JERUSALEM—If Iran’s grand plan in the Middle East is to push the Americans out and squeeze Israel into a corner, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad Tuesday looks like a win for that cause.
The assault on the normally well-defended Green Zone installation, with a gate breached and an outbuilding burned, was reminiscent of the attack by jihadis on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. This time, the ambassador and staff were evacuated successfully. But also this time, the enemy is much more of a threat and the strategy much more well-defined.
When the Iranian-supported Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq attacked a military base in Kirkuk last Friday, it was inviting a military response from the United States that the Iranians knew would inflame the streets for Iraq. And President Donald Trump went for it. Now he is railing against the attack on the embassy and threatening more retaliation against Iran.
“They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!” Trump tweeted. The cleavage between Washington and a nation it has spent trillions of dollars trying to reshape and rebuild grows deeper.
Trump’s attacks on an Iran-backed militia follow the example set by Israel, another point that Iran intends to exploit. But Israel’s objectives and those of the United States have not been the same.
On Christmas Day, Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi declared his country will act to keep Iran from getting entrenched in Iraq, acknowledging officially for the first time that Israel has attacked Iranian-backed groups there.
Two days after Kochavi’s speech, 32 Iranian-made 107 mm rockets slammed into the Iraqi base where U.S. forces were present. One U.S. contractor was killed and several soldiers wounded. Then Washington retaliated with its airstrikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah.
The two incidents now bring into view both Israeli and American red lines trying to contain Iran’s role in the region.
For Israel, the red line has been Iran’s effort to transfer precision guided munitions through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its increasing role in Syria close to Israel’s borders. For the Trump administration, the red line has become further Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq or Syria.
Now both Israel and the U.S. are carrying out airstrikes on Iranian-backed groups in Iraq and Syria. But while the U.S. and Israel are close allies, the two countries have not always seen eye-to-eye when they look at Baghdad.
The U.S. has supported a “strong and sovereign Iraq,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And the U.S. military is in Iraq at the invitation of the government there to help defeat the so-called Islamic State—a fact that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition constantly reiterates whenever there are controversies about the American presence.
Syria is a different matter. When Israel has targeted Iran’s presence there, Washington has been supportive. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on as many as 250 Iranian and Iranian-linked targets in Syria in recent years, and Iran has stepped up retaliation for these strikes, firing rockets at Israel and launching a drone that penetrated Israel’s airspace in February 2018. When President Trump made his capricious and partially reversed decision to pull out of Syria this year, Pompeo flew to Tel Aviv to reassure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel still had U.S. support for action there.
Netanyahu’s new defense minister, Naftali Bennett, has warned that Syria will become Iran’s “Vietnam.” But Israeli generals and politicians have all expressed increasing concern about Iran’s growing exploitation of the “land bridge” used to send munitions to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In August 2018 and December 2019, reports from Western intelligence agencies indicated Iran was shipping ballistic missiles to or through Iraq. Baghdad then blamed Israel for at least four airstrikes that hit munitions storage facilities in Iraq in July and August. These facilities were run by the Popular Mobilization Units (also known as the Popular Mobilizaton Forces). They are a group of mostly Shiite militias that were organized to fight ISIS when the U.S.-trained Iraqi army virtually collapsed in 2014, but many have ties to Iran dating back decades.
One of these groups in the PMU is Kataib Hezbollah. Back in 2009, it was designated a terrorist organization and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. Its commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was named as an “adviser” to Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, also a designated terrorist organization, which wages Tehran’s extensive proxy operations in the region.
Drawing a line from June 2018 to December 2019 shows that Israel and the U.S. are now openly targeting this pro-Iranian militia in Iraq and Syria—but there are some major difficulties ahead.
Until recently, Israel received scant attention in the Pentagon’s quarterly reports on Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But in the June-October 2019 edition (PDF), Israel is mentioned 23 times, and often with concern.
The report says that suspected Israeli airstrikes on Iraqi bases belonging to Iranian-aligned militias “exacerbated ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran.” It also complicated the U.S. official role in Iraq, which is to fight ISIS.
CENTCOM was also worried that the U.S. could be blamed for Israeli airstrikes in Syria, even though the Americans were concerned as well about the way Iran and its proxies have entrenched themselves in Syria. The Pentagon report noted that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, now the overall commander of the PMU, blamed both Israel and the U.S. for an Aug. 22 airstrike near Balad air base.
The U.S. knows that Israel’s airstrikes might complicate its Iraq mission, but it has also acknowledged the threat posed by the Iranian-backed militias. In October 2017, as the job of regaining territories previously lost to ISIS appeared almost finished, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on them to “go home,” much to the consternation of Iraqi government officials.
But, again, the enmity goes way back.
In the first decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, it frequently found itself under attack by Iranian proxies, often with deadly consequences. Qais Khazali, sanctioned by the Treasury Department on Dec. 6 this year, was held by the Americans in 2007 at Camp Cropper prison because of his operations against U.S. forces.
With the U.S. and Israel now apparently on the same page regarding these militias, the ramifications are looming large.
Kataib Hezbollah, as part of the PMU, is an official paramilitary arm of the Iraqi government’s security forces, and many Iraqi politicians, not all of whom are close to Iran, view the U.S. airstrikes as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
For years, Washington was wary about a military tit for tat with Iran’s proxies in Iraq that could quickly get out of hand, and there were some concerns about the volatile policymaking in Washington as well. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis walked a thin line, seeking tougher action on Iran while trying to curb such hawks as former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who would ask for options to strike Iran itself.
President Trump previously has been cautious about military action, preferring sanctions. He stood down airstrikes in response to the downing of a U.S. drone in June and did not take military action after Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities in September. Bolton’s talk about the U.S. staying in Syria until Iran leaves clearly lacked the president’s imprimatur.
Pompeo and other officials, meanwhile, warned Iran about retaliation for attacks in Iraq. The Dec. 29 strike by the U.S. was in fact the limited response to six months of rocket fire and harassment.
Israel’s chief of staff has warned Iraq is becoming an ungoverned area where Iran is digging in and advanced weapons are being smuggled by the IRGC. “We can’t allow that,” he says. The U.S. has now drawn a red line in terms of the rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. Will Israel be tempted to see how closely its interests and the Americans’ now coincide in Iraq?
Clearly a new era has begun, but the potential clashes ahead span a large battle space from the Gulf to the Golan Heights with pro-Iranian forces located near U.S. bases and U.S. and Israeli forces both potentially acting against Iranian attacks.
Iran appears to understand this converging U.S.-Israeli policy. It has depicted itself as “resisting” the U.S. and Israel for decades and its attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and rocket fire at Israel near the Golan are calculated to provoke as well as to respond to U.S. and Israeli operations.
And if the end game is for the United States to pull out of Syria and Iraq, as President Trump appears inclined to do in any case, then Iran will have gotten just what it wanted.