IF the US is serious about mending fences with Iran, then firing missiles at fighters allied with Tehran in Syria may not be the best way to go about it. In President Joe Biden’s first major offensive overseas action, over 20 fighters belonging to militias loyal to Iran were killed when American missiles struck facilities in eastern Syria. While the Pentagon has termed the attack “a message”, Damascus has called it “American aggression”. The strikes came as an apparent reaction to the targeting of a base in Iraq hosting American forces on Feb 15, reportedly by pro-Iran militias. The fact is that the entire region, particularly Iraq and Syria, is a proxy battlefield where the US and its allies regularly square off against Iran and its loyalists. And while many Shia militias in Iraq take orders from Tehran, there are numerous armed factions that operate independently. Therefore, the need here is to proceed with caution, and prevent any sort of escalation, with both sides required to exhibit restraint.

It is entirely possible that the Biden administration has flexed its muscles through the missile strike, letting Iran know that while it is ready to talk, it still has offensive options on the table. Iran, meanwhile, has called upon Washington to lift sanctions before it returns to its commitments under the nuclear deal, which Mr Biden’s predecessor unilaterally pulled the US out of. The Islamic Republic has been scaling back on its commitments ever since the Trump administration started intensifying its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran. Therefore, at this point there is both great opportunity and great peril for the region. The opportunity lies in the fact that the new incumbent of the White House is using a less confrontational tone with Iran, and if both sides reach a halfway point progress can be made in returning to the deal and improving relations. However, peril lies in the fact that if the US chooses to talk through its considerable firepower, as it did in eastern Syria, and Iran opts to respond in a similar tone, the confrontation will worsen. The US can send a more positive signal to Iran by letting it know that sanctions relief will be guaranteed if it returns to its commitments, while the Iranian leadership should also lower the temperature and talk to the Americans, for the sake of its struggling economy.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2021

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