For more than seven months, the United States adhered to a policy of maximal restraint in reaction to Iran’s attacks in the Persian Gulf. America sat tight as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps sabotaged oil industry ships and tankers in May. It did nothing when Iran destroyed Saudi oil facilities in September; U.S. President Donald Trump said it was a Saudi problem. It didn’t even react when Iran shot down a valuable American drone – the president explained, with some justification, that the drone was unmanned.
But the Americans, as they reiterated several times, did have one clear red line: They threatened to react directly if the Iranians hurt any of their people. This is exactly what happened last weekend, when an Iran-backed Shiite militia fired no less than 30 rockets toward an Iraqi base in Kirkuk, in the country's north, killing an American contractor and wounding several American troops. America’s thunderous reaction came Sunday night. Three targets in Iraq and two in Syria associated with the Shiite militias were bombed from the air, killing at least 25 people.
The American move was designed to reinstate its deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and to restate its red line. But despite hopes in Israel, it probably doesn’t portend a change in U.S. policy towards Iran. The administration believes in the theory of maximum economic pressure on Tehran. So far there's been no indication that Trump will replace economic sanctions with military moves, despite Iran’s clear maneuvers.
Ongoing experience with Trump teaches that even a firm military blow doesn’t necessarily signal a change in procedure. In the spring of 2017, when the Assad regime was caught using chemical weapons against civilians, Trump ordered a punitive attack on Syria involving dozens of cruise missiles. The move was deliberately structured as the antithesis to the excessive restraint demonstrated by Obama under similar circumstances, and was applauded in Israel and the Gulf.
But this was enough to satisfy Trump, and there was no follow-up. Since then, he hasn’t stopped zigzagging around the issue of America's military presence in Syria. Twice this year, he nearly eliminated it entirely, but then bowed to pressure from his generals and reduced the scale of withdrawal.
In Iraq, both the Americans and the Iranians are facing opposition to their military presence. Efforts continue in the Iraqi parliament to decide on expelling the 5,000 American soldiers based there. The push gained some momentum after air raids on Iranian targets, attributed to Israel, struck Iraq throughout the summer.
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Iran is also facing a major wave of violent protests: The demonstrations in Baghdad may target the local government, but have a clearly anti-Iranian bent. More than 300 Iraqis, most of them demonstrators, have been killed since the protests began in October. Riots, some of which were anti-Iranian, also broke out in Lebanon, and Iran itself is also seeing a wave of charged protests against the regime.
The question is which side is more determined to preserve its grip on Iraq, a country described by intelligence agencies in the West as the cornerstone of the axis Tehran is trying to forge in the region. Iraq is positioned in the heart of the terrestrial corridor connecting Iran, Syria and Lebanon, which the Iranians have been increasingly using to move forces and weaponry westward, since the international coalition led by the United States expelled ISIS from the border area between Syria and Iraq.
The Shiite militias in Iraq already threatened to respond violently to the killing of their members in the American punitive assault. Iran condemned the strike, and may direct the militias to make additional attacks on American forces in Iraq, to renew attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or even to try to drag Israel into the conflict.
But we should not forget the friction between Israel and Iran in Syria that has continued to brew in the background. According to reports in the Arab media and open Israeli hints, the struggle is leaking into Iraq. Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli military's chief of staff, said last week that he anticipates an escalation in the conflict with Iran on Israel’s northern front in the year to come. From the Iranian perspective, it has a score to settle with Israel, after a number of attacks in Syria in which Iranians were hurt but their military reactions caused no real damage to Israel.
The American move in Iraq, a few days before the new year, does not yet reflect a change in Washington’s long-term policy. But until a breakthrough is announced in the indirect talks that apparently continue between the parties through various channels, the military friction in the Middle East's many arenas is likely to persist. It seems highly probable that, to some degree, it will involve Israel as well.