Analysis

Iran-Iraq Snowball Puts U.S. Mideast Policy to the Test

While Israel's leadership has been spouting somewhat fatalistic statements about Iran, it would do better not to be perceived as the one inflaming the atmosphere

Protesters and militia fighters set fire to a reception room of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019.
WISSM AL-OKILI/REUTERS

As the new civil year begins, an isolated event in northern Iraq threatens to snowball into an avalanche that will put America’s entire Middle East strategy to the test. The death of an American citizen in a rocket attack on an Iraqi base by an Iran-backed Shi’ite militia this weekend led to a large-scale retaliatory U.S. airstrike in which at least 25 militiamen were killed in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, the Iranians and their allies responded with a violent demonstration staged by militia members outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, culminating with protesters breaking into the secured compound and American diplomats hastily evacuated from it.

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The Iranian action caught U.S. President Donald Trump at a difficult moment. The next presidential election is less than a year away. Facing an unexciting array of Democratic candidates, Trump’s situation appears rather reasonable, especially if the economy continues on the relatively positive path he inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

But the public and humiliating attack on an American symbol in the Middle East doesn’t look good. And if U.S. countermeasures lead to casualties, that would look even worse.

Trump, as has been said many times, has for years opposed military adventures in faraway countries in which he sees, at most, a limited American interest. In contrast, he seems to be infatuated with the policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran, under which Washington has gradually intensified its sanctions on the country. Even now, the administration is considering additional sanctions.

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The damage these sanctions have caused Iran’s economy is indeed great, but so far, they haven’t had much diplomatic impact. Tehran hasn’t agreed to make the terms of its nuclear deal with world powers (from which America withdrew in May 2018) more stringent, and so far, it has even rejected the idea of a summit between the two countries’ leaders.

Since May, the main result of the sanctions was Iran’s decision to respond with assaults on oil facilities and tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and this weekend, also with an attack on a military base where Americans were stationed.

The death of an American national obligated Trump to respond, since Iran and its proxies had blatantly crossed a red line drawn by the president himself, along with other senior administration officials. But the mob storming the embassy in Baghdad caught him off guard. Trump’s tweets in recent days have been devoted to his usual spats with the Democrats and criticism of the media, yet once again, he had no choice but to respond.

On Tuesday the president explicitly held Iran responsible for both the rocket fire and the storming of the embassy. He once again threatened a painful response and, in a tweet, urged the “many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom” to liberate themselves from Iranian influence.

Protesters and militia fighters attack a reception room of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019.
KHALID AL-MOUSILY/REUTERS

In the background hovers America’s unforgotten national trauma from the 1979 hostage crisis at its embassy in Tehran. In 2012, the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked, an incident that Republicans exploited for an emotional assault (with little factual basis) on the Obama administration, and especially then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The violent attack on the embassy in Baghdad thus hit a nerve with the American public, and that’s something of which the Iranians are surely well aware. The sight of the demonstrators beating on the doors of the embassy compound and throwing burning objects over the wall surrounding it brought those old painful memories back.

Beyond the drama, which was broadcast live, the Iranians succeeded in turning the tables on Tuesday. For months, mass demonstrations against the Iraqi government have also been aimed at Tehran’s involvement on the country and its influence over the Iraqi leadership. In several cases, Iranian diplomatic offices in Iraq were even attacked. But now, the discussion has been diverted from Iran to focus on the last remnants of America’s military presence in Iraq.

Prior to the American airstrike on Sunday, which was widely denounced by Iraqi parties, a proposal was raised last summer in Iraq’s parliament to expel American soldiers from the country over airstrikes attributed to Israel in western Iraq (to which Iraqis suspected that Washington had given a green light). This proposal may now gain renewed support.

This is the moment of truth for U.S. strategy in the region. It’s impossible to know to what extent the Iranians planned this outcome in advance, but it’s clear they have gradually and calculatedly raised the risk level in a way that has now backed America into a corner and forced it to respond.

Some American analysts say Iran is in a panic, and this led to ill-considered steps by Tehran. But the opposite appears to be the case. Over the past year, it is Iran that has conducted a well-planned effort aimed at eventually easing American sanctions on it.

Israel is watching this crisis from the sidelines. Unfortunately, however, its political and military leadership have been spouting somewhat fatalistic statements in recent weeks about an impending clash between Israel and Iran on the northern front. Therefore, we must hope Jerusalem isn’t toying with the idea of indirectly adding fuel to the fire in Baghdad, in the hopes that this would lead to the formation of a new international coalition against Iran.

Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019.
Khalid Mohammed/AP

The events of the past week have significantly raised the level of tension between the United States and Iran. Israel would do better to avoid being accused of deliberately inflaming the atmosphere between the two countries.