Biden navigates Iran clashes in Syria as negotiators move toward nuclear deal

“Whenever the United States and Iran come close to concluding negotiations, actors on both sides try to disrupt them,” said Joe Cirincione, national security expert and author, former chairman of the Fund. Plowshares focused on nuclear non-proliferation. He noted that Israel and elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are opposed to the deal. « The objective is the same: to create a crisis that would make diplomacy impossible, an agreement impossible to obtain. »

In this case, experts said the Biden administration’s strategy — proving she can walk and chew gum at the same time — worked.

« We defended ourselves immediately and we are still in negotiations, » said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon official in the Trump administration.

Even as officials have made progress in nuclear negotiations in recent weeks, Iranian proxies have been increasingly active in the region. In Syria, IRGC-led militants have stepped up low-level attacks on US and coalition positions in Syria, Defense Ministry officials said.

Iran may be trying to use activity in Syria to gain leverage in nuclear talks, said Seth Jones, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But more important for Tehran is getting US troops out of the Middle East, where Iran has been expanding its influence in recent years, he said.

« These fighting, the violence right now in Syria is largely symptomatic of the tensions that the United States currently has with the Iranians, » Jones said. « Some of them are military, some of them are at the diplomatic table. »

On August 15, two incidents in Syria caught the administration’s attention: an unsuccessful drone strike in the vicinity of al-Tanf garrison and a rocket attack on Green Village. The United States did not react immediately but spent several days ensuring that the retaliatory strikes sent the right message and did not kill anyone.

« The DoD worked to select a target that would send the message we wanted without making the situation any worse, » a senior administration official said. “They conducted hundreds of hours of intelligence gathering to ensure the strike did not cause casualties while preparing the ground to respond should Iran-backed groups decide to attack again after our strike. It takes time to do things right.”

But a senior DoD official — who, like others in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic — said one of the reasons the response took days was that officials were debating the impact on nuclear negotiations.

On Tuesday, on orders from Biden, US fighter jets struck Deir ez-Zor, Syria, against bunkers used by groups affiliated with the IRGC. The US military initially identified 11 targets at the site but ultimately only hit nine due to evidence of movement near two of the bunkers shortly before the strike, senior Pentagon policy official Colin Kahl said.

The retaliatory strike was designed to signal that the United States will defend itself regardless of the status of nuclear deal negotiations, Kahl said.

« The administration has been pretty clear that in the event that Iran returns to comply with the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], it is in our interest, because it takes Iran away from a nuclear weapons capability. But whether the JCPOA is revived or not, it actually has nothing to do with our will and determination to defend ourselves,” Kahl said. « Last night’s strike was a pretty clear communication to the Iranians that these things are on different tracks.

The response was likely designed to reassure US allies that Washington can still push back against Iran’s nefarious action in the region while negotiating a nuclear deal, Cirincione said. In fact, senior Israeli officials visited Washington this week as the government ramped up pressure on Biden to back out of the nuclear deal. Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata met with his counterpart Jake Sullivan at the White House on Tuesday – the same day the strikes took place in Syria.

« The United States will deny there is a connection, but I’m a superstitious man, I’ve seen this pattern too many times, » he said. « They want to get the deal done, they need to reassure the allies – that’s their way, and I think it worked. »

But the skirmishes don’t stop there. In retaliation, IRGC-backed militants launched rocket attacks on two separate sites in northeast Syria, Green Village and Conoco, which injured three US servicemen. One U.S. service member was treated for a minor injury and returned to duty, while two others are being evaluated for minor injuries, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command at the time.

In their initial response, US attack helicopters destroyed three vehicles and equipment used to launch some of the rockets. The militants then attempted to launch additional rockets, but US forces pounded the position with attack helicopters, gunships and artillery. In total, the US military killed four enemy fighters and destroyed seven enemy rocket launchers in the fighting.

After the strike, the Pentagon felt the final salvo was over and deterrence had been restored, a third US official said.

So far, back and forth hasn’t seemed to slow the progress of nuclear talks. On the one hand, both sides appear to have moved past the Biden administration’s refusal to remove the IRGC from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The United States on Wednesday provided the EU with its response to Iran’s latest comments on the draft proposal. This stage of the talks is expected to focus on the remaining sticking points, related to Iranian demands for economic guarantees and sanctions relief.

« We are closer now than we were just a few weeks ago because Iran has made the decision to make concessions, » said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

But he warned that “many gaps remain. We are not there yet.

Alexander Ward and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.


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