On June 27, 2021, US warplanes carried out surprise air strikes targeting three locations of Iran-backed militia along the border between Iraq and Syria. In its Telegram channel, Sabereen News reported that four fighters were killed as a result of the attack on the headquarters of the 14th Brigade of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), more commonly referred to as al-Ḥašd al-Šaʿbiyy. A statement from units of the Iraqi Resistance, who are battling Daesh (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), said that its members would avenge the deaths of these “righteous martyrs” and make “perpetrators of this heinous crime” pay. It also warned the US against further acts of aggression.
The Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militia, which was a part of the Popular Mobilization Forces since its inception, announced “a general mobilization against the American occupation” via the Telegram channel. Militia members also vowed to target enemy aircraft in the sky above their “beloved homeland”. Mr. Ahmed Al-Maksousi, Commander of the 14th Brigade of PMF, stated that his fighters were ready to respond and take revenge.
In the meantime, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken resorted to demagoguery. He stated that launching air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, had sent “a clear and unambiguous deterrent message”. The Iraqi government, on the other hand, condemned the US attacks.
The second air strike targeting Iran-backed militia since Joe Biden became US President, which the Pentagon called retaliatory, has fueled concerns among quite a few members of the global community about yet another escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran, while the nuclear deal between the latter and a number of world powers hangs in the balance. During his visit to Rome Antony Blinken told reporters that the United States had taken “necessary and appropriate action” thus “sending a strong and important message” to Iran.
Such a statement is indicative of “anything goes” policies. The United States unlawfully occupied Iraq, damaged its governance mechanisms and economy, as well as created ideal conditions for pillage and plunder. And its current administration still has the gall to demand respect. The situation is reminiscent of the times when Nazis complained about the way Soviet partisans waged war. The US military presence in Iraq was uncalled for and Americans ought to leave this nation as soon as possible otherwise flames will engulf this land.
Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa Al-Kadhimi condemned the recent US attack as a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security”. It is all just too much to bear. How can one reconcile the democratic values espoused by the United States with an occupation of a sovereign nation and the assault on its population, especially women? Even basic human rights have all been but forgotten. And yet, deceitful American propaganda continuously extols human rights.
A number of political analysts have noted that the campaign to escalate tensions between the US and Iran must have been planned and agreed on in the run up to the potentially last round of nuclear talks in Vienna. The United States government has taken a series of steps targeting Iran and Shiite majority militias in Iraq, backed by Tehran, possibly in order to force Iranians to make further concessions on pivotal issues that the sides have been unable to resolve during negotiations. The sixth round of nuclear talks in Vienna focusing on restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was somewhat successful, but a few key issues are still hanging in the balance. At the end of the round, head of Iranian negotiating team in Vienna Seyed Abbas Araghchi underlined “the need for the parties involved in the talks to make serious decisions in order to get Iran and the US back to full compliance” with the nuclear deal that the United States had pulled out of under the Trump administration.
According to an Iranian Foreign Ministry statement issued at the end of the latest round, he said important decisions had to be “made in the capitals of the countries” that are parties to the negotiations “in order to resolve key outstanding issues”. The Iranian official also urged all the sides “to adopt the necessary measures seriously, realistically and resolutely in order to protect and revive the JCPOA”. The statements made by Iran’s chief negotiator during the nuclear talks indicate just how challenging the next round of negotiations is bound to be. After all, he made it clear that the seventh round would end on a high note only if all the parties to these talks made a tough decision to give up on their original demands.
What are these demands? And what impact do they have on the game of politics Iran and the United States are playing in the region? As for Iranian demands, the nation’s negotiators have clearly outlined what they want, which does not go beyond full implementation of the JCPOA with all its economic dividends. Iran demanded that the US remove all the sanctions imposed, re-imposed or relabeled by the Trump administration as these punitive measures were primarily part of a broader design to make it hard, if not impossible, for the next US administration to rejoin the JCPOA.
As for the US side, “the Biden administration has demanded a commitment to engage in follow-on talks to bolster and expand on the existing JCPOA, but Iran has virtually ruled that out, saying they are only interested in renewing the 2015” agreement, according to an NBC News report. With the negotiating teams poised to return to Vienna for the seventh round of talks, the possibility of resuscitating the JCPOA seems as far away from being within grasp as it has been before the sixth round during which little progress was reportedly made. The main reason for this is that the US still insists on lengthening and strengthening the JCPOA while also refusing to lift all the Trump-era sanctions and taking provocative steps against Iran and Shiite majority units in Iraq.
To break this deadlock, the United States appears to be resorting to elements of Trump’s Iran policy, which include regional mobilization and targeted strikes against Iran-backed groups. The Pentagon described the attacks on Iraqi and Syrian locations as a self-defense move. Its officials justified the air strikes by saying Iran-backed militia groups “engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against US personnel” and targeted facilities in Iraq.
What made the “self-defense move” more suspicious was the fact that the United States blocked a number of news websites affiliated with Iranian state media or those of regional groups close to Iran. Websites belonging to Iranian news outlets, most notably the English-language Press TV and the Arabic-language Al-Alam, as well as regional media close to Iran, were blocked with a message showing that the websites were seized by the government of the United States.
Taken together, the US measures against Iran could be construed as a message from the United States that Washington remains focused on combating Iran’s regional influence regardless of the JCPOA talks. And this, in its turn, sends another signal that if regional issues are not addressed be it in Vienna or elsewhere, tensions will continue to run high even after the JCPOA is revived in its original format. So, does the United States want to use such messaging to force Iran into making commitments that it will continue the discussions even after the JCPOA is restored? The answer to this vexing question could well determine the trajectory of negotiations in the coming days.
It is yet unclear whether or not Iran will “change its position in the seventh round”. But Iran chief negotiator at the nuclear talks has said that Tehran has already made hard “decisions to remain in the JCPOA” and it is Washington’s turn now “to face up to the moment” and make some tough calls. “The Islamic Republic of Iran has already made tough decisions. When the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and Iran decided to stay in the JCPOA. It was Iran’s big and difficult decision that led to the preservation of the JCPOA so far. Now it is the turn of the opposing parties, and according to the negotiations we had, they must decide and reach a conclusion on the revival of the JCPOA in order to reach an agreement,” Seyed Abbas Araghchi said to Iranian state media after briefing lawmakers sitting on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on the Vienna talks.
It is not long now until the seventh round of negotiations in Vienna where each party is bound to show their true face.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.