Hundreds of U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division boarded C-17 Globemaster aircraft on January 1. They are part of the 750 sent to the Middle East after an Iran-backed militia fired rockets that killed a U.S. contractor and, in response, U.S. airstrikes killed two dozen militiamen. Then pro-Iranian protesters, guided by Iraqi politicians, attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. This is President Donald Trump’s Iraq moment. He said it won’t be another Benghazi, where terrorists attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA annex, killing U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, causing the U.S. to withdraw from the city.
The Trump administration is now at a crossroads in its Iran policy and in its wider Middle East strategy. Since walking away from the flawed Iran deal, the U.S. has been pushing “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran. Iran has been testing American resolve, attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May and June 2019, downing a sophisticated U.S. drone, sending a drone swarm to attack Saudi Arabia, and firing rockets at Israel. Iranian-backed groups have also carried out eleven attacks on bases in Iraq where U.S. forces are present. Trump had been reticent to retaliate, calling off strikes in June after the drone downing. But in mid December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of a “decisive response” if the rocket attacks continued. The U.S. also sanctioned Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, including Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Qais Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The message was clear: If its forces are harmed, the U.S. will take action and will pressure Iran’s proxies in Iraq.
Kataib Hezbollah, led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, launched 32 rockets at the K-1 military base on December 27, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. personnel. Muhandis has a long history of attacking Americans, plotting attacks on the U.S. embassy in Kuwait in the 1980s. He has worked with Hezbollah in the past, and in the mid 2000s he opposed the U.S. in Iraq. U.S. airstrikes in December killed two dozen Kataib Hezbollah members, including officers of the unit in Syria and Iraq, in contrast to similar airstrikes Israel has carried out against pro-Iranian groups there. Israel prefers precision strikes that usually kill fewer people. Israel allegedly struck Kataib Hezbollah in June 2018. For the U.S., the decision to strike was about sending a message that Iran’s proxies will pay for their actions.
On December 30, a senior State Department official said that the U.S. is serious about confronting Iran’s activities. Pompeo has said that all Iranian-commanded forces must leave Syria. He went to Iraq in May 2019 to warn of “credible threats against us by the Iranians and their proxies.” Iran’s regime studies U.S. decision making and has been poking and prodding all year. It strikes at U.S. allies to see how Israel and Saudi Arabia will respond. Riyadh did not respond to the September attack on Abqaiq; Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on 250 targets in Syria.
Iran also wants to show the U.S. that it can circumvent sanctions. India’s foreign minister visited Iran in December, and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif went to Qatar, Oman, Russia, and China. Iran’s president recently went to Malaysia and Japan. Iran, Russia, and China held a joint naval drill, and Iran is working on an economic port agreement with India in Iran’s Chabahar, port which is a “lifeline” for Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, Iran has hosted the Taliban, in an effort to pressure the U.S. in Afghanistan.
What can the U.S. do next? Senator Lindsey Graham has called on allies in Iraq to stand with the US. Pompeo has called out senior Iraqi politicians and militia leaders for their ties to Iran and for their role in attacking the embassy. He has also called on leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to build support for U.S. responses.
There are several hurdles now in Iraq. This is America’s “Iraq 5.0” moment. In August 1990, the U.S. sent forces to Saudi Arabia to confront Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. returned to Iraq in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein. After the 2007 surge to defeat the Iraqi insurgency, American forces left in 2011. President Barack Obama sent troops at the invitation of Baghdad to help defeat ISIS. Now, facing a potential confrontation with Iran, the US. deployment to Iraq to defend the embassy has been a major focus for CENTCOM, U.S. special forces, and Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS campaign. This indicates how serious U.S. forces are in taking the next step. Trump has spoken out against “endless wars,” but his team won’t countenance more attacks on U.S. forces. This could lead to calm, if Tehran appreciates that Washington is serious; to clearer U.S. support for Israel’s actions against Iran; and to an anchoring of U.S. forces in areas of southern Syria and the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, a stable and safe area where the U.S. is generally welcome.
But Iraq is at a crossroads as well. Three months of Iraqi protests, often against Iran’s heavy-handed role in the country, means that many Iraqis are disappointed by the abuses of the same militias that target Americans. Iraq’s prime minister has resigned because of the protests, and Iraq’s president must choose a new leader. Amid a major crises with the U.S. and Iran, Iraqis are caught, held hostage by militias but wanting to avoid another round of fighting.
Iran wants to pressure the U.S. to leave Iraq. So far Trump is keen on a show of force to demonstrate that Iran won’t win this round.