Analysis: US sends warning to Iran with weekend strikes, but escalation unlikely
“We seek to make clear to Iran and Iran-backed militia groups that there will be serious consequences if they continue to attack, or to arm, fund, and train militia groups that attack our people,” the Pentagon said.
The US airstrikes on Iran-backed militias over the weekend were meant to send a warning to Tehran, and no further escalation is expected despite the militias threatening to retaliate, officials, analysts and diplomats said.
“It was more of a warning, and the US is trying to draw some lines on what they can tolerate and what they can’t tolerate,” a senior diplomat based in the Middle East told Al Arabiya English.
Late Sunday, the Pentagon announced that it had conducted multiple airstrikes on various operational and weapons storage facilities used by Iranian proxies along the border of Syria and Iraq.
It was unclear if the raids led to any casualties, but Al Arabiya reported that four militia fighters were killed.
Then on Monday, pro-Iran militias targeted US forces in Syria before the US responded by hitting rocket launching positions.
An increase in drone attacks and the targeting of US forces and allies in recent months - with all signs pointing to Iran-backed militias - pushed US President Joe Biden to direct the retaliatory strikes on Sunday night.
The diplomat source pointed to signals sent by the US to Iran earlier this year that it would not accept the continued attacks by Tehran’s allies without a response.
While Iran condemned Sunday’s airstrikes, as did Iraq and Syria, attention turned to the potential for an increased escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Hostilities last reached a higher-than-normal level following former President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Iran’s Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad Airport in January 2020. Iran responded by unleashing a barrage of precision-guided missiles and rockets at Iraqi bases housing US troops.
Now, under Biden, the US has re-engaged with Iran albeit indirectly via European allies, Russia and China. Six rounds of talks have taken place in Vienna in an effort to reach a nuclear deal.
But, after the latest round of negotiations, both the US and Iran have warned that they will not engage in talks forever.
Events over the last 48 hours appeared to some as threatening the fate of the ongoing talks. The State Department and Pentagon seemed less concerned about such a possibility, as did the diplomat and analysts.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the weekend raids were designed to limit the risk of escalation.
Pentagon Spokesperson Commander Jessica McNulty said the strikes were “necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation.”
In an email, McNulty told Al Arabiya English that the strikes were “appropriately limited in scope.”
The State Department echoed these comments, saying the airstrikes were a direct response to previous attacks against US forces in the region. “If the provocations continue, so too must the protective response,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Arabiya English.
Asked about any concern that this could have on the ongoing nuclear deal talks, the State Department official said: “We are pursuing the talks in Vienna on mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA because we believe such a return would be in our national security interest. We still believe this to be the case and intend to return to Vienna to continue our negotiations when the next round is scheduled.”
Biden’s decision to carry out the airstrikes on Sunday was the second time he’s ordered such a move since taking office.
Shortly after his inauguration, he ordered the Pentagon to carry out strikes on buildings in Syria used by Iran-backed militias. It came after one of several attacks on US forces in Iraq led to the death of a US contractor.
“In both instances, US action was defensive in nature and in response to repeated provocations,” said Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at George Washington University.
As for the potential to derail the Vienna talks, Norman Roule, former US National Intelligence Manager for Iran, played down this possibility.
Roule believes that “all parties to these [nuclear] talks have isolated nuclear issues from other subjects.”
For now, the risk of direct fighting between the US and Iran appears farfetched and the negotiations will proceed.
Randa Slim, a senior fellow and Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute, said the deal-making on the nuclear file would continue. But, she said it would present political obstacles for follow-on talks.
Washington has said it wants Iran to come back into compliance with the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal in return for sanctions relief. The Biden administration said that following compliance future discussions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for militias can take place.
Slim said Sunday’s strikes would make it difficult politically to argue the benefits of a nuclear deal in the absence of follow-on talks about Iran’s regional behavior “especially as hardliners consolidate their grip over Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.”
Nevertheless, the US warned that it would continue to hit back if and when needed.
“We seek to make clear to Iran and Iran-backed militia groups that there will be serious consequences if they continue to attack, or to arm, fund, and train militia groups that attack our people. We will take necessary and appropriate measures to defend US personnel, partners, and allies in the region,” McNulty said.
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