February 26, 2021

Middle East Roundup: Airstrikes in Syria & Iran-IAEA Finalize “Technical Understanding”

This week, President Biden ordered the first military strikes of his presidency when he authorized airstrikes against Shia militias in Syria. Also, the IAEA and Iran came to a “technical understanding” concerning Iran’s suspension of the AP. Please see our breakdown and analysis of these events below: 

Biden Orders Airstrikes on Shia Militias in Syria, Killing One

  • Response to Rocket Attacks on U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
    • On Thursday evening, Feb. 25th, the United States carried out airstrikes in eastern Syrian on facilities belonging to a Shia militia with ties to Iran. Reports suggest that at least one fighter had been killed and four others were wounded. This is the first military action President Biden has authorized during his presidency.
    • The strikes occurred in response to a series of rocket attacks over the last month, including a  Feb. 15 attack that struck the airport in Erbil. The attack killed a Filipino contractor working for the U.S.-led coalition and wounded six others, including Americans.
    • Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that, “President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.” The strikes “specifically destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militia troops, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada,” Mr. Kirby said.
    • The Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups, denied any role in the rocket attacks. The attack was claimed by a little-known group called Awliya al Dam, or Guardian of the Blood, brigades. The group is not well known but American officials contend that the group is merely a front for one of the better-known Shia militias.
    • U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq to assist the Iraqi government’s operations against ISIS at the invitation of the government. However, the legal basis for the strike inside Syria is unclear. 

IAEA Weighs Whether to Censure Iran After Finding Uranium Particles at Iranian Facility

  • Move Potentially Jeopardizes New IAEA-Iran Understanding on Additional Protocol
    • U.S. and E3 are reportedly asking other countries to support a formal censure of Iran over its accelerating nuclear activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors convenes next week in Vienna and is expected to discuss reports that Iran has provided insufficient  answers to agency inquiries into the presence of uranium particles at recently inspected sites.
    • According to Reuters, the U.S’s position on the censure resolution states that it should “express deep concern” with the suspension of Iran’s compliance with the AP as well as “underscore strong concern” with the IAEA’s findings concerning uranium particles found at two undeclared sites. The material was found during IAEA inspections that were carried out at the two sites in August and September of last year, after Iran barred access for seven months before reaching an agreement.
    • The sites where the material was found are believed to have been inactive for nearly two decades. Iran is widely believed to have led a nuclear weapons program that it  abandoned in 2003 according to numerous U.S. intelligence reports. In response to the IAEA’s reports, a senior Iranian official said “we have nothing to hide. That is why we allowed the inspectors to visit those sites.”
    • Iranian sources hit back at the plan to censure Iran, also castigating the E3 as being a part of the strategy to censure Iran at the IAEA. When asked if this move would threaten Iran’s compliance with its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the source stated, “No, but there is the possibility of an end to the understanding with Grossi”, referring to the last-minute deal struck between Iran and the Agency to maintain some cooperation ahead of Tehran’s ultimatum that it would stop implementing the Additional Protocol on Feb. 23 in the absence of relief from US sanctions.
    • Some reports suggest that the U.K. has been the main driver behind the resolution, and that it may be withdrawn or tweaked out of fear that the resolution is ill timed and threatens Iran’s understanding with the IAEA.
    • Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency came to a temporary “technical understanding” on Sunday Feb. 21 that the IAEA Director Rafael Grossi said was “a good result.” Iran and the IAEA released a joint statement after the understanding was finalized that affirmed Iran will continue to implement its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and that a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” was reached.
    • Under the agreement, Iran still suspended the additional protocol on Feb. 23rd, but will collect, record and retain the information normally gathered under the AP and keep it for three months. If sanctions are removed and both the U.S. and Iran are back in compliance with the deal, Iran will then hand the verification information to the IAEA to review.
    • In a press conference, Grossi still described the result as “good” and said he won inspectors a three-month partial reprieve which gives the diplomats of the JCPOA space to potentially resolve the dispute. “There is less access, let’s face it. But still we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” he added.
    • The suspension of the AP was mandated under a new parliamentary bill signed into law in November 2020 after hardliner MP’s forced a vote on the bill following the assasination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist. The Rouhani administration fought to block the bill and delay it’s implementation when it was passed but was forced to carry out its provisions.
    • Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei commented on the controversy surrounding the parliamentary bill on Feb. 22nd, stating the differences between parliament and the Rouhani administration over the bill are “resolvable” and should not escalate because then Iran would be talking with “two voices.” His comments did not outright reject the new understanding with the IAEA, which hardliners believe is a workaround of the parliamentary bill.
    • Iran also has yet to formally respond to the U.S. invitation of a meeting organized by the EU to discuss a JCPOA return. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has said that they won’t hold any official meeting with the US, as it is  not a party to the JCPOA. However, they are considering participation in an informal meeting to which the US is invited as a guest.
    • For a review of the differences between the additional protocol and the CSA, as well as why Iran is suspending the implementation of the AP, please see our last Roundup HERE.
  • Key Takeaways
    • The agreement struck between Iran and the IAEA is a good step given the circumstances. Having been forced into enriching to 20% and reducing compliance with the AP by parliament, the Rouhani administration has found a way to both placate the Supreme Leader and the IAEA with this understanding. Hopefully this will preserve the necessary space for the United States & Iran to mutually return to compliance with the deal and to convene a meeting of the P4+1, Iran, and the United States to expeditiously start the process on reentry. 
    • Iran should adhere to its NPT and CSA requirements and provide the IAEA with all the necessary information concerning the findings at the two undeclared sites. Moreover, it’s the IAEA’s job to investigate issue such as these and ensure member states are adhering to their commitments.
    • At the same time, it is worrisome that the US and its partners may seek to rebuke Iran after the IAEA came to this agreement with Iran.  Censuring Iran at this specific point may jeopardize the new understanding between them and the IAEA, and threaten the possibility for Iran to accept the EU’s invitation for talks with the U.S..
    • Iran may perceive this move as an indication that the Biden administration is not truly serious about returning to the deal and is only interested in pressuring Iran. The Rouhani administration is under serious pressure from its domestic critics over the understanding with IAEA, which they see as deliberately disregarding the mandates set out by the parliamentary bill. Censuring Iran at the IAEA will further embolden hardliners who argue that Rouhani has been weak in the face of US and IAEA pressure and is now reaping what he has sown.

