March 5, 2021

Middle East Roundup: IAEA Censure of Iran Withdrawn & New Rocket Attack in Iraq

This week, the IAEA withdrew a proposed resolution to censure Iran over an investigation into its past nuclear activities. Also, a new barrage of rockets struck U.S. positions in Iraq after airstrikes in Syria last week were meant to deter further aggression. Please see our breakdown and analysis below: 

IAEA Decides Not to Censure Iran, Giving Space to Diplomacy 

  • U.S. Pushed EU to Table Resolution  
    • At the IAEA’s 35-member board of governors quarterly meeting in Vienna this week, a resolution censuring Iran was tabled after concerns were raised by Iran and others that it would threaten Iran’s recent cooperation with the IAEA. This comes after Iran and the IAEA came to a “technical understanding” with the IAEA that salvaged some of the main aspects of the Additional Protocol, which Iran suspended due to mandatory provisions in a recently passed parliamentary bill.  
    • According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials pressed the EU not to introduce the resolution for fear that it would disrupt diplomacy with Iran concerning a return to the JCPOA. Tehran’s IAEA mission wrote in a two-page letter sent to the IAEA’s Border of Governors that the “introduction of any resolution in complete disregard of the current level of constructive interactions with the agency is not merely disappointing but absolutely counterproductive and destructive.” 
    • Earlier in the week, Iran rejected the EU’s invitation to hold an informal meeting with the U.S. over the Iran nuclear deal, but did not rule out engagement outright. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman said “Considering US/E3 positions & actions, time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting.”
    • According to diplomats, Iran wanted a guarantee first that the U.S. would lift some targeted sanctions after the meeting as a gesture of goodwill. Iran was fearful of going home empty-handed from a meeting amid perceived pressure from the U.S., which could have sparked a major backlash in Iran. 
    • To resolve the impasse, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said Iran had agreed to sit down for what he described as “a focused and systematic effort” to clarify these outstanding issues. Mr. Grossi said the IAEA’s discussions with Iran will start in April and that he hoped to have a “final outcome” by June, when the agency’s board of member states next meet. 
    • In response to the withdrawal of the resolution, U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said, “we are pleased with the outcome of the IAEA Board of Governors meeting with respect to Iran.”
  • Key Takeaways
    • The tabling of this resolution helps show the Biden administration is serious about getting back to the negotiating table. The IAEA will continue to seek clarification on Iran’s past nuclear activity, so a censure would have gained nothing of value while risking movement toward a return to the JCPOA. Diplomats now believe they are getting closer to a direct meeting to hash out the terms of a return to the deal. 
    • Biden did make three initial moves that the administration felt would be enough to show goodwill. These steps were seen in Iran as late and symbolic. Ideally, the Biden administration should move more quickly and act more boldly in giving Iran more tangible economic relief to show its intent in reaching a diplomatic resolution. 
    • The request for a meeting with Iran was also sent in the context of contentious infighting among Iranian elites that made the acceptance of a meeting without some economic relief beforehand difficult. Even though many Iranian elites see the benefits of the JCPOA, many hardliners are still attempting to stifle diplomacy for political gain domestically. Without an economic gesture, Rouhani’s team will be seen as caving to U.S. demands after three years of devastating ‘maximum pressure’ and sanctions have left the Iranian economy in tatters and engagement with the West politically toxic. 
    • Fortunately, there is still a path forward that would revive diplomatic channels between the two countries and save the JCPOA. The withdrawal of the IAEA resolution is another nod toward diplomacy. Now, the U.S. should put together an economic goodwill gesture that will help turn down the diplomatic temperature.  
    • Iran and South Korea have recently been vocal about an agreement on frozen Iranian funds (which would be used to pay for UN dues and humanitarian goods), both stating that the U.S. only needs to approve the transfer. If the U.S. agrees, it could create space for the two sides to either meet in person to choreograph a sequenced JCPOA return or to do so by proxy through European interlocutors.

New Round of Rockets Strike Al-Asad Air Base

  • Comes After Strikes in Syria Were Meant to Deter Further Attacks 
    • Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, which hosts US troops, was targeted by approximately 10 rockets on Wednesday morning, March 3rd. In a statement from the Department of Defense, they confirmed that no U.S. service members were killed, but a “U.S. civilian contractor suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering and sadly passed away shortly after.” The Biden administration has yet to officially announce who it believes conducted the attack.  
    • This was the first attack since the U.S. had targeted Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) positions in airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border on February 26, which marked the first military action under President Joe Biden. Rear Admiral John Kirby said the aim of that air strike “was to deter future attacks by militia groups on our people, our facilities and our Iraqi partners.” The airstrikes came after a flurry of rocket attacks on the US military base at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish-run region killed another U.S. contractor.  
    • Following the airstrikes on the 26th, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials sent a message to Tehran but could not provide details on what was said. According to a U.S. official, “we made sure the Iranians knew what our intent was.” 
    • Members of Congress have questioned the legal justifications for President Biden’s airstrike, given that no current AUMF exists to legally permit military action in Syria. Senators have yet to receive a member level briefing on the attacks. According to a letter from the President to Congressional leaders, he “directed this military action to protect and defend our personnel and our partners against these attacks and future such attacks” under his constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign policy and as commander in chief.  
    • Iran launched ballistic missiles on al-Asad air base, wounding over a hundred U.S. soldiers, in January 2020 when tensions peaked between Iran and the U.S. following a US drone strike on Baghdad airport that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and top Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
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