Iran’s proxies pounce as President Biden tries to negotiate

by Eli Lake

Since President Joe Biden took office, Iran’s regional proxies have been busy. This month alone, Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit for a drone attack against Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport; one of the most prominent critics of Hezbollah, the journalist Lokman Slim, was found murdered in his car in Lebanon; and in Iraqi Kurdistan, a front group for one of the country’s most deadly Shiite militias claimed credit for a series of rocket attacks in and around Erbil.

It all feels like a chilling replay of U.S. foreign policy under former President Barack Obama. While U.S. diplomats were negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the regime’s proxies went on a rampage. After those talks ended, Iranian General Qassem Soleimani defied U.N. travel restrictions and went to Moscow to negotiate his own deal with Russia to protect and defend Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Obama denounced that escalation and sent his secretary of state to plead for restraint and cease-fires, but the effort had no effect.

The question for Biden is whether he wants to repeat the mistakes of his former boss as he seeks to revive the nuclear agreement his predecessor abandoned in 2018. So far, the signs are not good that Biden has learned any lessons from the Obama years.

Consider the rocket attacks this week in Erbil. Biden’s spokespeople have been quick to denounce these escalations, which killed at least one contractor and wounded both Americans and Iraqis. They are awaiting the result of an investigation, however, before blaming Iran.

“We are supporting our Iraqi partners in their efforts to investigate these attacks, whether they were conducted by Iran, whether they were conducted by Iranian-backed militia forces or elements of such forces,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday. “We’re not going to prejudge that.”

A relatively unknown group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or the Guardians of the Blood Brigade, has claimed responsibility for the Erbil attacks. Michael Knights, the Bernstein fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Iraqi militias, told me this group is almost certainly a front for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a fanatic Shiite militia that has menaced Iraq since the 2000s. It’s possible that the Erbil rocket attacks were not sanctioned by Iran, Knights said. But Iran has enough influence over Asaib Ahl al-Haq that it could have prevented them.

Viewed in this light, Price’s parsing does not matter. A group nurtured and guided by Iran just mounted a major escalation in Iraq. What will Biden do in response?

At the very least, Biden should halt any efforts to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal so long as Iran’s proxies are running wild. While it’s true that Biden and his top advisers see the 2015 deal as a way to forward U.S. interests by temporarily limiting Iran’s enrichment of uranium, Iran also has an interest in ending the secondary sanctions that the U.S. reimposed in 2018. Biden has more leverage, at the moment, than Iran.

An even better option for Biden would be to adopt a version of his predecessor’s policy toward Iranian proxies. Former President Donald Trump’s administration did not bother with distinctions among the offshoots, factions and militias that Iran supported. If a militia attacked U.S. forces in Iraq, the U.S. attacked the militia in response. Trump was also willing to escalate to deter, as he did a little more than a year ago after militias nearly overran the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Trump authorized the strikes that killed Soleimani and a top militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Biden is not Trump, of course. But if he wants to calm tensions in the region, he must convince Iran and its proxies that he, too, is willing to escalate and respond to their provocations. If Iran concludes that it can obtain sanctions relief while sowing further chaos, then Biden will be returning the Middle East to a status quo of dangerous instability.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.