WASHINGTON – President Biden’s decision to strike at Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria early on Monday illustrated the delicate balance of his approach to Tehran: he must demonstrate that he is prepared to use force to defend the US interests, while keeping open a fragile diplomacy line of communication as the two countries attempt to resurrect the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
In public, administration officials insisted that the two issues are separate.
Mr Biden, they said on Monday, acted under his constitutional authority to defend US troops by carrying out airstrikes on sites used to launch drone attacks against US forces in Iraq. They said that should not interfere with the final effort to bring the two countries back into compliance with the nuclear deal.
In fact, the problems are intertwined.
For the Iranians, the march towards the ability to build a nuclear weapon has been in part an effort to demonstrate that Tehran is a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East and beyond. Today, the country’s might has been augmented by a new arsenal of highly precise drones, longer-range missiles, and increasingly sophisticated cyber weapons, some of which involve technologies that seemed beyond Tehran’s competence at the time. of the negotiation of the nuclear agreement in 2015.
Part of Mr Biden’s goal in trying to revive the nuclear deal is to use it as a first step to push Iran to tackle other issues, including its support for terrorist groups in the region and its expanded arsenal. On this front, the strikes ordered Sunday and carried out Monday morning by the US Air Force fighter-bombers should be no more than a temporary setback for Iran.
There is also the risk of escalation. Later Monday, Iranian-backed militias were suspected of firing rockets at US forces in Syria, according to US Army spokesperson Col. Wayne Marotto. Kurdish-Syrian media said the targets were US troops near an oil field.
Even if the administration succeeds in piecing together the nuclear deal, Biden will still face the challenge of finding a way to further curb the Iranians – a step that the country’s newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, said the next day. of his election that he would never accept.
In that sense, the airstrikes have only underscored the number of conflicting currents Mr. Biden faces as he tries to shape a coherent Iranian policy. He faces pressure from various branches of Congress, Israel and Arab allies, not to mention Tehran’s new hard-line government, led by Mr. Raisi, which was placed under sanctions in 2019 by the Treasury Department. , who concluded that he “participated in a so-called ‘death commission’ which ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners” more than 30 years ago.
In Congress, some Democrats viewed the military strikes ordered by Mr. Biden as the pursuit of a model of presidential overtaking in the use of war powers without congressional consultation or consent. Connecticut Democrat Senator Christopher S. Murphy asked Monday whether Iran’s repeated attacks through its proxies in Iraq amounted to what he called a “low-intensity war.”
“You cannot keep declaring Article II authorities over and over again,” he said, referring to constitutional authority as the commander-in-chief that Mr Biden cited as justifying the strikes , “without at any time inciting the authorities of Congress” to declare war.
In an interview, Mr Murphy said that “the repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy forces are beginning to resemble what could be termed a pattern of hostilities” that would force Congress to debate a declaration of war or another authorization that the president could use. military force.
“The Constitution and the War Powers Act require the President to appear in Congress for a declaration of war in these circumstances,” said Mr. Murphy.
Mr. Biden’s argument, of course, is that the targeted strikes and the return to the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump withdrew three years ago are all aimed at avoiding war – and those responsible. from the White House say they have no intention of seeking a declaration of war against Iran or its proxies. State Secretary Antony J. Blinken, on the road in Europe, called the strikes “necessary, appropriate and deliberate action, designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message.” .
But at the same time, such strikes are also part of Mr Biden’s response to Republicans in his country, who overwhelmingly opposed the 2015 deal and seek to portray the president as weak in the face of Iranian aggression.
On Monday at the White House, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said the logic was simple: “The attacks on our troops must stop, and that is why the president ordered the operation last night in self-defense. of our staff. “
She said Iranian proxies had launched five unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on US forces since April, and it was time to draw the line.
For Mr. Biden, Congress is only part of the complications surrounding relations with Iran. Israel’s new government has expressed deep reservations about reinstating the 2015 deal, just as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did when he lobbied against the original deal, including in a speech at the Congress that angered President Barack Obama and Mr. Biden, then his vice-president.
On Monday, as the administration began briefing allies and Congress about the attack, Biden met with outgoing President of Israel Reuven Rivlin. It was largely a farewell session to thank him for years of partnering with the United States, including seven as president of Israel, before Mr. Rivlin stepped down. Mr. Biden used the moment spent in the Oval Office with Mr. Rivlin to reiterate his wish that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon under my watch.”
It was to signal that Israel and the United States share the same goal, even though they have very different conceptions of how to disarm the Iranians. But differences are playing out over what kind of nuclear deal is needed now, six years after the original went into effect. Iran’s capabilities and progress on other weapon systems have advanced significantly since the initial agreement entered into force.
Senior officials in the Biden administration, from Mr Blinken to the bottom, have acknowledged that one of the shortcomings of the old nuclear deal is that it must be “longer and stronger” and address the agenda. Iran’s missile development and support for terrorism.
Now the openness seems to be widening even more: It is increasingly clear that any comprehensive deal that addresses the many complaints the United States has about Iranian behavior must also cover a wide range of new weapons that Iranian forces do not. were doing that tinkering six years ago.
Today, these weapons – drones capable of launching a small conventional weapon with lethal precision against American troops, missiles that can target the entire Middle East and the far reaches of Europe, and cyber weapons directed against financial institutions. American – are regularly used by Iranian forces.
None of these weapons are covered by the 2015 accord, although there was a simultaneous and separate missile deal, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, which Iran largely ignored. It is increasingly recognized that if Mr Blinken is to keep his promise of a “longer and stronger” deal, he will have to include many of these weapons, not just missiles.
The question is whether Iran can be involved in a deal that covers these technologies after the core of the 2015 deal is restored, assuming it does. Mr Biden’s aides say that is their goal – and that they will have leverage, as Iran wants greater access to Western banking systems for its oil sales.
But the theory that Washington can negotiate with the new government outright has still not been tested. And there are worrying signs.
Without explanation, Iran refused to extend a deal with international nuclear inspectors that expired Thursday and kept security cameras and other sensors attached to the country’s nuclear fuel stockpile even though the inspectors did not. been allowed to enter Iranian facilities during the negotiations. This is essential for the administration, which will have to convince Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others that no nuclear material has been secretly diverted to bomb projects while negotiations were underway.
While U.S. officials on Monday said they had no reason to believe the cameras had stopped working, Iranian officials are clearly trying to increase the pressure – suggesting that unless a deal is reached in on their terms, the West could falter in its understanding of what is happening to Iran’s nuclear stocks.
If this escalates into a full-scale crisis, it could jeopardize the nuclear deal – and send the administration into a new round of escalation, exactly what it wants to avoid.
Lara jake, Michael crowley, Jane arraf and Jennifer steinhauer contributed reports.