Joe Biden’s firm but cautious message to Iran

While Joe Biden has signaled his willingness to return to the Iranian nuclear deal, his first military operation as president on Thursday targeted pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria. The strikes were a response to the recent attacks on US interests in Iraq, and above all a strong signal to Tehran.

US President Joe Biden gave the go-ahead on February 25 for air strikes on facilities in eastern Syria, which the Pentagon says were controlled by Iranian-backed militias. The move was a response to recent rocket attacks on US interests in Iraq.

The Pentagon has been careful to note that the strikes, Biden’s first military action since entering the White House, were defensive and proportionate.

As a sign of Washington’s caution, a US official who spoke to anonymity told Reuters that these calibrated strikes were intended to punish the militias without causing an escalation of the military situation.

Several options were presented to Biden, who chose the least likely to ignite the situation, the official said.

Tehran and Washington are still focused on the essentials

In addition to their tactical purpose, the strikes seemed primarily intended to send a strong message to Iran, which has a tradition of testing every new US government.

“Experts agree to see this operation as a message from Joe Biden, who is letting the Iranians know that he is the new president of the United States, that he really is not Donald Trump, but that he is ready to respond to attacks on American interests and to make Iran responsible, says Reza Sayah, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Iran.

It remains to be seen whether the militias targeting Syria will respond. The balance of power is not in their favor, as an escalation could affect the US government’s current steps to revive the Iranian nuclear deal.

So far, Iran has not responded to the operation. But the United States has let it and its allies in the region know that despite their desire to revive the 2015 agreement – designed to prevent Iranians from acquiring the atomic bomb and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018 – they will not leave attacks on their interests unchecked.

“The stakes are too high, both for the Islamic Republic and for the United States, for the situation to get out of control so that it jeopardizes the priority issue in the 2015 agreement,” Sayah said. “In recent weeks, there have been many positive signs on this issue, and it is unlikely that these regional frictions will divert Tehran and Washington from the essentials.”

In fact, the operation in Syria was carried out in connection with a recalibration of American diplomacy in the Middle East after the Trump years, one of the main driving forces of which is Biden’s stated desire to return to the Vienna Agreement.

If Trump’s defeat, a hardliner against Iran, was greeted with relief in Tehran, the Islamic Republic has not reached a tie with the Biden administration. This is despite some gestures made by the United States in the region, such as ending its support for the war in Yemen and the apparent marginalization of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman.

The United States has also made direct moves in Tehran’s favor, in particular with its 18 February abolition of the unilateral sanctions in September 2020 imposed by the Trump administration on Iran. But the initiatives have been seen as insufficient by the Iranian government, which will not forgive Washington for the assassination of the influential General Qassem Soleimani, commissioned by Trump, and which since 2018 has gradually freed itself from the previously accepted limits of its nuclear program.

Power struggle

While the United States demands that the Iranians fully return to the fulfillment of the commitments they made in 2015, Tehran is stepping up its efforts and waiting for guarantees from Washington. In particular, it demands that the United States “unconditionally lift all sanctions imposed, reintroduced or modernized by Trump,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“There is an inequality in form and in words under Biden, who has a policy of reaching out to the Iranians but has not yet reversed Donald Trump’s decision, following the strong sanctions imposed by the Republican billionaire against Iran, which is stifling the country’s economy. is still in place, says Antoine Mariotti, a journalist specializing in the Middle East, in FRANCE 24.

So far, the United States and Iran have held on to their positions and are embroiled in a power struggle over who will give in first. “That is the case, even if both sides have an interest in moving forward on this issue,” Mariotti added.

Recently interviewed on FRANCE 24, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, declared that it was up to Washington, which has withdrawn from the agreement, “to take the first step” and “restore Iranian confidence”.

Time may run out for Biden. The presidential election in Iran in June could lead to a Conservative president succeeding Hassan Rohani, who is perhaps less inclined to negotiate with Washington.

This article has been translated from the original into French