Last week, the Biden administration bombed Iranian-backed militias in Syria. This follows an announcement last month that NATO defense ministers had agreed to increase the number of military personnel in Iraq from 500 to 4,000 troops. These are bad signs of an escalation in Syria and Iraq by the Biden administration, a policy that could not only bog American forces down in another quagmire — as demonstrated by regular rocket attacks on U.S. installations — but also hinder attempts at restarting diplomacy with Iran, a major priority of the new administration.
On Iran, the chasm between the Obama and Trump administrations was greater than perhaps any other foreign policy issue. President Trump withdrew from Obama’s crowning diplomatic achievement of his second term, the Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign that seemed to many to be a thinly disguised attempt at regime change.
President Biden has shown a willingness to get Washington back into the original nuclear agreement. However, it would be disastrous if he did so only to see a future administration undo his accomplishments in a similar way. To make sure that the approaching détente with Iran sticks, President Biden needs not only to resist any troop increase spearheaded by NATO, but, on the contrary, to undertake a full withdrawal from Iraq and Syria.
To understand why, it is important to review the policies of the Obama and Trump administration, and why U.S. troops are in Iraq and Syria in the first place.
The JCPOA tried to bracket the nuclear issue, separating it from other disagreements between Washington and Tehran. In addition to the Obama administration, all other parties to the agreement — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia — made clear that they believed it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The Trump administration never based their position on the JCPOA on that point, and did not make a serious argument that Iran was in breach. Rather, President Trump, in his speech withdrawing from the JCPOA, mostly ignored the nuclear issue and cited other Iranian behavior.
To Obama, in contrast, the important national security issue was non-proliferation. To get that, he was willing to live with more Iranian influence abroad. This was made clear in an interview when Obama said the situation in that region “requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” Otherwise, treating Iran as an enemy “would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.” Although President Obama started a war in Libya and armed Syrian rebels, on the question of Iran in particular his differences with the Republicans were clear.
The idea of Iran having a seat at the table was unthinkable to the Trump administration; hence the general indifference to the fact that the JCPOA was working as it was designed, and the “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at bringing Tehran to its knees. They did not want a situation in which Iran abandoned its nuclear ambitions but was able to financially recover from sanctions and be less diplomatically isolated.
Around the time Obama was negotiating the JCPOA, he sent troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State, or ISIS. Yet while that organization lost its last territorial possession in March 2019, the United States did not leave. By that point, as the maximum pressure campaign was underway, American soldiers had to stay to check Iran. As National Security Adviser John Bolton said, the U.S. military would stay in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.”
After the administration left the JCPOA, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put forth an unrealistic set of 12 demands for any new nuclear treaty. Like Trump’s speech on JCPOA withdrawal, his demands were for the most part not focused on nuclear weapons; only 4 of the 12 were in any way related to the issue.
With ISIS defeated and little reason to expect its resurgence, the Iranian justification came to be one of the main arguments put forth by the Trump administration for remaining in Iraq and Syria. Sometimes this seemed at odds with Trump’s own proclamations. In late 2019 he announced troop reductions in Iraq down to 3,000. When he further declared that he wanted a full withdrawal from Syria in December 2019, his Secretary of State James Mattis quit. The troops then stayed to “protect the oil” for Kurdish allies.
According to former NATO commander James Stavridis, the United States was in Iraq to “counter Iranian influence.” What did Iran do with that influence? It was guilty of exerting “influence in the Iraqi government and military.” Under this circular logic, the U.S. military is in Iraq to counter Iran, and wants to counter Iran because of what it is doing in Iraq.
In fact, Iran and the United States were on the same side in the ISIS fight, and Tehran has more of a direct incentive to keep the terrorist organization down, as do Russia and the Assad regime in Syria. It was Iran that helped train and equip the Popular Mobilization Units that were able to push back ISIS and hold territory on behalf of the Iraqi government. One could make the argument that Iranian influence in both Syria and Iraq in fact helps guarantee that ISIS will not remerge.
For years, American forces have found themselves confronting Iran and its proxies under murky conditions in Syria and Iraq. Such incidents during the Trump administration served, among those who wanted diplomacy to fail anyway, as a convenient excuse to turn up the pressure on Iran.
This is even true if, in any particular case, Tehran might not actually be responsible for what actors on the ground do. As pointed out in a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Iran’s relationship with Iraqi militant groups in its sphere of influence is often more one of mentorship than of direct command and control.”
With the Biden administration in office, there is talk about relieving the maximum pressure campaign. In that context, U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq serve as a tripwire that can derail the administration’s plans for renewed engagement with Tehran. Even if it is able to avoid any major confrontations, a future administration, like Trump’s, that wants to undo its diplomatic gains will have a ready excuse to do so. Those in power after Biden may wait for a confrontation, or simply cite the fact that the United States and Iran are on opposite sides in two conflict zones.
For these reasons, it is imperative for the Biden administration to seek a complete withdrawal from Iraq and Syria. The Trump administration made a mistake by not only pulling out of the JCPOA, but also by providing all but unconditional support to the Saudis in their repression at home and aggressive actions abroad, most importantly their war in Yemen. All this was part of an effort to check an alleged Iran threat and justifies endless American involvement in Middle East conflict zones.
President Biden should do more than simply seek a return to the more even-handed policies of the Obama administration when it comes to Iran, but choose a path that ensures that his accomplishments are longer lasting and prevents opportunities for a future leader to reverse them.
Obama and Trump fundamentally differed on the U.S. approach to Iran in the Middle East. If Biden does not withdraw from Iraq and Syria and help build on Obama’s legacy, it might be the Trump vision that ultimately triumphs.