Unanswered Iranian provocations in Iraq undermine US influence
The United States reacted angrily to news that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proxies in Iraq had, yet again, targeted bases housing US troops and military equipment.
The Trump administration issued a stark warning to the Iranians of a “decisive” retaliation should Tehran’s actions bring harm to Washington’s interests in Iraq.
It is, however, extremely unlikely that the United States will do anything to bring Iran to heel in Iraq or elsewhere in large part because the mullahs called Uncle Sam’s bluff each time they were threatened and got away with it.
In the past five weeks, Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militant outfits have launched ten attacks on US bases and interests, utilising longer-range 122mm rockets.
Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi received a phone call December 16 from US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, who called on the caretaker Iraqi prime minister to do more to defend American interests in Iraq.
Esper’s call followed comments he made to US lawmakers that “Iran should not mistake the United States’ restraint for an unwillingness to respond with decisive military force.” That, however, is indeed the “mistake” that Iran has been making and is continuing to make without ever being corrected.
After all, the spate of rocket attacks is hardly the first such instance of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) proxy targeting US military deployments and other interests.
Earlier this year, the US State Department evacuated non-emergency staff members from its embassy in Baghdad, citing security concerns and threats from Iran-linked groups. This caused US oil giant ExxonMobil to remove its staff in May as a “precautionary measure.”
A month later, IRGC-backed Shia jihadists launched a rocket attack on a compound housing ExxonMobil employees near Basra and the oil company evacuated its staff again.
Iran also shot down an American drone over international waters last summer in the Arabian Gulf. US President Donald Trump made a whole song and dance in the US media and on Twitter about how he had been “cocked and loaded,” ready to retaliate against three Iranian military targets but changed his mind at the last second because of the potential for Tehran to lose 150 soldiers.
Such drama hardly holds water, though, particularly when one considers that the United States could have struck any number of IRGC targets, a formation that Washington considers a foreign terrorist organisation.
In sum, and taken with the December 17 announcement that the State Department will decrease its footprint in Iraq 28%, it would appear that Iran was right to call the United States’ bluff.
The US drawdown in Iraq is indicative of its wider policy of disengagement. Iran hardly needs to attack US interests in Iraq at all. If it simply bides its time, it is likely that Washington will all but totally withdraw without much need for further encouragement of the terrorist variety that Tehran is so well known for.
The United States is absolutely not interested in any kind of military confrontation with Iran. The veritable mountain of Iranian provocations that have gone unanswered by the United States has allowed the mullahs to conclude that the White House is all bark and no bite.
This is catastrophic for US influence not only in Iraq, which is arguably already lost to Iran, but it will reduce regional confidence among traditional American allies in the Middle East who may begin to view this as a further manifestation of American indifference to the threats they face daily because of Iran’s belligerence.
It is time for the Americans to put up or shut up when it comes to Iran.