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Was Erbil Biden’s First Big Test?

Was Erbil Biden’s First Big Test?

Wednesday, 24 February, 2021 - 09:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

One experienced American analyst called the February 15 rocket attack against Erbil the first test of credibility for the Biden administration. Michael Knights, and some other American analysts, all agree that an Iraqi militia loyal to Iran was responsible for the attack. Some are urging the Biden administration to reject talks with the Iranian government about Iran’s nuclear program until the militias in Iraq stop attacks on American forces.

Instead, on February 18 the State Department spokesman said the US would accept a European invitation to attend a meeting of all the countries that signed the 2015 nuclear agreement, including Iran. At the same time, the Biden administration cancelled travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats at the United Nations in New York that President Trump had imposed. In addition, Washington announced it would stop the effort that the Trump administration began to reimpose all United Nations sanctions on Iran.

Russia, China and the Europeans already had rejected former Secretary of State Pompeo’s argument last autumn about reimposing the sanctions.

These two Biden administration steps are small gestures to Teheran although Biden is still insisting Iran take the first big step and halt its nuclear violations before Washington removes sanctions as required in the 2015 agreement.

Why doesn’t Biden send a tough message after Erbil and take a stronger position against the pro-Iranian militias now? There are two big reasons. First, unlike the Trump administration, the Biden team understands that Iraqis do not want to be in the middle of a war between Iran and the United States. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has said this many times and the street protests in Baghdad have emphasized it also. We now see an American administration that understands it is better to let the central government in Baghdad gradually contain the militias so that the issue in Iraq is prestige of the state and not American military presence.

The militias are gradually losing credibility in Iraq as the protests against them and the Iranians in southern Iraq demonstrate. It is encouraging that the Baghdad government on February 15 arrested members of a death squad in Baghdad connected directly to Badr, Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib ahl Haq militias.

Washington and NATO need to focus on helping the Baghdad government strengthen Iraqi security forces and restore the prestige of the Iraqi state as one part of a long-term solution to the militia problem.

The second reason behind Biden accepting a dialogue with Iran about the nuclear program now is that the Iranian militias in Iraq are part of a larger regional threat from Iran that is separate from the Iranian nuclear threat. Iraqis need to resolve their militia problem but there are Iraqi militias in Syria and of course there are other militias connected to Iran in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The Americans cannot negotiate alone with Iran about the spread of these militias in the Middle East. But who must participate in the discussions about the Iranian regional threat?

Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor at the White House now, told CNN on January 3 that there needs to be a new, broad dialogue that goes beyond the P5+1 group that negotiates with Iran about the nuclear program.

It is worth noting that the Biden administration already has encouraged the Gulf states to pursue a dialogue channel with Iran. A Gulf dialogue channel with Iran is only a beginning because the Gulf Cooperation Council can’t negotiate by itself with Iran about Syria and Lebanon and Iraq.

I don’t know what the final framework of discussions will be. I believe it will have to include Iraq, the Syrian government, Israel and perhaps Turkey and others.

I can imagine the framework will have many parts and will develop slowly in stages. But Biden’s team understood from the last four years that maximum pressure will not stop the Iranian nuclear program and waiting for negotiations also has a cost.

At Yale University I teach students about the 1987 nuclear arms agreement between Washington and Moscow that eliminated an entire category of nuclear missiles on both sides. President Reagan hated the Soviet system and expended big efforts to reduce its international influence. No historian thinks that President Reagan was weak towards the Soviet Union. But Reagan also understood the American interest in an agreement with Moscow to reduce the nuclear arsenals and therefore he undertook negotiations.

In return, we have seen Trump’s effort on Iran. The Biden team could learn from Reagan that they have to negotiate with Iran at the same time they work with partners to contain Iranian influence and pursue carefully a regional dialogue.

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