Top Iran, Iraq Diplomats to Meet After Back-to-Back Attacks on U.S. Troops

The top diplomats of neighboring Iran and Iraq have agreed to soon meet amid a series of regional developments including two back-to-back attacks against U.S. soldiers deployed to both sides of Iraq's border with Syria.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein spoke via telephone, according to statements published by both sides Friday.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said the two men discussed "issues of mutual interest, including bilateral ties, regional developments and the Vienna talks," where Tehran has sought Washington's return to a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by then-President Donald Trump in 2018.

Amir-Abdollahian also brought up the ongoing war in Eastern Europe, on which he "emphasized the need to focus on dialogue and a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine and said addressing the root causes of the current crisis was the key to the establishment of peace and lasting stability in the Eurasian region."

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry issued a similar readout referencing these topics as well as "ways to strengthen bilateral relations." The Iraqi statement said that "the two sides stressed the need to meet as soon as possible to discuss developments in the region" and "the necessity of meeting in the coming days."

The remarks came after reports emerged Thursday that U.S. forces had downed two drones near the Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq's western Al-Anbar province. In a statement, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), a common foe to all sides, said that "U.S. air defense systems shot down an armed unmanned aerial system" near the military installation at "approximately 1:46 a.m." Friday local time.

Iran, Soleimani, Iraq, Muhandis, Baghdad, poster
Motorists drive past a billboard depicting slain top Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani (left) and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces Deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on a roundabout in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on January 3, 2022, the second anniversary of their killing in a U.S. strike at Baghdad International Airport. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

The statement said no injuries or damage were reported.

Just 24 hours earlier, at "1:09 a.m., April 7," however, U.S.-led coalition forces at the so-called Green Village in eastern Syria's Deir Ezzor province "received 2 rounds of indirect fire that struck two support buildings." As a result, "four U.S. servicemembers are being evaluated for minor injuries and possible traumatic brain injuries."

The U.S.-led coalition did not ascribe blame for the incident, but similar attacks have been blamed by the Pentagon on militias tied to Iran, which has demanded the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the region.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have grown significantly since the U.S. exit from the nuclear agreement known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and unrest has ensued in Iraq and the broader Persian Gulf and its surrounding waters.

The situation escalated substantially after the U.S. killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani and his entourage, including Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces Deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020.

Since entering office about a year later, President Joe Biden has sought to return to the JCPOA, but the White House has demanded that Iran reinstitute nuclear limitations that Tehran suspended as a result of tough sanctions instituted by the Trump administration. In the meantime, Washington has maintained the economic restrictions, even as both sides say they are close to reaching an agreement in Vienna.

The Biden administration has also continued to face rocket attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria and twice has conducted strikes against Iran-linked groups operating in the two countries as part of an "Axis of Resistance" opposed to the U.S., Israel and ISIS. The U.S. operates in Iraq in cooperation with Baghdad but does so in Syria against the will of Damascus, which is allied with Tehran and Moscow.

Biden announced last year that the Pentagon's "combat" mission in Iraq would end on December 31, yet the U.S. would continue to operate in a training and advising role, so roughly 2,500 personnel remain. As for Syria, where about 900 U.S. personnel are posted alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast and the rebel Maghawir al-Thawra in the southeast desert region, the Biden administration has yet to announce any major policy changes.

Speaking Tuesday at a virtual event hosted by the Wilson Center, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul said the U.S. would continue to maintain a military presence in Iraq and Syria, a campaign still nominally focused on ISIS but also geared toward deterring Iran, which she called "the leading source of instability in the region."

Citing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, she said that "this is not only due to alarming nuclear advances outside the restraints of the Iran nuclear agreement or JCPOA, but also its continued sponsorship and cultivation of violent proxies and terrorists its proliferation of increasingly advanced and lethal UAVs, its ballistic missile program and its maritime aggression and smuggling activities at sea.

"And, of course, U.S. forces, specifically, who remain present in northeast Syria to assist in the fight against ISIS through local partners, experience on a very regular basis threats from Iran and Iran-backed proxies."

The Revolutionary Guards' own listing as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department has been widely viewed as one of the final obstacles in the way of achieving a resolution in the final stage of JCPOA talks.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark Milley told lawmakers Thursday that it was his "personal opinion" that the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, the unit once led by Soleimani and now by his deputy, Esmail Qaani, should not be delisted, though he did not comment on the status of the entire Revolutionary Guard, officially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Asked if Biden shared this opinion, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters Friday that "the President shares the chairman's view that IRGC Qods Forces are terrorists, and beyond that we aren't going to comment on any of the topics in the nuclear talks."

US, military, northeast, Syria, February, 2022
U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1/163rd Combined Arms Battalion make M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles operationally ready in northeast Syria on February 1, 2022. President Joe Biden's administration has said that the U.S. military remains in Syria despite protests from the country's government and its Iranian and Russian allies. Specialist William Gore/Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve/U.S. Army