Biden administration turns up heat on Iran as nuclear talks stall

US vows to respond to Iran’s alleged attack on an Israeli operated oil tanker

US Navy personnel aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey escort the Mercer Street after a drone attack struck the oil tanker in the Arabian Sea.
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The United States on Sunday singled out Iran as responsible for the deadly attack on an Israeli operated oil tanker off the coast of Oman and vowed a “forthcoming” response, illustrating Washington’s rapidly dwindling patience with Tehran over several recent provocations and the lack of progress in negotiations to restore the nuclear deal.

“Upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran conducted this attack, which killed two innocent people, using one-way [unmanned aerial vehicles], a lethal capability it is increasingly employing throughout the region,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement regarding the attack on the Mercer Street.

“There is no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behaviour. These actions threaten freedom of navigation through this critical waterway, international shipping and commerce and the lives of those on the vessels involved.”

The statement is the latest warning in the Joe Biden administration’s increasingly assertive line against Iran in recent weeks, all while Tehran has paused the indirect talks in Vienna to restore the nuclear deal for more than a month.

During that pause, the Biden administration issued similarly strong warnings following Tehran’s crackdown on mass anti-government protests and its attempted abduction of a US-based journalist as well as a kinetic response to Iran-backed militias’ ongoing attacks on US forces stationed in Iraq.

Mr Blinken’s condemnation of the Mercer Street attack marks the first time that a Biden administration official has publicly commented on the clandestine, high seas warfare between Iran and Israel. It came after he spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid by phone on Saturday to discuss “appropriate next steps.”

Iran and Israel have targeted each other’s vessels in international waters since 2019. But Thursday’s attack was particularly notable as it resulted in two casualties, killing one British and one Romanian national.

As part of his condemnation of the attack, Mr Blinken vowed that the United States would consult with “governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming.”

Axios cited Israeli and British diplomats indicating that they would try to convene a meeting regarding Iran at the UN Security Council.

The US outrage over the attack comes several days after State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a separate statement condemning Iran’s use of lethal force against protesters as demonstrations that began several weeks ago to protest water shortages in the Khuzestan region started to spread throughout major Iranian cities last week.

“The Iranian people have a right to voice their frustrations and hold their government accountable, but we have seen disturbing reports that security forces fired on protesters, resulting in multiple deaths,” said Mr Price.

“We condemn the use of violence against peaceful protesters. We support the rights of Iranians to peacefully assemble and express themselves without fear of violence and detention by security forces.”

Still, the Biden administration remained silent on the protests for the first several weeks since they started on July 15. Mr Price’s statement happened to come out mere hours after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the “obstinate” US stance for the impasse in the talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

The talks aim for both the United States and Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 deal in an agreement that would see the lifting of crippling US sanctions in exchange for the scaling back of Iranian nuclear activities.

But Mr Khamenei’s recent hardline remarks cast renewed scepticism on the ability of both sides to come to an agreement. Iran is demanding that the Biden administration lift additional sanctions that former president Donald Trump imposed after he withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 on top of the broad sectoral sanctions that the United States lifted as part of the accord.

Iran has not agreed to meet since the sixth round of talks convened in June shortly before the election to replace outgoing president Hassan Rouhani.

Tehran has vowed it would not return to the negotiating table until hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi takes office as president. His inauguration is set for August 3.

Amid the impasse, the US Justice Department charged four Iranian officials with a conspiracy to kidnap US-based dissident Masih Alinejad and return her to Iran “where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best.”

The White House forcefully condemned the alleged plot and Mr Blinken spoke at length by phone with Ms Alinejad, who works for Voice of America’s Persian TV service.

Following the call, Ms Alinejad tweeted that Mr Blinken takes Iran’s threats “very, very seriously” and noted that he told her that “the US would hold the regime accountable for this plot.”

And while Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani in June reportedly appealed to Iraqi militias under Tehran’s influence for calm amid the nuclear negotiations, Iran continues to bankroll and support the paramilitary groups which nonetheless continued launching attacks on US forces.

A drone attack on the US consulate in Erbil in June prompted President Biden to retaliate with strikes against the Iran-backed groups stationed in Iraq and Syria, resulting additional strikes from the militias.

The Iran-backed militias have launched more than 20 attacks on US forces since April, a significant uptick from Mr Biden’s early months in office.

But the United States appears mostly concerned with the precision drone attacks.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told The National that Mr Biden’s retaliatory strikes in June were in response to five drone attacks on US forces since April – the same weapon of choice used more recently in the Mercer Street attack.

Updated: August 01, 2021, 11:14 PM