Iran announced in early November that it would start talks on the Iranian nuclear program with the Biden administration and other world leaders this coming week in Vienna.
In preparation for the talks, Iran and the Biden administration have been sending smoke signals.
At a superficial level, the least ambiguous of these signals is probably one sent by Iran, in which the commander of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, stated that Iran “decides for USA and runs its policy”:
But that’s only at a superficial level. The Biden administration, without being so overtly provocative, is nevertheless sending unambiguous signals of weakness that Iran has no difficulty decoding. In fact, the only observers who don’t seem to recognize them as signals of weakness are members of the conventional “civil society” punditry, whose view of events is increasingly divorced from reality.
Nothing puts U.S. threats in perspective now quite like the disorderly, ignominious departure from Afghanistan in August, in which the Biden administration broke every promise it had made to Americans, Afghans, and our coalition allies. As watchdogs point out daily, there are still hundreds of Americans, at a minimum, trapped in Afghanistan, and thousands of imperiled Afghans who supported our presence and operations there for years and are eligible for rescue and relocation.
That open, bleeding wound in our execution of national security policy has to color all perceptions of Biden’s credibility when a list of threats is issued in case the impending Vienna talks fail.
Consider this passage from the NBC report at the link, published on 23 November:
According to European diplomats, former U.S. officials and experts, the possible options [if talks fail] include:
- Persuading China to shut off oil imports from Iran.
- Ramping up sanctions, including targeting oil sales to China.
- Pursuing a less ambitious interim nuclear deal.
- Launching covert operations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
- Ordering military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or supporting Israeli military action.
If the discussion in Vienna fail, the situation could soon resemble the tense standoff between the U.S. and Iran before the 2015 nuclear agreement, when Israel seriously contemplated a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and Washington and Europe imposed tough sanctions on Tehran, former U.S. officials say.
Granted, that “tense standoff between the U.S. and Iran before the 2015 nuclear agreement” needed little qualification to figure as mostly imaginary. The period just before the 2015 JCPOA “deal” was when the U.S. was actively supporting Iran-backed militias in taking over big chunks of Iraq, as well as passively ignoring Iranian inroads in Syria and warning Israel not to rock that boat lest Israeli actions imperil the “deal.” The U.S. had already been funneling cash to Iran since early 2014, as part of the 2013 JPOA (an “interim deal”), and had been pulling its punches on the sanctions for longer than that.
But the Afghanistan debacle qualifies the construct of a “tense” pre-JCPOA “standoff” more than a little. It qualifies it a lot.
The tense standoffs in 2015 weren’t between the U.S. and Iran. They were between the Obama administration and Congress, the Obama administration and our Arab regional partners, and the Obama administration and Israel. Yet Afghanistan is more than a reminder of that; it’s a significant reinforcement of the premises for Iranian decision-making. Those premises would include the U.S. administration being not just weak but easily manipulable by Iranian maneuvers, and being at odds with its regional allies and even with majority opinion at home.
Threats issued via the media from the Biden administration have no credibility at this point.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s not the only smoke signal in operation. There’s also a major punch-pull from October, when the U.S. had to evacuate troops from the border post at al-Tanf, in southern Syria, ahead of a drone strike by Iran-backed militias. (Early reporting indicated the attack also included rockets.)
Reportedly, the U.S. was able to act on prior intelligence about the strike at the time, and get the troops out of harm’s way. That was reported in an even-toned manner, tipping just slightly to self-congratulation.
But the stark reality is that it’s disgraceful. Our troops should not be in an undefended garrison position where the only option when there’s warning of an impending attack is to evacuate them. At the very least, some level of deterrence should be maintained, if necessary by attacking the Iran-backed militia base at al-Bukamal in eastern Syria.
But that wasn’t done, presumably because Team Biden didn’t want to upset Iran after the strike on 20 October 2021, when preliminary negotiations for restarting the talks in Vienna were underway. Instead of retaliating, the Biden administration came out within days with an anonymous theme that Iran was in fact behind the attack. Whether that acknowledgment was made to put U.S. inaction in a conciliatory light vis-à-vis Iran – well, you decide, reader.
(Properly speaking, of course, troops in a situation like that of al-Tanf should have effective local defenses against any form of tactical attack, including cheap, tacky little drones with bombs strapped to them. This isn’t merely “ideal”; it’s indispensable from any moral and mission-effectiveness perspective on the deployment of American troops. Following Iran’s short-range missile attack in January 2020 on U.S. troops at Erbil, Iraq and al-Asad air base, in Anbar Province, Trump wanted to accelerate deployment of two Iron Dome systems being bought from Israel as test beds, to protect U.S. servicemen stationed in Iraq. After Biden took office, the Iron Dome systems were sent to Guam instead, a head-scratcher for those who understand that there’s no launch point for rockets close enough to Guam to justify using Iron Dome for island defense.)
The desperation for the Vienna talks on “Biden’s” part is palpable. The U.S. positions in al-Tanf and in northeastern Syria are the pincer hinges for threatening any land-bridge Iran seeks to reestablish into Syria via the road network that runs through al-Qaim, Iraq and al-Bukamal. In October, Iran demonstrated that the U.S. commitment to al-Tanf could be interfered with, using nothing more than a cheap, endlessly replicable suicide-drone attack.
