Will America and Iran have a day of reckoning in Iraq?

Iran has chosen to use the coronavirus crisis to its advantage, ratcheting up its attacks against American forces in Iraq through the use of its Shi’ite militias.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to reporters at the Pentagon on March 5 (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to reporters at the Pentagon on March 5
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic will leave American and Israeli foreign policy analysts in the dark trying to understand how its consequences will affect their interests in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, throughout the region and the world.
While America already had one foot out the door of the Middle East before Covid 19 merciless struck these third world nations, Iran has chosen to use the crisis to its advantage, ratcheting up its attacks against American forces in Iraq through the use of its Shi’ite militias under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), pressuring the US back into a defensive posture.
Although it seems like ancient history, it was just a short time ago when the Iraqi people were protesting against their incompetent and corrupt government, under the thumb of the Iranians. The Iraqi people are unlikely to forget that their government allowed Iranian controlled militias to kill their fellow citizens. With the retreat of Covid-19 in the months to come, the disorder and hard feelings will likely return, making it difficult to predict what will happen to the stability of the Iraqi government, or the will of the Iraqi people to return to vocal protest.
What will the Trump administration do? One choice that should be clear to American strategists is continue to support the protestors if they re-establish their movement as the best way to weaken Iranian influence in an American area of national security interest.
Last summer Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran that the killing of any American soldier would elicit a strong response. After the killing of an American serviceman and the wounding of two others in December 2019, President Trump fulfilled that promise.
Just days after killing a US soldier, an Iranian orchestrated storming of the American embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone by its paramilitary proxy Kataib Hezbollah, literally put the nail in coffin for Iran’s terrorist leaders.
Trump first ordered air strikes in Iraq and Syria, killing many members of Kataib Hezbollah militia that was responsible for both the killing of the American serviceman and instigating the embassy riot. Then in a long overdue targeted assassination, the head of the Iranian Republican Guards Quds Force Qassem Soleimani, the world’s foremost state sponsored terrorist, along with Iran’s primary Iraqi Shi’ite militia leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, met their demise. Muhandis was a primary organizer of the Iranian controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (Shi’ite militias), as well as personally leading its most notorious branch, Kataib Hezbollah. Both were eliminated in an instant sending a strong message of American resolve.
The initial Iranian response, a missile attack on an American base fortunately killed no US servicemen but many sustained traumatic concussive injuries. Under the fiction that no Americans were killed, the Trump administration decided to claim victory and for a time quiet reigned. Now unsurprisingly, just months later, the Iranian controlled militias have again increased the frequency of their attacks, probing American staying power. On March 11th two more American servicemen were killed by Kataib Hezbollah under Iranian direction, followed a few days later by another attack that wounded three Americans.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in regard to the March attack that was the first death of American serviceman since the Soleimani assassination, “You don’t get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it.”
The paper tiger of the Iraqi military combined with an Iraqi political establishment unwilling or unable to confront Iranian entrenchment in their country, confounds American plans to stabilize the region. The second leading Iraqi parliamentary party Fatah, is closely aligned with Katib Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias controlled by Iran. Overall, most of the Iraqi parliamentarians are under the influence of Iran. No wonder that they have voted demanding the US leave Iraq, the primary goal of Iran which would make Iraq a permanent satrapy of Iran, much like Lebanon.
Critics of the American strategy to pressure Iraq into confronting the Iranian presence claim that it will drive the already weak and dysfunctional Iraqi government further into the arms of Iran, and the US should also stop its offensive activity against Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias because inadvertent deaths of Iraqi civilians will further exacerbate the situation and turn the Iraqi protesters against the US.
The war Iran wants with America is through militia proxies. So now Iran is turning to its old strategy of plausible deniability, a completely transparent attempt to use previously unknown militias like the “League of Revolutionaries” to attack American interests. This should fool no one. In response to militia attacks, the Defense Department has moved troops away from its forward bases, much like the Russians and the Americans were forced to do in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and 2000’s respectively.
American intelligence has been monitoring an increased amount of chatter in March and April that Iran is looking to up their game, with more serious attacks. America has responded by going into a defensive posture beefing up its air defenses, rather than the less palatable choice of confronting Iran directly or approving an overwhelming military response against the Iranian controlled militias.
In the age of the coronavirus, a sustained attack against the Revolutionary Guards is unlikely, although because they are so integrated into the Iraqi militias that they control, Iranians will definitely become casualties in the future.
