Biden administration continues pursuit of nuclear deal with Iran amid new bomb plot allegations

The Biden administration has studiously avoided blaming any party, including Iran, for the rocket attack.
US President Joe Biden walks across the South Lawn upon return to the White House in Washington, DC, Feb. 19, 2021. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP)
US President Joe Biden walks across the South Lawn upon return to the White House in Washington, DC, Feb. 19, 2021. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Earlier this week, America’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, reported that Iran was behind a plot to bomb the embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Ethiopia and that there was a similar plot against the UAE diplomatic mission in Sudan.

The UAE is among those Arab countries that recently normalized relations with Israel, as is Sudan.

The Times report cited multiple sources, including Rear Admiral Heidi Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Africa command.

Particularly as a senior Defense Department official was prepared to go on the record, the report appears extremely well-sourced – and not a shadowy account of intelligence operations.

The Times’ story first appeared on Monday, the same day a volley of rockets was launched at Erbil International Airport, where the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition has a military base. One contractor was killed and eight others injured, including a US service member. 

The Biden administration has studiously avoided blaming any party, including Iran, for the rocket attack. It insists that it is important to wait for the results of the Iraqi investigation, although under the previous administration, the US regularly determined – rather quickly – that Iranian proxy groups in Iraq had been responsible for similar assaults.

READ MORE: US coordinates with Europe on Erbil attack, awaits results of investigation, before assigning blame

Despite the Iranian plots in Ethiopia and Sudan and the rocket attack on Erbil, the Biden administration has continued its efforts to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the Trump administration quit in 2018. 

On Thursday, the State Department said that it was prepared to meet with Iran in order to revive that accord, while concessions to Iran that it announced on Thursday prompted criticism from at least one Republican lawmaker.

Plots against UAE Embassies in Ethiopia, Sudan

Earlier this month, Ethiopia’s state news agency, the Ethiopian Press Agency (EPA), reported that 15 people had been arrested after the country’s intelligence service thwarted a plot to attack the UAE diplomatic mission in the capital Addis Ababa. EPA also reported that a second group was planning a similar attack in Sudan, and the intelligence services of both countries were cooperating in their investigation.

Arms, explosives, and documents had been seized from those arrested in Ethiopia, and they were working at the direction and with the support of “a foreign terrorist group” and were “preparing to inflict significant damage on properties and human lives,” the report said.

The EPA revealed little about the foreign terrorist group behind the bombing plot, but did say a mastermind had been arrested in Sweden.

Rear Adm. Berg told the Timesthat Iran was behind the plot, and she confirmed that the mastermind, Ahmed Ismail (at least that is the name he is using) had been arrested in Sweden. 

Citing anonymous US and Israeli sources, the Times also reported that Iranian intelligence had “activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel.”

Moreover, the report, citing “a senior United States defense official,” linked the arrests in Ethiopia to a failed Iranian plan to kill the US ambassador to South Africa. 

That plot was first revealed in September by Politico, which reported that Iran’s embassy in South Africa was behind it and that it was meant as revenge for the US assassination of the head of the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Qassim Soleimani, in January. 

Thus, the plots against the two UAE embassies were “part of a wider drive to seek soft targets in African countries,” where “Iran might avenge” attacks like Israel’s recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, as well as Soleimani’s death, the Times said.

“Given the stakes,” the paper observed, “it was unclear why the Iranians might risk a rapprochement with the Biden administration by mounting an operation now.” 

Perhaps Tehran’s calculation is that it can have both? After all, neither the plots revealed by the Times, nor the rocket attack on Erbil, has prompted a reconsideration of the US effort to restore the JCPOA and, along with it, improve relations, or at least reduce tensions, with Iran.

Nicholas Heras, of Washington’s Institute for the Study of War, summarized the Times’s report, telling Kurdistan 24, “The big takeaway is that Iran is going to look for unexpected ways to strike at the US and Israel, globally.” 

“This means that the Biden administration will have to cover a much wider playing field than Iraq, if it wants to frustrate the IRGC,” he continued, and “that is a tall order.”

Reviving Nuclear Talks with Iran

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a video conference with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – the E-3, all parties to the JCPOA.

Later that day, State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a brief statement, affirming US readiness to attend a meeting of the original signatories to the JCPOA, which include Russia and China, as well as the E-3.

“The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program,” Price said.

However, State Department officials said they did not know whether Iran would agree to attend such a meeting.

The State Department also announced on Thursday that it was ending the strict travel restrictions the Trump administration had imposed on Iranian diplomats in New York, and it withdrew a moribund Trump administration attempt to snap back UN sanctions on Iran.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement late on Thursday, criticizing the emerging US policy on Iran. 

“It is concerning the Biden Administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal,” McCaul said, as he called on the administration “to stick to their assurance not to re-enter the deal until Iran comes back into full compliance with the JCPOA.”

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly