The White House plan to continue nuclear talks while bombing Iran-backed militias in Arab countries could weaken the Americans.

Before dawn on June 28, the US military conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq. The official reason had to do with Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada’s drone attacks against US military bases in Iraq where 2,500 US troops remain deployed. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that these bombings carried out by F-15 and F-16 aircraft were necessary for “disrupt[ing] and deter[ing] such attacks” by Tehran-sponsored groups. 

But while highly unlikely to actually deter Iran’s “proxies”— just one day after the strikes US forces came under rocket fire in eastern Syria—from continuing their activities near the Iraqi-Syrian border, these strikes and their unpredictable fallout do threaten to make it harder for President Joe Biden’s administration to shift resources and energy away from the Middle East. 

This was the second time since Biden took office that he ordered strikes against Iran’s “proxies” in the region. The timing was notable. This latest military action against Shia militias in Iraq and Syria came shortly after Ebrahim Raisi won the 2021 Iranian presidential election and the US government shut down numerous Iran-linked websites including PressTV. 

Also, the day before the strikes, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, discussed Tel Aviv’s “serious reservations” about the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord possibly being salvaged in Vienna.

Predictably, the Iranian and Syrian governments and various Shia militias condemned these attacks against facilities that Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada have been using. The authorities in Baghdad also released a statement accusing the US of violating Iraqi sovereignty. Prime Minister Mustafa al Khadimi called the attacks a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security”. 

But Iraqi government officials were cautious and balanced with their words. Baghdad stopped short of defending the Iran-backed militias, calling on the US military to leave Iraq, or using language that was hostile to Washington. 

While Biden’s administration intends to continue Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations with the Iranians, Biden clearly intends to also carry on with former President Donald Trump’s policies of aggressively countering Iranian-supported paramilitary activity in Iraq and Syria albeit without the petty fanfare. 

“The Biden White House has been committed to trying to establish more traditional forms of deterrence with Iranian militias, breaking from the media theatrics of the Trump era and instead focusing on tit-for-tat strikes,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor, in an interview with TRT World.

The Iranians and Americans “are committed to not allowing non-nuclear issues to intrude into the JCPOA-related affairs,” Ali Ahmadi, a Tehran-based geopolitical analyst, told me. “That will hold for now. It’s worth considering that while both sides have a responsibility to follow through on this, these geopolitical matters do empower hawkish elements in both countries and make the job harder.”

Indeed, escalating violence between Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada on one side and the Americans on the other will embolden the anti-diplomacy voices in both the US and Iran. Those in Washington and Tehran who argue that the other country can’t be trusted will gain more traction within their respective political arenas. Such dynamics will make diplomatic efforts to reconstitute the JCPOA more difficult against the backdrop of Raisi’s victory at the polls earlier this month – another factor that makes the road to a ‘JCPOA 2.0’ somewhat bumpier.

These periodic US strikes will probably not significantly weaken the power of Tehran-sponsored armed groups in Iraq and Syria or deter them from carrying on with their actions. Biden’s team will be challenged to deter future drone attacks against US military facilities while preventing this tension from escalating into a more serious situation that the administration is determined to avoid. 

After all, Biden’s first time ordering air strikes against Syria-based Iran-backed militias in February evidentially failed to establish any deterrence over Kataib Hezbollah and other militias that oppose US military presence in Iraq and Syria. 

In fact, these militias’ firing of drones against US bases in Iraq began after that bombing occurred four months ago. The idea that the latest round of strikes against such organisations will mark the beginning of real deterrence is, at best, wishful thinking on Washington’s part.

Thus, while the Biden administration wants to reduce the US military footprint in the Middle East, the White House must contend with the real possibility of such strikes making it much harder to do so. Such escalating violence risks dragging Washington into further conflict in the region. 

Ultimately, if Kataib Hezbollah and other groups armed, trained, and financed by the Islamic Republic manage to bring the US further down this path of escalation in Iraq and Syria, Biden may fall into Tehran’s trap. Such conditions would enable the Iranians to intensify pressure on the US to lift sanctions – a position from which the Biden administration does not want to be in if/when it further eases Trump’s “maximum pressure” in exchange for Tehran returning to its full compliance with the JPCOA.

The administration might succeed in providing the Israelis and others in the region with some degree of comfort in knowing that even if the P5+1 and Iran manage to negotiate a ‘JCPOA 2.0’, Washington will remain committed to countering Tehran’s “malign” conduct in the region. 

But the White House’s plans for compartmentalising nuclear and non-nuclear issues by continuing the JCPOA talks while bombing Iran-backed militias in Arab countries are problematic. Those in Washington who genuinely want the nuclear accord to survive must understand that intensifying conflict with Iran and pro-Iranian organisations in the Middle East will dim the prospects for a JCPOA revival while making the region all the more dangerous.

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