Now, just this past week, the administration has used the same October attack to frame a narrative that Israel is the problem. It did so quite explicitly, with “disclosures” to the New York Times that Iran intended the 20 October attack on U.S. forces to be in retaliation for Israeli strikes on Iranian materiel and positions in Syria.
Note at the outset, as a salient aside, that this report clarifies Iran’s tasking relationship with the militias. Let there be no doubt henceforth that Iran can task the militias to attack U.S. forces, and is willing to. We may assume that whatever the militias do has at the very least Iranian approval. But the clear-eyed perspective of independent-minded Iraqis is more accurate: it’s Iran in action, when the militias do something.
Meanwhile, the NYT article claimed to have eight U.S. and Israeli officials as sources on this. That’s not credible for what purports to be “intelligence” about Iran’s motive for the attack. Having prior warning of the attack is one thing; that probably came from a source in the local theater (i.e., Syria), for a strike executed by the militias. But information about Iran’s national intentions and motives doesn’t come from such sources. Blithely burbling that kind of “intelligence” to NYT is not something eight separate sources would rush to do (or even have the reliable knowledge to do).
The gist of the NYT story looks more like the placement of an administration theme about inconveniently timed Israeli activities. I note that it’s possible an Iranian surrogate like Qatar told U.S. officials that the 20 October strike was in retaliation for earlier Israeli attacks in Syria. But that would constitute not intelligence but the placement by Iran of an Iranian theme – which is influence operations.
If the U.S. administration is faithfully repeating Iranian influence themes as “intelligence,” General Salami can be pardoned for crowing that “Iran decides for USA and runs its policy.”
That said – with, again, the caveat if – it’s equally likely that Team Biden needed no help coming up with the “Israel’s fault” theme. Twitter user @DanFined had a useful summary this week of recent U.S. actions putting pressure on Israel to do things that would gratify revolutionary Iran, but undermine Israeli security. Allowing Iran to build up military presence and move freely around Syria is just one such thing.
Besides the administration, congressional Democrats have gotten in on the pressure campaign.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that there is no urgency at all regarding Israel’s membership in UNESCO, and little even regarding a consulate for Palestinian Arab services, especially one in Jerusalem. In both cases, the sole and literal purpose of the demands is urging Israel to accept increased vulnerability to campaigns of messaging and incitement against Israel’s very existence.
Now a writer for Yahoo! News has published a story about plans ordered by the Trump administration for undermining the Iranian regime: plans that reportedly had been slow-rolled by senior Pentagon officials for some time, apparently for fear of what Trump would do with them.
The author, Zach Dorfman, is a former Aspen Institute writer and current fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and we may assume his information is pre-approved by the Biden administration. He names James Mattis and General Mark Milley as two of the senior officials reluctant to prosecute a more active campaign to weaken the Islamic Revolutionary regime, and reports that Gina Haspel, the CIA director, was equally reluctant – which was why the Trump Oval Office turned to the Pentagon for action. In Dorfman’s account, the real planning work was done so late in Trump’s term that it was clear the actions would not be accomplished while he was in office.
The allegations in the article will ring true for many, and are not the focal point here. They are probably true enough in their essentials to keep Trump-era participants silent; i.e., unwilling to discuss the matter at length for the benefit of a hostile press.
But the smoke signal is what we’re looking for, and it’s emitted near the beginning of the article.
“While being briefed on elements of the campaign,” writes Dorfman, “Trump acknowledged that it would have to be carried out by the incoming Biden administration, according to the former official.
“It is unclear whether the Biden administration has continued to pursue the Trump-approved operations. But with the White House set to resume indirect nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna later this month, U.S. officials may have to decide whether the Trump-approved Pentagon campaign could jeopardize negotiations — or help compel Iran to an agreement.”
There you go. Coming out at the same time as the NBC report on “options if the talks fail,” this functions as a message that the Biden team has plans on the shelf commissioned by Trump, which they perhaps are using or intend to use if they don’t get what they want.
Try not to laugh. (Or, go ahead; laugh.) All the soap-opera color about internal resistance to Trump is gratuitous bug-juice, little of it necessary to convey a meaningful message about Biden’s options. Whether intentionally or otherwise, what it actually conveys is that Biden’s stable of leakers would rather waste messaging space trying to make Trump look inept and stymied by his officials – regardless of how that affects the perception of U.S. will and intent – than focus with discipline on a clear signal in advance of the upcoming talks.
The signals are already clear, however, in the Biden scramble to put pressure on Israel, the passivity after an acknowledged Iranian attack on U.S. forces in Syria, and the catastrophic skedaddle out of Afghanistan (which can’t even be dignified with the forthright designation “retreat,” much less the euphemistic “retrograde”).
Whether Hossein Salami is right or not, we have no reason to expect Team Biden’s fey smoke signals to impress Iran – unless it’s with the depth and breadth of U.S. weakness as the talks commence.
Feature image: Rest of P5+1 gathers for pre-talk negotiations in April 2021. France 24 video, YouTube.