent death of this contractor.
The rocket attacks on these bases, rather than serving any tactical military purpose for this militia, serves as a reflection of the Islamic Republic seeking to pressure the new Biden administration to immediately redress the economic sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Iran after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal.
Within the first 100 days of the Biden administration, Iran and its militias have thrown down the gauntlet in Iraq forcing the new administration to acknowledge that delays in re-entering the Iran deal can lead to instability in Iraq.
In the aftermath of the January 2020 assassination, Iraq’s parliament formally asked for the US advisory mission to leave. While the vote was non-binding, Trump insisted that American troops remain in Iraq.
What this drawdown represented was that the Islamic Republic, playing a long game in Iraq, was able to achieve its strategic goals by reducing American troop levels in its sphere of influence.
Furthermore, Trump’s goading of Iran in the first place by withdrawing from the deal, led to the overall instability in Iraq, shifting attention away from the more pressing task of dealing with Daesh remnants; a goal, ironically, which both Washington, Tehran and NATO share.
A Biden doctrine?
The contours of a Biden doctrine were revealed in his August Foreign Affairs’ article, in which he promised to restore multilateralism, which included re-engaging with the Iran deal. While the latter has not been forthcoming as of yet, the administration appears to have adopted multilateral approaches via the NATO mission in Iraq.
More than a year ago, after the assassination of Soleimani, Trump took a triumphant tone, delivering a speech where he declared, “I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process.”
Trump even coined a new term “NATOME” (NATO Middle East) to sell the alliance on the idea. The suggestion was met with incredulity by members of the alliance, particularly as at that time constituent members such as Germany were withdrawing its troops for security concerns.
Trump did not specify what NATOME’s mission would be in the region, but one assumes he would want NATO to confront Iran. As a unilateralist, Trump did not comprehend the NATO mission in Iraq, or in the world for that matter.
The NATO mission in Iraq represented a multilateral effort to only combat Daesh. Furthermore, the European members in NATO are also party to the Iran deal and would not use a multilateral alliance to undermine a multilateral agreement with Iran.
Thus, Biden’s announcement of deploying troops via NATO, augmenting its numbers from 500 to 4,000 in order to combat Daesh represents a counterterrorism effort, while attempting to not escalate tensions with Iran, and at the same time respect Iraq’s sovereignty.
These steps bode well for stability in the region and reveals, perhaps, what Biden can pursue in terms of a more constructive doctrine to the region, which is to simply undo his predecessor’s doctrine.
First and foremost, this includes reentering the Iran deal. The withdrawal from this deal led to rivalry between the US and the Islamic Republic, a conflict between a superpower and regional power, that undermined Middle East security for the last four years.
Ultimately, restoring American commitment to the Iran deal should be a priority for his administration in his first 100 days.
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