U.S.-Iran: A "Words and Swords" Dialogue


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | March 10, 2021

B-52 aircraft
Photo: The U.S. National Archives


The Biden administration did not even get a grace period from Iran. It had barely entered office before the two countries engaged in a dialogue combining political moves ("words") with the use of military force ("swords").


Iran has "welcomed" the new administration with a series of steps that are pushing the limits on the political-nuclear front by promoting a relatively blatant exacerbation of the nuclear deal breaches. Tehran has announced its intention to set up an uranium metal production line, begun to enrich and accumulate uranium at 20% purity, and decided to cooperate less with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This last move was only partially realized, due to the agreement Tehran had reached with the head of the IAEA, giving a three-month leeway for diplomacy with the international community.


At the same time, from a regional perspective, Iran seems to have "gone up a notch" with growing boldness and confidence. It is emerging as having "unleashed" its proxies in an attempt to test the Biden administration, exert greater pressure on it to withdraw from Iraq, and perhaps even to meet its demand that sanctions be lifted prior to Iran's return to compliance with the JCPOA. Iraqi Shiite militia groups associated with Iran have attacked a U.S. Coalition base at Erbil airport with rockets, killing one and injuring several. Meanwhile, the Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia are becoming more frequent, sophisticated, and deep with Iran's help. Saudi Arabia has also been targeted from Iraq, and possibly even from Iranian soil. Lastly, Iran may also be renewing its pressure in the Gulf, if it is indeed behind the attack against the Israeli sea vessel in the Gulf of Oman.


The United States, for its part, has initiated a combined political effort designed to isolate Tehran, toss the ball to its court, and exert increased pressure on it to enter into negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council as well as Germany (P5+1) over returning to the nuclear deal. Washington has formed a united front with the UK, Germany, and France; urged Iran to begin negotiations immediately with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell as mediator; and took two symbolic steps toward Tehran as a show of good faith. The first – reversing the Trump administration's decision to snapback international sanctions against Iran, and the second – lifting the travel restrictions imposed by the previous administration on Iranian diplomats arriving at the UN headquarters in New York.


The American political initiative on the one hand, and Iran's proxies' unleashing on the other have led to criticism against the Biden administration both domestically and regionally. Critics argued that the weakness displayed by the U.S. administration vis à vis Iranian power moves will be detrimental to American credibility and deterrence in the region in general, and particularly with respect to Iran. As a result, the administration has decided to carry out and assume responsibility for an attack against the pro-Iranian militias that launched the rockets at Erbil. American forces struck the Imam Ali base in Syria in Albukamal, near the Iraqi border. Following the attack, Biden warned Iran that hostile actions will not go unpunished, although the Pentagon clarified that the strike was "defensive and proportional". Meanwhile, the administration continues to carry out B-52 bomber "air demonstrations" in the Middle Eastern skies.



What's next?


The U.S. administration carried out a limited attack in Syria to retain its deterrence against Iran and its proxies, as well as the Middle East in general, while all regional actors are examining Biden with a magnifying glass. The administration sought to prevent an image of weakness that will feed Iran's boldness, not only on the ground but in the nuclear realm, as well as accelerated familiar attempts by the Gulf states to appease Tehran, which appear every time doubts are cast about U.S. strategic support.


Whether or not the Biden administration will achieve these goals depends greatly on its willingness to use force once again to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies against U.S. forces, interests and allies in the region. The last militia attack against the Ein Al Asad U.S. base in Iraq further tests the administration in this context. America's image of deterrence will grow stronger the more Washington will be prepared to respond to all strikes, not only those in which Americans are hurt, while targeting sites belonging to the Iranian regime itself, not only its proxies.


Although this attack has proven that use of force remains an alternative in the Biden administration's toolbox, much like the Trump administration before it, it has yet to link the military component to its declared policy on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Such a linkage ("all options are on the table") is crucial for establishing credible military threat in support of U.S. diplomatic efforts on the nuclear front, and will improve its chances.


The combination of "words and swords" in the dialogue between the United States and Iran is a "trap" that could be a detriment to the interest of both rivals to proceed to negotiations over the return to the JCPOA, which is already filled with complex, hard-to-solve issues. A dynamic of conflict and friction will make it harder for them to achieve another shared interest – dissociating between regional challenges and the nuclear issue.


The Biden administration seeks to focus on resolving the nuclear challenge to make time for foreign affairs that are much higher on its list of priorities, such as the great power competition with China. However, it cannot negotiate "under fire" from Iran and its proxies, and may discover that its response to the regional challenge posed by Iran will affect the latter's boldness to push it to its limits on the nuclear issue too.


Tehran also strives to dissociate these issues; however, its regional moves may be "shooting itself in the foot". Its view whereby it has the "right" to avenge the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, inter alia by pushing U.S. forces out of Iraq – regardless of the political negotiations – may ultimately delay the lifting of the sanctions that have been causing it so much pain. Moreover, Tehran may end up discovering that its ability to translate brinkmanship and forceful steps on the ground to bargaining chips and levers at the negotiating table is limited, and could even achieve the opposite results.


The dynamics between Iran and the United States may shift between two possible master scenarios. The first – growing friction on the ground to the point of undesirable escalation that could make it harder for both parties to progress toward nuclear negotiations, or even sabotage them altogether. The second – both parties' return to restraint and accelerate nuclear negotiation in the small window of opportunity remaining until the Iranian elections. The arrangement reached between Iran and the superpowers at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting may mark the parties' return to negotiations.


Israel should prepare for both scenarios. On the one hand, it should be ready for a more assertive approach on Iran's part in light of the possibility that American deterrence against it is becoming eroded, now that Trump, whose moves were hard to anticipate, is no longer in office. Iran has proven that it is taking action – even if only via its proxies and at a low signature – not only against the United States, but its regional allies too. Iran has a "score to settle" with Israel, which it believes to be responsible for the assassination of nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, and may strive to "get even" in any one of several arenas: the Gulf, the red Sea, from Syria or more distant arenas, and across the globe (terror attacks). A more assertive approach in the region may be accompanied by defiant steps in the nuclear realm that will force Israel to invest increased efforts in monitoring the Iranian nuclear program.


On the other hand, now that Washington and Jerusalem have reportedly agreed to set the wheels of the strategic dialogue between them on Iran in motion, Israel must be proactive in its relations with the new administration as soon as possible. The renewed dialogue provides Israel with the opportunity to impact the Biden administration's conduct vis à vis Tehran as part of the nuclear negotiations, and coordinate efforts designed to stop Iran's aggressive policy in the region. The fact that Israel is now under CENTCOM's responsibility provides an organizational framework as well as improved and more efficient communication channels by which to implement these steps.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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