The Biden administration is facing intense criticism from U.S. progressives after carrying out airstrikes on eastern Syria said to be targeting Iranian-backed militia groups. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 22 people died. The Pentagon called the assault a response to recent rocket attacks on U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Those attacks came more than a year after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel U.S. troops — an order ignored by both the Trump and Biden administrations. “Very quickly the Biden administration is falling into the same old patterns of before, of responding to this and that without having a clear strategy that actually would extract us from these various conflicts and actually pave the way for much more productive diplomacy,” says Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. We also speak with California Congressmember Ro Khanna, who says President Biden’s recent airstrikes in Syria lacked legal authority. “This is not an ambiguous case. The administration’s actions are clearly illegal under the United States’ law and under international law,” says Khanna.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Syria. The Biden administration is facing intense criticism after U.S. Air Force fighter jets bombed eastern Syria Thursday. The Pentagon claimed the strikes targeted Iranian-backed militant groups. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 22 people died.
Biden ordered the airstrike on the same day he spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch rival in the region. According to the White House, Biden committed on the call to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory from Iranian-aligned groups.
The Pentagon called the assault a response to recent rocket attacks on U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Those attacks came more than a year after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel U.S. troops — an order that’s been ignored by both Trump and Biden.
On Friday, Biden was asked about the airstrikes.
REPORTER: Mr. President, what message were you sending to Iran with your first military action?
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You can’t get — you can’t act with impunity. Be careful.
AMY GOODMAN: Still with us is Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna of California. We’re also joined by Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the new think tank, the Quincy Institute. His most recent book is titled Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
Trita Parsi, can you respond to the attack, the U.S. bombing of Syria?
TRITA PARSI: Yes. The Biden administration, I think President Biden himself specifically, felt strongly that because of the attacks in Iraq earlier, that a response was warranted. But what I think many people are fearing is that very quickly the Biden administration is falling into the same old patterns of before, of responding to this and that without having a clear strategy that actually would extract us from these various conflicts and actually pave the way for much more productive diplomacy.
The idea that this actually would help us with the diplomacy with Iran, for instance, seems really difficult to understand, mindful of the fact that we are now in a situation in which the Iranians have rejected the offer from the Europeans to come to the talks precisely because of these attacks, because of other measures that have been done, which means that these first two months of the Biden administration, that could have been used for really productively laying the groundwork for new talks, seem to instead have been used to just fall into the old patterns. And this is quite concerning, because, at the end of the day, reviving the JCPOA is another promise that the Biden administration gave during the campaign and said that it would pursue diligently.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by these attacks? And explain exactly where they took place in Syria.
TRITA PARSI: Took place in eastern part of Syria. These are various groups that the Biden administration describes as pro-Iranian, certainly seem to have a degree of support from Iran. Whether they’re under the command of Iran is not as clear.
And at the end of the day, you know, the fact that this was said the same day as the Biden administration decided not to pursue sanctions on MBS, again, seems to suggest that the Biden administration is more concerned at this point of making sure that it doesn’t upset certain allies in the region, doesn’t pay a political cost at home, for pursuing compromise with Iran over the nuclear issue, which I think sends a very, very concerning message, because, at the end of the day, in order for the JCPOA to be revived, both the Iranians and the U.S. side have to give compromises, and they’re going to have to pay a political price at home. The Obama administration did so. The Rouhani government did so. There is no escaping from that. But if at already this stage we’re signaling that we’re not ready to do so and we’re too concerned about those political costs, that really sets a question mark as to whether the political will exists for seeing these negotiations on the nuclear program come to completion.
AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ro Khanna, your response to the bombing of Syria?
REP. RO KHANNA: Well, this is not an ambiguous case. The administration’s actions are clearly illegal under the United States’ law and under international law. We do not have any authorization of military force to go into Syria. In fact, President Obama tried and then backed off in getting that authorization. We do not have any authorization of military force to attack Iran. The idea that this was an imminent attack on U.S. self-defense is simply not borne out by the facts. And under international law, for self-defense, we have to go to the United Nations. The administration did not do that. So, my concern is that this president ran on ending endless wars, ran on respecting the United States’ and international law, and these actions clearly violate both.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Trita Parsi, if you could talk about the European Union, Iran rejecting an offer by the EU to hold direct talks with the U.S. on the nuclear deal after the U.S. attack on eastern Syria? The significance of this?
