On Sunday the U.S.bombed three positions of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force at the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The U.S. had no right to do such. The legal reasoning the Biden administration provided for the attack is nonsense. As is the claimed rational of establishing ‘deterrence’ against further attacks on U.S. troops by this or that Iraqi militia group. The last strike in that area in February was supposed to have fullilled the same purpose but obvious did not deter anything. Sunday’s strike was immediately responded to with missiles fired against a U.S. position in Syria. More such incidents will follow.
The attack has embarrassed Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi:
The most perplexing aspect of this airstrike, however, is its timing, coming only one day after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi attended a celebration of the seventh anniversary of the creation of the PMF, held at Camp Ashraf, the former headquarters of the anti-Iranian Mujahedeen-e-Khalq terrorist group, located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Baghdad. The PMF paraded thousands of its fighters, along with tanks, rocket launchers, and drones, before a reviewing stand that, in addition to Kadhimi, included Defense Minister Juma Inad, Interior Minister Othman Ghanmi, Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Yarallah, and PMF Chief of Staff Abdul Aziz al-Mohammadawi.
More important than the list of attendees, however, is what Kadhimi said about the PMF. In a tweet released during the parade, the prime minister noted that “[w]e attended the parade of our heroic army on December 6 (2020), as well as the brave police parade, and today we attended the parade of our sons in the Popular Mobilization Forces. We affirm that our work is under the banner of Iraq, and protecting its land and people is our duty. Yes to Iraq! Yes to Iraq, the strong and capable country.” Kadhimi went on to highlight the fact that the PMF was a state service, and praised its role in the ongoing struggle against Islamic State.
To reiterate, one day after the prime minister of Iraq, in the company of his military and national security team, declared the PMF to be an essential part of his nation’s state security, the US undertook to bomb these same forces at locations in Syria and Iraq from where the PMF carry out the very anti-IS operations praised by the Iraqi PM – and did so without either informing the Iraqi government beforehand, or seeking its permission.
In response, Kadhimi convened an emergency meeting of his national security staff and issued a pointed condemnation of the US strikes as a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty that would prompt his government to study all legal options in response.
The strike has weakened the U.S. position in Iraq and has strengthened Iran’s position.
Some analysts say that the attack was a message to Iran in the context of the ongoing talks about the nuclear deal. But what did that message say? That the U.S. can bomb some minor targets? What is new with that?
Let’s go back to the big picture.
An overarching aim of the Biden administration is to concentrate all its forces on the competition with China. To that purpose it has planned to largely leave the Middle East behind – the place where the U.S. has wasted its resources over more than two decades.
To leave the Middle East the U.S. needs to find some form of peace with Iran. The Biden administration thus set out to reenter the nuclear deal. It must lift the sanctions Trump imposed against Iran to get there. But then mission creep set in. Instead of just lifting the sanctions in return for Iran’s adherence to the limits of the nuclear deal the Biden administration has sought more concessions from Iran while offering less sanctions relief.
Iran has made its position clear. If the U.S. lifts ALL sanctions imposed by Trump it will again subject its nuclear program to the limits of the nuclear deal. If the U.S. does not lift ALL sanctions then Iran will continue to exceed those limits by ever growing margins.
Secretary of State Anthony ‘Pompous the second’ Blinken has the illusion that he can get Iran back under the nuclear deal and keep significant sanctions in place. He wants to use those to press Iran into limiting its missile force and into ending support for its allies in the Middle East:
Senior Biden administration officials, from Mr. 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.
Iran will not disarm itself. Those aims are impossible to achieve:
Blinken has already said that some U.S. sanctions will remain, and will be lifted when – and only when – Tehran ‘changes behaviour’. Note the quiet shift. Blinken here is not talking regulatory nuclear framework, he is going ‘Manichean’. Thus, on this metric (correcting malign behaviour), it is not a matter of how many individual sanctions remain in place, but the nature of those remaining. Evidently, the nature of those that remain must imply great pain, if they truly are to coerce a change of strategic course by an irredeemably ‘malign’ Iran. (It is another example of how the good/evil paradigm freezes politics solid).
Team Biden knows, and freely admits, that Trump’s maximum pressures did not shift Iranian behaviour. Yet Blinken is advocating the U.S. repeating what has just failed. Actually what Trump did was to persuade Iran to develop the smart missile-swarm drone deterrence that has made ‘maga-weapons’ irrelevant. It has given Iran a strategic edge.
Yet Blinken is now flirting with the idea to not return to the nuclear deal:
“If this continues, if they continue to spin more sophisticated centrifuges at higher and higher levels, we will get to a point where it will be very difficult as a practical matter” to return to the parameters of the original nuclear deal, he said.
“I can’t put a date on it,” Mr. Blinken said of the day when the Biden administration might walk away from the nuclear talks, but “it’s getting closer.”
And then what?
If the U.S. does not return to the nuclear deal anytime soon Iran will leave it completely. My guess is by the end of this year. That would free it to do whatever nuclear it wants to do. Iran will also increase its support for proxy forces which are able to hurt U.S. forces and U.S. allies in the Middle East. A number of ever escalating needle pricks – burning Saudi tankers, exploding refineries, drone attacks on U.S. bases – would necessitate for the U.S. to stay engaged.
The U.S. can not go to war with Iran. The country can not be occupied and any bombing of it would be responded to by missile and drone attacks against each and every U.S. base and ally in the region, including Israel..
A stand off or low level conflict could thus continue for a long time. It would consume more U.S. resources and management time. Time China can use, undisturbed, to further develop its capabilities. By adding more and more demands for the lifting of the sanctions against Iran the Biden administration is sabotaging its overarching strategic aim of competing with China.
This is a very shortsighted policy. Iran will not flinch. Attempts to put pressure on it by killing a few Iraqi militia are just laughable nonsense. That the Biden administration tries to do so shows that it has driven itself into a blind ally but is unwilling to go into reverse.
What then will be its next move?