Another option the US should consider is to revisit empowering our Iraqi Kurdish allies and their very capable fighting force the Peshmerga who are very willing to fight alongside us, asking only for more advanced arms. When I visited with American troops late last year in Iraq, they had only praise for the Peshmerga.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s political establishment will need much convincing, as they now see the US as an unreliable long-term partner, having seen the administration throw the Syrian Kurds under the bus. They need reassurances or else they will remain an untapped ally in the region, knowing that without American support, they will have to cut a deal with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards for survival, much like the Syrian Kurds have had to cozy up to Assad and the Russians, with America’s partial withdrawal from Syria.
Which brings us back to a crossroads for America and Israel in their generational confrontation with Iran. Iraq is the latest and perhaps the most significant battleground against Iran’s expansionism and desire to drive the US out of the Middle East, the transit hub of Shi’ite fighters and arms to Lebanon and Syria. If the US chooses to retreat or withdraw that leaves Israel alone to strike at Iran and the Shi’ite militias, targeting game-changing precision guided missiles and their components in Iraq as they are transited to the Levant.
In the post Coronavirus era, the impulse for Trump to withdraw will be great. Although American sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy, it will not stop them from funding their proxies in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria, although perhaps in more limited amounts. Unhelpful are the Europeans who started up their INSTEX bartering system with Iran in April to bypass US sanctions.
According to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, “Western foreign policy towards Iran has consistently overlooked the power of the ideology born in the revolution…. Despite a crippled economy and domestic dysfunction, the Iranian regime continues to divert Iran’s critical resources – including billions of dollars – to proxies across the region. Support for militarized dissidents in the Islamic world is both an ideological and a constitutional commitment.”
Naïve westerners no matter the evidence cannot wrap their heads around the idea that the Iranian revolutionary leadership is primarily motivated by its Twelver Shi’ite ideology, trying to instigate the return of the Mahdi, the hidden imam, while Westerners mistake occasional pragmatism as compromise, but in truth it is just part of their long-term hegemonic strategy. Iran, Kataib Hezbollah and every Shi’ite militia are totally invested in winning. America with just over 5000 servicemen in Iraq is not.
Israel on the other hand, cannot and will not stop hitting targets in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon that it considers essential for its national security. They will continue to be used as a pretext to attack vulnerable Americans on the ground as long as America continues its presence in the region. Trump and Pompeo will likely stay the course, but how a President Biden would respond to militia attacks on American serviceman next year is a different question. If he believes Israel is responsible for instigating the attacks he will pressure Israel to stop its attacks in Iraq and Syria, believing you can appease the Ayatollah, and again look for rapprochement to restart the JCPOA (nuclear deal).
There is little doubt that at a minimum, there will be a diplomatic confrontation between a Biden and Netanyahu administration. Biden under pressure from progressive forces in his party will say that the Iraqi Parliament formally asked us to leave and therefore in respect for their sovereignty we must withdraw if we want to have any relationship with them. They will also rightly claim that American forces in a defensive posture are simply sitting ducks. In addition they will claim that the original reason for authorizing US forces was to stop the Islamic State and that mission has been completed. Finally they will claim that the Trump administration is only keeping US forces in the region to stop the completion of the Shi’ite crescent which was not what Congress had in mind.
It should be recognized that Israel is already in an active war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Many Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been killed by Israel over the last few years. Don’t be fooled, both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq are simply divisions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, totally under Iranian control. Iran is not stopping and Israel cannot stop resisting if it wants to continue to survive. Iraq, Lebanon and Syria’s dysfunction serves Iran’s interests, and none are changing back to anything other than puppets of Iran any time soon.
An American withdrawal from Iraq and the region means that Israel is on its own, with the Trump administration cheering from the sideline. He would be making the same fatal mistake that President Obama made withdrawing troops in 2011 from Iraq that directly led to the rise of the Islamic State (Daesh). American sanctions are important and should be increased but they are not game-changing in the short term. Only a popular uprising and Iranian regime change could help.
For that matter a change in the current Iraqi regime may also be needed. It may be a hard sell, but Mark Dubowitz and Richard Goldberg, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, have suggested that the best way to advance American interests in Iraq and undermine Iran is a congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to degrade the Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias. This would give the Iraqi government a chance to return to independence that is a primary American security interest, and would also help our Kurdish allies in northern Iraq. I saw with my own eyes in northern Iraq how Iraqi Yazidi refugees cannot return to their homes because of the Iranian Shi’ite militias.
With an American withdrawal, the likelihood of a direct Israel-Iranian confrontation beyond its proxies gets closer every day. This is not in American national security interests. America needs to stay engaged in Iraq with a small footprint, offering carrots to the Iraqi government and a big stick to the militias attacking US forces. But unless the US directly targets the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, we are playing Iran’s game, not ours.
The writer is the Director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network.