U.S. Base Attack Forces Joe Biden to Juggle Retaliation With Iran Nuclear Deal Hopes

President Joe Biden's administration is mulling retaliation after Tuesday's deadly rocket attack on a northern Iraqi air base hosting American troops, perpetrated by an Iranian-linked militia group that American and Iraqi officials reportedly believe received a green light from Tehran.

One civilian contractor died in the rocket attack, while an American soldier and several American contractors were wounded. The strike destroyed an accommodation area near the Erbil International Airport, a major base in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. According to The Hill some of the wounds among U.S. contractors were serious enough to require surgery.

The White House said it was "outraged" by the attack, which was claimed by the Iraqi Shi'ite militia known as The Guardians of the Blood Brigade, an Iran-backed group which has launched attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq in the past.

In a statement, the group warned: "The American occupation will not be safe from our strikes in any inch of the homeland, even in Kurdistan, where we promise we will carry out other qualitative operations," according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

The rocket attack—perpetrated with Iranian-made missiles according to U.S. and Iraqi investigators—is the most serious test of Biden's Iran strategy to date.

The president is keen on a diplomatic thaw with Iran following years of high tensions under President Donald Trump, with the ultimate goal of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018.

But attacks on American targets in Iraq—a common way for Tehran to undermine America's presence in the Middle East without risking a direct confrontation—and Iran's continued violation of the JCPOA's curbs on its nuclear program could complicate Biden's planned return to the accord.

The administration has not yet publicly accused Iran of responsibility for Tuesday's attack, though the links to Tehran are clear. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden "reserves the right to respond in the time and manner of our choosing" to the attack.

Iraqi and American security officials are probing the attack, but anonymous sources from both nations told U.S. News they believe Iraqi militias backed by Iran were behind it. "We'll wait for the attribution to be concluded first before we take any additional steps," Psaki told reporters at the White House.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to blame Iran at a press conference with journalists on Tuesday. "We are not going to get ahead of the investigation that is very much underway," Price said.

"But suffice to say two things: One, we will, in coordination with our Iraqi partners, reserve the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing; and we will do so in coordination with our Iraqi partners," Price added. "This is a matter of Iraqi sovereignty. We are partners with the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government and will respond with that partnership in mind."

Biden is still stuck in a stalemate with Tehran over the nuclear deal. Iran wants Biden to lift Trump's sanctions as a precursor to Tehran's return to JCPOA compliance. But the White House says it will not lift any sanctions until Iran scales back its nuclear program in line with JCPOA limits.

The new administration is also trying to build a united front with its European allies on Iran and other issues. Germany, France and the U.K. are signatories to the JCPOA, and publicly broke with Trump over his "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran.

The German, French and British foreign ministers joined with Secretary of State Antony Blinken to condemn the Erbil attack on Tuesday. All three have been clear in their hope for JCPOA revival, though all have also agreed with the U.S. that further limits are needed on Iran's ballistic missile program and use of regional militias—two areas Tehran has refused to discuss.

Iran has thus far denied any role in the Erbil attack. On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh issued a statement saying Iran "not only strongly rejects these rumors, but also flatly condemns suspicious attempts to attribute the attack to Iran."

Men stand near Erbil rocket attack site
Two men stand near the scene of a rocket attack near Erbil International Airport in Iraq on February 16. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images/Getty