TRITA PARSI: It’s a very unfortunate decision by the Iranians. I mean, I think it would have much better if they accepted this invitation.
But at the same time, it is not a surprising decision. In fact, one of President Biden’s own senior officials, Wendy Sherman, who is now going to be confirmed next week or having hearings to become the deputy secretary, said — she was a lead negotiator under Obama for the nuclear deal — said, in 2019, that the idea that the Iranians would come to the table and talk to the United States without some sanctions relief, meaning that the United States would continue to violate the JCPOA and yet the Iranians would come, was extremely unlikely. It’s not clear to me why the Biden administration has chosen a strategy that some of its own senior officials earlier on had deemed to be extremely unlikely to succeed.
So it’s not surprising. It’s very negative. And now we’re in a worse situation. There’s going to be a fight potentially today at the IAEA Board of Governors about whether to censure Iran for some of its reductions of obligations under the JCPOA, while the United States continues to completely disregard all of its obligations.
So, these are all the type of wrong measures and steps that should be taken at this stage of diplomacy. At this stage, there should be goodwill measures, there should be positive signals of intent, in order to create the best possible circumstances for diplomacy to start. Now we’re having the opposite.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Trita, Iran’s demand that the U.S. end sanctions before returning to negotiations? Explain what the U.S. sanctions against Iran are and how they’re affecting the people there.
TRITA PARSI: Well, the Iranians have now suffered tremendously under sanctions that President Trump put in place in 2018 and 2019 and onwards. These have been devastating to the Iranian economy. In fact, President Trump intensified those once COVID broke out, seeing the pandemic as a way to further enhance the impact of sanctions. And this means including blocking Iran’s ability to get IMF loans for the purpose of fighting the virus. So, the Iranians have suffered tremendously under these sanctions for the last couple of years.
I think part of the reason why they’re fearful of going to the table without getting some indication — not all sanctions need to be lifted, from their perspective, but some indication that the U.S. is going to lift sanctions, is that, otherwise, they fear that the talks may not succeed, they will get blamed for the breakdown of talks, they will be seen as being at fault, even though the United States, under Biden, has not changed Trump’s position of maximum pressure. So the U.S. doesn’t even come back into the deal but manages to shift the blame onto the Iranians. I think this is part of their fear.
I think, at the same time, demanding that all sanctions be lifted, which they did earlier on, is completely unrealistic. What is happening right now is that the Iranian demand is that the U.S. side promises that once the U.S. is inside of the deal, it will lift sanctions. But it’s also very difficult to see how the U.S. could reject that, mindful of the fact that once it is inside the deal, it has to lift the sanctions; otherwise, it will be in complete violation of the deal.
AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, if you can talk about the timing of this attack? All week, the buildup to the release of the report on the murder of Khashoggi and the clear connection to MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, so all of that was building. Then President Biden says he’s speaking with the king, and they talk about defending Saudi’s borders. And just before the release of the report, they bomb Syria, and they talk about attacking Iranian-backed militias, the major enemy of Saudi Arabia. Can you respond to this, this idea that they are releasing a report that proves the murder of Khashoggi is the crown — behind it is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, but then they do Saudi Arabia’s bidding?
REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, this is why the Constitution says that before a president takes these actions, they have to come to Congress, because those issues would have been debated in Congress. Questions would have been asked: Is this in any way in response to conversations with the Saudis? Why do we need to take this action now? Why is it that suddenly we feel that there’s an imminent threat? Is this action going to be escalatory? They’re saying that the action is deescalatory. I haven’t understood how. How is a military strike deescalatory?
And the main point here is that the maximum pressure campaign has not worked. Iran’s enriched uranium was about 102 kilograms when President Trump took office. It is 2.5 tons now. It is 25 times more. So, repeating this continued strategy not only has implications for our staying entangled in the Middle East, it actually has not worked in the objectives. And the challenge is a naive view in the United States that somehow our actions are going to force regime change in Iran. If anything, they’re entrenching the regime. We need a totally different approach. And I actually think the American people want a totally different approach.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Trita Parsi, thank you for joining us, with the Quincy Institute. I also want to thank Ro Khanna and ask you to stay with us, because a lot has happened in the House, where you’re a member from California. We want to ask you about the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. The House has included the $15-an-hour minimum wage, but it will be stripped out. Get your response to that and other issues. Stay with us.