Iranian 'Drone Armies' Step Up Attacks on US as Nuclear Talks Languish, GOP Lawmakers Say

An Iranian drone (AFP Photo/HO/Iranian Army website via Getty Images)
December 14, 2021

Iranian "drone armies" are behind a surge in attacks on U.S. positions and allies in Iraq, according to a group of Republican lawmakers who are demanding answers from the Biden administration about how it is working to counter these threats amid ongoing negotiations with Tehran over a revamped nuclear accord.

"In 2021, Iran-backed forces in Iraq have been behind an uptick of drone attacks against positions associated with the U.S. or coalition forces in Iraq," Reps. Bryan Steil (R., Wis.), Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), Brian Babin (R., Texas), and Andrew Clyde (R., Ga.) on Tuesday wrote to the State Department in a letter that demands answers for why these strikes have gone unpunished. "These include a strike against an alleged CIA hangar in Erbil, Iraq, in April and the Baghdad airport this June."

The lawmakers say "American passivity and indifference" to these attacks, which also include a November assassination attempt on Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is signaling to Tehran that it can use its Iraq-based terrorist proxy groups to foment chaos. Steil and his colleagues accuse the Biden State Department of turning a blind eye to Iran's terrorism enterprise in a bid to avoid agitating Tehran as talks over a new version of the 2015 nuclear accord are ongoing in Vienna.

"Tehran and its militias in Iraq possess significant drone capabilities, capabilities that need to be addressed and countered regardless of the administration's quest to return to talks and re-enter what we believe to be a flawed nuclear agreement with Tehran," the lawmakers write, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Since the November assassination attempt on al-Kadhimi, the Biden administration has not sanctioned any of the Iran-backed groups involved in the plot. The State Department has also avoided naming the groups responsible—Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Ha—both of which are U.S.-designated terror organizations and have deep ties to Iran.

"At the time of this writing, the State Department, and in particular its press release in the immediate aftermath of the attack, failed to mention by name the actor(s) with the known capabilities, intentions, and motivations to carry out this operation: the Islamic Republic of Iran and/or its network of Shiite militias in Iraq," the lawmakers write.

While previous White Houses, including the Trump administration, sanctioned Iran and its proxy groups for similar strikes, the Biden administration has avoided exercising this power. Sanctions on Iran have actually been loosened in recent months as the United States tries to ink a deal that many observers see as increasingly impossible. The State Department has also publicly promised Iran that it will nix all remaining Trump administration sanctions if the country agrees to a nuclear accord.

"Iran continues to support Iraqi Shiite militias as part of its quest to puncture, subvert, and dominate the Iraqi state and export its Islamic Revolution," the letter states. "The U.S. government has previously sanctioned and exposed Iran's tentacles in Iraq, including its weapons smuggling and money laundering operations and should continue to do so."

The lawmakers are seeking concrete answers from the State Department about the steps the department is taking to hold Iran accountable for its bevy of attacks on the United States and its regional allies.

They want to know which Iran-backed militias in Iraq are not sanctioned by the U.S. government. They are also requesting information from the administration about its policy towards countering Iranian interference in Iraq and the wider region, as well as what steps the State Department is taking "to counter the drone armies of Iran."

Additionally, the lawmakers want to know if the Biden administration plans to help the Iraqi government investigate the November assassination attempt and if the administration will "make the evidence and conclusions from any investigations available to the public."

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that as Iran builds up its drone capabilities, it is ensuring its terror proxy groups have access to this deadly technology.

"Iran both produces and proliferates drone technology and has an evolving and increasingly complex procurement network in place for dual-use goods to power these drones," he said. "The U.S. Congress is correctly focusing on countering Iran's drones which have shown up in multiple battlefields in the Middle East."

The Biden administration, Ben Taleblu said, "will need a strategy to counter Iran's evolving unmanned aerial threats in the Middle East, which include mortars, rockets, drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. Deal or no deal in Vienna, working to offset and devalue these capabilities is the right path ahead."