U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has indicated that recent attacks by Iranian proxies on U.S. forces in Iraq are making it tougher for the Biden administration to build domestic support for its new diplomatic initiative to resolve U.S.-Iran tensions.
U.S. troops and bases in Iraq have come under rocket attack several times since last month, causing multiple casualties, including the death of an American civilian contractor and wounding of a U.S. military service member.
U.S. forces responded to the first of the attacks, on an airbase housing U.S. troops in the city of Irbil on Feb. 15, by striking Iran-backed militants in eastern Syria 10 days later. U.S. news site Politico cited unnamed U.S. defense officials as saying they suspected an Iranian proxy militia also was responsible for a March 3 rocket attack on western Iraq’s Al-Asad airbase that also houses American forces.
In a Wednesday interview with VOA Persian at the State Department, his first with VOA since taking office in January, Malley was asked whether he thought the attacks were part of an Iranian campaign to pressure President Joe Biden into easing sanctions imposed on Tehran by the previous administration of Donald Trump.
“It's not really helping the climate in the U.S. to have Iranian allies take shots at Americans in Iraq or elsewhere, and the U.S. will respond as it has responded and it will continue to respond,” Malley said.
Biden campaigned on a pledge to revive diplomacy with Iran and ease Trump’s sanctions if it resumes full compliance with a 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under the deal, Tehran promised world powers to curb its nuclear activities that could be weaponized in return for relief from international sanctions.
Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, saying it did not do enough to stop objectionable Iranian behavior, and unilaterally tightened U.S. sanctions aimed at achieving that goal. Iran retaliated a year later by starting to violate the deal’s nuclear curbs, reducing the amount of time it would need to develop nuclear weapons to what U.S. officials have said is several months. Tehran has long denied seeking to weaponize what it calls a civilian nuclear program.
Biden, who was inaugurated in January, faced calls last week from both opposition Republicans and his fellow Democrats in the U.S. Congress to take a tougher approach toward Iran. Referring to what they said were “escalating attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq” and Iran’s recent JCPOA violations, the 12 Democrat and 12 Republican members of the House of Representatives wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying the Biden administration “should make use of existing leverage to sharpen the choices available to Tehran.”
Speaking to VOA, Malley reiterated the administration’s desire for talks with Iran about returning the U.S. to compliance with the JCPOA if Iran does the same and expressed hope that would happen soon. He suggested recent actions by Iran and its proxies are not helping the U.S. diplomatic initiative to move faster.
“If ... these are [Iranian] tactics aimed at speeding things up, it's hard to see how that is going to work,” Malley said.
In a separate interview with BBC Persian on Wednesday, Malley said that if Iran does not want to enter into direct talks with the U.S., the two sides could negotiate through a third party.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with Politico published Wednesday, reiterated Tehran’s promise to resume compliance with the JCPOA “immediately” only if the U.S. first takes steps to ease the sanctions. He also warned that if Washington continues to demand that Tehran make the first move, Iran will take unspecified “new steps” away from the nuclear deal.
The Biden administration has said any U.S. return to the JCPOA would be followed by negotiations aimed at strengthening the nuclear deal to resolve U.S. concerns about Iran’s other activities, including its missile program and support for Islamist militants engaged in long-running conflicts with the U.S. and its regional allies. U.S. officials have not specified how they would persuade Iran to enter such negotiations and what kind of new deal would be produced.
“The JCPOA has shown that it is fragile, and we believe it can be strengthened with a follow-on deal. And we will press Iran and try to convince Iran that it's in their interest as well to get a follow-on deal,” Malley said. “Of course, Iran will have issues that it will want to bring to the table,” he acknowledged.
Zarif, speaking to Politico, said Iran will consider discussing nonnuclear issues if the U.S. “passes the test” of JCPOA compliance.
“But the United States miserably failed, not only during the Trump administration but even during the past two months of the Biden administration,” he said.
The top Iranian diplomat also expressed doubt that the U.S. would be prepared to discuss issues such as U.S. arms sales to Iran’s regional rivals.
“Are the U.S. and its Western allies prepared to stop that? That’s a very lucrative market and I don’t think President Biden wants to do that,” Zarif said.
In January, the Biden administration announced a freeze on Trump-approved U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and a review of those the former president approved for the United Arab Emirates.
U.S. officials told national media that the arms sales reviews were not unusual for a new administration and said many of the transactions are likely to go forward eventually.