On Monday, armed militants launched rockets at a U.S. air base in northern Iraq. The Biden administration still hadn’t weighed in on who was responsible as of Thursday evening, even though an Iranian-linked Iraqi Shiite militia quickly claimed credit. As the United States commences its new diplomatic engagement with Iran, the administration must insist Tehran stop its proxies from attacking Americans.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a video conference with his British, French and German counterparts, after which they issued a joint statement officially kicking off efforts to re-engage Iran in nuclear negotiations. The statement said attacks such asMonday’s 14-rocket barrage on a U.S.-led coalition base in the city of Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan region “will not be tolerated,” without saying who conducted this attack. One non-U.S. contractor was killed and nine others were injured (including some Americans).
In a conference call Thursday, two State Department officials confirmed U.S. diplomats were now ready to sit down with Iranian officials to explore a way back to the nuclear deal President Donald Trump scuttled. Yet nobody in the Biden administration will acknowledge the likelihood that an Iranian-backed militia just attacked U.S. troops once again.
This was only the latest attack claimed by a group named Saraya Awliya al-Dam, which translates roughly to Guardians of the Blood Brigade. But there’s overwhelming evidence this is a front group for the well-known and powerful Iraqi militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which has strong and well- established ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah.
The leader of AAH, Qais al-Khazali,has admitted working with Iran to kill Americans and admitted to personally authorizing the kidnapping and murder of five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2007. The Trump administration Treasury Department designated AAH a foreign terrorist organization and imposed sanctions onKhazali for human rights abuses in Iraq and involvement in the December 2019 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
After being sanctioned, several Iraqi militia organizations renamed their subgroups in a thinly veiled attempt to claim plausible deniability, said Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Michael Knights, who published a report laying out significant evidence AAH is behind the attack. AAH propaganda outlets both predicted and broke the news of the attacks. Knights told me the attackers worked out of a base in a town under AAH control. He said the Biden team is delaying acknowledging that an Iranian-backed group is responsible because it would force them to do something about it, complicating their nascent diplomatic outreach.
“It’s about keeping the conditions there for a nuclear deal,” said Knights. “You don’t negotiate with people who are nudge, nudge, wink, wink, trying to kill you at the same time.”
The Iranian government denied it ordered the attack, and it is certainly possible AAH was freelancing, but it doesn’t matter, said Knights. Iran has influence over its proxies, and it could choose to restrain them. The attack showed that Iranian leaders, at the very least, are sitting on their hands. So even if Iran didn’t intend this as a test for the new U.S. administration, it is a crucial early test of its new Iran approach.
A senior administration official told me the Biden administration is not avoiding attributing the attacks but simply being cautious so as not to get ahead of the U.S. intelligence community’s investigation. When the administration does confirm what seems clear, the question will be whether it does what’s necessary to stop more attacks.
President Donald Trump went with a risky strategy of striking back against the militias militarily and assassinating top leaders such as IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani, though Trump didn’t approve strikes inside Iran. President Joe Biden’s risk-tolerance level is not as high, so his team is likely looking for nonmilitary responses. But if the Biden response is too weak, Iranian proxies in Iraq will be emboldened and claim even more space to maneuver. Other Iranian proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen, are not rewarding Biden’s more diplomatic approach with restraint — responding to outreach with new attacks on civilians. Meanwhile, the leaders in Tehran are acting as if they have all the leverage, making demands and escalating their nuclear brinkmanship.
The Biden team claims to have learned from Obama-era mistakes. With Iran, that means pursuing diplomacy without turning a blind eye to the IRGC’s mischief in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. Letting those aggressions continue is not what made the deal possible the first time around — it’s what made the deal vulnerable.
More urgently, after large-scale withdrawals, the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq are living under increased risk. If Iranian proxies feel they can attack U.S. troops without consequence, it won’t be long before the next and more deadly strike. That could spark the very escalation and conflict the Biden administration is rightly trying to avoid.