Iran & South Korea Come to Agreement on Release of Humanitarian Funds 

  • Transfer of Funds Await U.S. Approval
    • Iran and South Korea on Monday, Feb. 22nd, agreed to allow Tehran to make use of some of its assets that are frozen in South Korean banks due to US sanctions. However, the official transfer of funds has not occurred. South Korea’s Foreign Minister released a statement after the deal was revealed by Iran’s Central bank, stating that “the actual unfreezing of the assets will be carried out through consultations with related countries, including the United States.”
    • Iran said South Korea has begun to release some of the $7 billion it has trapped in the Asian country because of U.S. sanctions. Seoul would reportedly free $1 billion in an “initial step” that could eventually resolve the dispute of frozen assets according to Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei. The funds are to be used exclusively to pay Iran’s dues to the United Nations as well as medicine and medical supplies through a U.S.-backed humanitarian channel, known as the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA).
    • In comments on the arrangement between Tehran and Seoul, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that, “the government of South Korea has made clear, it has not released the $1 billion in funds to Iran. We remain in ongoing consultations with South Korea.” He also referenced the statement from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry which “made clear that the Iranian assets locked in South Korea will be released after–only after consultations with the United States.”
  • Key Takeaways
    • While President Biden’s initial step opened the diplomatic door, the administration should move quicker and be willing to put some initial relief on the table. Allowing for the transfer would do exactly that. With Iran and South Korea publicly stating they are on the same page, they seem to be signaling to Biden that release of these funds could be his initial economic gesture towards Iran. If so, accepting the transfer could be a gesture that, especially given the new dynamics over the last 72 hours, is desperately needed.
    • And as noted by others, the release of these funds, for the entire tenure of the Trump Presidency and now under Biden, are consistent under U.S. law. Seoul’s unwillingness to release the funds without U.S. approval demonstrates the power and impact of U.S. sanctions on third party states. Accepting the transfer would not run afoul of US sanctions, thus maintaining Biden’s commitment of no upfront sanctions relief, but give Iran a desperately needed life line amid a pandemic and signal the administration is serious about charting a different course from Trump. 


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