On Thursday, February 25th, the United States military carried out airstrikes on a site in Syria used by two Iranian-backed militia groups. This attack likely marks the first of many strategic airstrikes by the United States military in the region. The Biden administration stated that the airstrikes were conducted in response to an Iranian-backed militia group attack on U.S. and Iraqi coalition forces a few weeks ago in Erbil, Iraq.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby announced on Monday, March 1st, that the attack resulted in the death of one fighter and wounded two others, in addition to the destruction of nine buildings in the area. Kirby also disclosed that the airstrikes were directed specifically towards two militia groups known as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada.
The attack proved swift and decisive. However, this use of force garnered both criticism and praise among Democrats and Republicans, and may have ramifications for future relations between Washington and Tehran. Quickly after news of the U.S.-led airstrike broke, members of President Biden’s own party condemned his actions and argued that such decisive airstrikes needed Congressional authorization.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said in response to the airstrike that “lawmakers must hold the current administration to the same standards as any other. Retaliatory strikes [are] not necessary to prevent an imminent threat.” Concurring with Senator Murphy, California congressman on the House Armed Services Committee Ro Khanna (D-CA) added: “The President should not be taking these actions without seeking explicit authorization.”
However, some members of the Republican party praised the President’s use of airstrikes against Iranian backed targets. Ranking Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) of the Armed Services Committee described the Biden’s administration’s actions in Iran as “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.” In addition, Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the executive action, claiming that President Biden used his “constitutional authority” in carrying out the airstrikes. However, even if the President’s actions were constitutionally valid, how might this attack against Iranian-backed militia groups impact future U.S.-Iran relations?
While the Iranian government has denied involvement in the recent Erbil attack, they were quick to condemn the latest U.S. airstrikes in Syria. The day after the airstrike, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javid Zarif characterized the U.S. airstrikes as both “illegal and a violation of Syria’s sovereignty.”
Currently Iran and the United States are discussing re-entry into their original nuclear proliferation deal from 2015. Attacks like the recent airstrike by U.S. military forces could well be a power play, as Washington tries to garner as much leverage as possible over Iran as they negotiate. On the other hand, recent headlines have articulated that Iran is quite adamant about not re-joining the 2015 nuclear proliferation deal unless new terms are agreed upon.
What Iran wants is the removal of the U.S.-led economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. These economic sanctions have severely crippled the Iranian economy and delegitimized the sovereignty of its government in the eyes of the Iranian people. A few days before the United States launched airstrikes in Syria, Iran’s government attempted to make good on their threat of declining the nuclear proliferation deal by suspending adherence to the U.N.-mandated inspections of their nuclear sites. The Iranian government however, did suggest that it would agree to U.N. inspections if the United States accepts Tehran´s terms when re-signing the nuclear proliferation deal.
Regardless of recent American and Iraninan reciprocal threats as well as airstrikes in Syria, the U.S. State Department claims that America´s fundamental strategy in dealing with Iran is through diplomacy. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed reporters that the administration believes diplomacy, specifically with Iran, is the best path to achieving both countries’ goals.
While the United States government is unlikely to remove all economic sanctions imposed on Iran, only time will tell which country will give in first. Attacks like the recent airstrikes in Syria demonstrate a “hard power” stance, attempting to show who has true power in the geo-political arena. Even though the United States continues to carry a big stick, at some point some compromise from both sides must occur.
During the 2020 Presidential election, the President raved about his ability to meet with adversaries, and be able to negotiate deals and thus help broker international agreements. The current situation with Iran provides an excellent opportunity for the Biden administration to take a less militarized approach in order to let the Iranian government understand that the United States genuinely favors a diplomatic approach. The President can either give in to some of Tehran´s demands regarding economic sanctions, or commit to a hardline stance of agreeing to re-enter the 2015 nuclear proliferation agreement with the same terms. However, it is clear that the Iranian government is likely to continue its demands in wanting economic sanctions lifted.
The American airstrikes and the Iranian attacks on coalition forces in Syria only complicate matters between the two countries. Tit-for-tat skirmishes between both sides only heighten the stakes, and distract from American grand strategy. While this diplomacy is proving contentious, the Biden Administration must move on if it wants to take on greater international challenges – like China – on the horizon.