By Jonathan Davis
As readers likely know already, the U.S. struck Iran-linked targets in Syria and Iraq earlier this week in response to the death of an American military contractor last month thanks to a rocket attack from militants tied to Tehran.
Today, Iran-linked militants in Baghdad besieged the U.S. Embassy there and set some buildings on fire but did not actually breach the inner sectors of compound to endanger the lives of soldiers, diplomats, and workers.
President Trump was clear in his response to the Embassy assault:
Tensions have been increasing in Iraq for months. Iran has been working to influence the political and foreign policy direction of the entire region, including its neighbor and one-time enemy, undermining what remaining influence the United States has there after occupying much of the country for a decade.
But Iran is feeling some heat of its own, domestically. Protests ramped up again last month and got out of hand pretty quickly, according to various open source media. There were deaths after the regime cracked down.
Reportedly, the unrest continues on a slow simmer. The initial protests began as a result of dramatic increases in gasoline prices, which came, in large part, as a result of ongoing, biting U.S. and Western sanctions.
So what does a regime under pressure at home do? Lash out at others, of course. Create a diversion. Get the people’s minds off the failings of the regime. And the United States makes a good and familiar foil.
In short, we could be looking at the beginning of a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, in a familiar place. CNN notes:
The angry demonstrations at the American embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday are just the latest installment in a deepening confrontation between the US and Iran for influence in Iraq.
It’s a struggle that dates back to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the emergence of a Shia-dominated state in Iraq. But in light of the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum economic pressure against Iran, it has reached a new and potentially dangerous pitch.
The Iraqi government is certainly angry at the US strikes, which have added one more crisis to its overflowing in-tray of problems. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi declared three days of mourning for the victims of the airstrikes, which he described as outrageous.
The US now has very few political allies in Iraq, and the embassy and other US facilities in Iraq have become the epicenter of a proxy struggle between Washington and Tehran. Kataib Hezbollah is threatening to lay siege to the embassy following Tuesday’s protests and its supporters were joined by those of other pro-Iranian militia, which are beyond the Iraqi government’s control.
Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted that the “Iran-orchestrated violence” that erupted in Baghdad is “a response to US eco[nomic] warfare.
“President Trump, Haas added, “needs to be ready to go to war w[ith] Iran or provide a diplomatic off-ramp, linking partial sanctions relief to Iran’s regional, nuclear, domestic actions.”As positions harden, the latter course seems less and less likely.
Caught in the middle, Iraq is at risk of becoming a failing state. It’s already wracked by popular protest, crippled by political paralysis and threatened by renewed terrorism.
I tend to agree that it’s not likely President Trump will relent on his military and economic pressure against Iran. The regime is still hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons which would be a disaster for the Middle East and could even spark a nuclear arms race with the Saudis (who have threatened it). Israel is already a nuclear power “unofficially.”
If Iraq becomes a failed state in the middle of warring, competing factions, that would also be a disaster. That said, Iraqis are not universally pro-Iranian. Tehran’s proxies are facing opposition from Iraqi groups and younger citizens fed up with the corruption and lack of opportunity.
As for declaring war against Iran, with President Trump’s political problems at home (impeachment) it’s difficult to imagine he’d get a declaration from the Democrat-run Congress, and I say that even if the U.S. suffers a major military setback from Iran (say, if a large number of American troops are killed by a missile or if a U.S. warship is attacked).
So his options are limited. But the situation on the ground is in flux and at some point the Iranians are liable to leave the president and his political opponents with little choice but to attack.