With its nemesis Donald Trump gone, Iran's regime has resumed old practices ahead of possible talks on its nuclear program, goading the West with suspect activities and meddling in the affairs of neighboring states.
Work is well underway to try to revive nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic of Iran and leading Western powers. The foreign ministers of the European signatories of the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran met online late last month with the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and all sides have now agreed to holding conversations directly with Tehran.
Meanwhile, the new Democratic administration of President Joe Biden has lifted restrictions on the movements of Iran's UN diplomats in New York, and withdrawn the United States' earlier request to reactivate all UN sanctions on Iran, a disputed step taken with the Security Council by the administration of President Donald Trump.
As has happened often before, at the close of the U.S.-EU meeting, participants threatened Iran with serious consequences should it violate its commitments in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Germany's foreign minister spoke in harsher terms, warning that restricting international nuclear inspectors would be like "playing with fire" and would impede the United States' return to the nuclear pact.
Still, violating international nuclear commitments isn't the Islamic Republic's only pressure lever on America and its allies. The Islamic Republic also has at its disposal the paramilitary groups and militias that serve as its regional tentacles. Some military and security officials consider their activities more dangerous than Iran's nuclear program. The Israeli military warned in a recent report that Iran would use them to destabilize states like Lebanon and Iraq, and pressure the Biden administration over the nuclear dossier. One Israeli commander told France's AFP agency that this was a relatively cheap, safe and highly effective way for Iran to forward its other interests. And for the West, he added, it was always difficult to pin the blame on Tehran for incidents, when its proxy groups are purportedly independent.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of attacking an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, the Associated Press reported. Iran promptly dismissed the claim.
U.S. and Western defense and security officials have regularly cited the Iranian regime as a threat to regional security and stability, noting recently the renewal of hostile actions against Western interests in Iraq. Some see the return of suspect hit-and-run strikes in Iraq as signals of Iran flexing its power.
U.S. navy ships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz — Photo: Mc2 Brandon Woods/Us Navy/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire
Top U.S. diplomat Richard Miles suggested that the renewed activities of Iraqi militias are meant to influence elections scheduled for Oct. 10, 2021, to be held under new electoral laws. Such activities include recent mortar fire on a convoy and a rocket attack on a coalition base near Irbil, which killed a contractor and for which an unnamed group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam claimed credit. There has also been an uptick in recent months of kidnappings and killings of anti-regime activists, opposition journalists and other critics of Iran. For these too, unfamiliar groups have claimed responsibility.
The new outfits have been created to confuse observers and prevent the West from pointing the finger at established militias.
Baghdad-based reporter Irfan Adil told Kayhan London that these previously unknown groups were in fact detachments of established forces affiliated with Tehran and its Quds branch of the Revolutionary Guard. The newly dubbed outfits have been created to confuse observers and prevent the West from pointing the finger at established militias like the Hashd al-Shaabi. The Islamic Republic, Adil said, wants them to run in coming elections as respectable political forces.
The involvement of Tehran-backed militias like the Kata'ib al-Hizballah in the kidnapping and killing of more than 50 people over the past year, and attacks on coalition interests, had strained Tehran's relations with the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, "and the sides wanted to move on from this crisis. These pseudonyms were an acceptable move for both sides."
Adil says these "new" groups are likely trained in Iran and receive orders straight from Tehran, to avoid linkage with Iraq's militias. He said they had been tasked with eliminating Iran's opponents in Iraq, as well as such people like Hisham al-Hashimi, a respected Iraqi security expert who was shot dead in Baghdad in July.
Some observers will add that attacks on coalition interests are also to test the Biden administration's reaction to actions against the U.S. Its failure to respond may be taken as a small victory for the Islamic Republic. Its officials no doubt believe America's silence and inaction will strengthen Iran's position in any nuclear talks, and might even shelve, to their delight, Western demands that Iran reign in its regional ambitions.