This satellite image shows the aftermath of recent US airstrikes on a small group of buildings at an unofficial crossing at the Syria-Iraq border near Alm-Qaim, Iraq. Photo: AFP / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Unusually for a Sunday, John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, rushed to clarify that the US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on the weekend had targeted facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups to launch attacks on American troops in Iraq.

Kirby called the strikes “necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation.” He added that the strikes sent an “unambiguous deterrent message.” But he didn’t say to whom the message was addressed.

Meanwhile, a top American political personality closely identified with the Biden-Harris administration, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also issued a statement that the strikes seemed to be a “targeted and proportional response to a serious and specific threat.” 

Pelosi is an experienced politician whose remarks signify a defining moment in American national interests. Importantly, Pelosi also happens to be a long-standing friend or acquaintance – depending on how one looks at it – of none other than Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. 

Pelosi seems to be transmitting an important message to Tehran so that there is no ambiguity about US intentions, and the US airstrikes will be seen in proper perspective as a defensive and pre-emptive step rather than an act of provocation. 

To be sure, both Pelosi and Kirby would have known that the US air attacks took place while Iranian and American as well as European diplomats are preparing for a potentially decisive round of talks this week in Vienna that is expected to result in a consensus to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

Indeed, the talks in Vienna on the Iran nuclear deal are on the home stretch, and US President Joe Biden’s administration probably hopes to wrap up a deal before new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is sworn in on August 3. 

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi. Photo: AFP / Atta Kenare

Pressure mounts on sanctions

Expectations are running high in Tehran that the US sanctions are about to be lifted. On Sunday, after a meeting with members of the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Iran’s top negotiator in the Vienna talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said in a media interview: 

“When the United States quit the JCPOA and Iran decided to stay in it, this was Iran’s big and tough decision, which has kept the JCPOA alive up to the present. It is now the other parties’ turn, and they must decide in view of the negotiations that we held thus far to reach a final conclusion on how to revive the JCPOA, so that the two sides could reach an agreement.”  

But Tehran is also walking a fine line. The timeline of Iran’s temporary understanding with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February as regards the additional protocols (which Tehran had voluntarily assumed as a gesture of goodwill in the 2015 nuclear pact) lapsed last week. Iran is at liberty now to turn off the cameras being operated inside Iranian nuclear facilities and withhold from the UN agency the data and images. 

Of course, if Iran exercises that option (which is its sovereign prerogative), that would mean that the international community would be clueless henceforth as to what is exactly going on inside Iran’s top-secret nuclear establishments. 

To extend the timeline or not to extend the timeline – that’s the question. Arguably, this is one leverage point that Tehran can deploy to persuade the US to make those difficult decisions on the lifting of sanctions without further procrastination.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh highlighted in a tweet that “Iran will not negotiate forever.”

On Sunday, Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf seemed to imply that Tehran will no longer share with the IAEA the video recordings of its nuclear activities. He said the three-month period had expired and “nothing has been renewed, and after that none of the items recorded in Iran will ever be given to the agency.” 

Incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi (2nd R) visit a nuclear technology exhibition on the 11th anniversary of National Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran, Iran on April 10, 2021. Iranian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

A bulldog fight

But on Monday, Khatibzadeh clarified: “No new decision has yet been made on the subject of the technical agreement with the agency, whether to continue or not.”

Inevitably, there are pulls and counter-pulls in Tehran. What comes to mind is Winston Churchill’s famous metaphor – “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling.”

To say the least, against the above highly charged diplomatic backdrop of the Vienna talks, it would seem that the US acted irresponsibly by undertaking the airstrikes against what it called Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq and Syria. 

However, on closer look, Pentagon spokesman Kirby argued: “The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq.” 

The attacks took place on Saturday when armed drones reportedly targeted Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq in areas close to the site of a new US consulate. In fact, Pelosi pointedly called them a “proportional response to a serious and specific threat.”

Pelosi went on to say in her statement: “The Iran-backed militias utilizing these facilities have been engaged in attacks threatening US service members, as well as our allies. Congress looks forward to receiving and reviewing the formal notification of this operation under the War Powers Act and to receiving additional briefings from the administration.” 

A US soldier patrols at the Qayyarah air base in Iraq in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Ahmad Al-Rubaye

That is to say, Pelosi stressed that the Biden administration is expected to justify the strikes to Congress. Presumably, Biden will not go further to order more strikes. 

On the other hand, the ground reality is that the militia groups have the upper hand and Saturday’s airstrikes on three targets are by no means a game-changer. Wouldn’t Iran know it? Simply put, rather than being an act of provocation, Washington seems to be seeking to send a clear message that it will be compelled to act to protect Americans in Iraq.

Call it a pre-emptive move. The big picture in West Asia is that the US is withdrawing air-defense systems from the region and the Pentagon is in the middle of a military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.