US strikes reestablished deterrence against Iran’s terror proxies in Iraq

Many in the Middle East were hopeful after Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 that the US president would finally stand up to the Iranians rather than try to appease them.
Sunday 05/01/2020
US Marines stand guard at the American Embassy Compound in Baghdad, January 3. (US Department of Defence via AFP)
Now what? US Marines stand guard at the American Embassy Compound in Baghdad, January 3. (US Department of Defence via AFP)

The United States barely managed to avoid a repeat of the 1979 US Embassy in Tehran debacle led by forces loyal to Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini but collected a significant Iranian scalp in retaliation in what is likely to remain the defining moment of 2020.

In iconic scenes, the US Embassy in Baghdad was stormed and fires set by pro-Iran militants who smashed windows, broke security cameras and chanted “Death to America!” as they attacked the largest American foreign mission in the world. Within days of the siege being lifted, the United States responded in decisive manner, ordering a drone strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani, killing him and several other ranking Iranian and Iraqi Shia jihadists.

Before a look at how those events began, it is important to know that these were not Iraqi “protesters,” as erroneously reported by many news outlets.

Real Iraqi protesters have been out on the streets of Baghdad and many other cities across Iraq calling for an overhaul of their corrupt political system and for the Iranian presence in Iraq to end.

Each time they neared the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses the United States’ and other embassies, they would be fired upon, with many killed. The Shia jihadists who attacked the US Embassy January 31 are the same people who have been repeatedly highlighted as perpetrating human rights abuses against actual Iraqi protesters acting under the direction of the IRGC and Soleimani.

Back to how this happened: the United States retaliated to repeated Iran-orchestrated attacks and, on December 29, bombed bases housing pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah militia members. This came after Kata’ib Hezbollah launched a rocket attack on December 27 against a military base housing Americans near Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

The Kata’ib Hezbollah attack led to the death of an American contractor and the wounding of several US service members, drawing Washington’s ire. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised a “decisive response” that killed at least 25 Shia jihadists.

However, although Pompeo told UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres the US strikes were “aimed at deterring Iran and protecting American lives,” the Iranians and their proxies did not seem to care and attacked the US Embassy.

What the incident demonstrates is a profound lack of respect for American power and threatened to undermine American will to wield that power. It also demonstrates Iran’s deep influence over the Iraqi security apparatus and how its proxies were undeterred by the US air strikes.

The reason Iran’s proxies were so confident in striking at US interests is simply because of how American foreign policy has played out the past several years.

Many in the Middle East were hopeful after Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 that the US president would finally stand up to the Iranians rather than try to appease them. While Trump has ramped up economic sanctions and tore up the failed Iran nuclear deal, he has done very little to protect American allies in the region until he wiped Soleimani off the board.

When Saudi Arabia’s vital oil infrastructure that supplies a large percentage of the world’s energy requirements was attacked last summer by Houthi extremists backed by Iran, Washington did very little.

When a US military drone was shot down by Iran over international waters in the Arabian Gulf, Trump allegedly ordered a strike against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets but pulled back because he thought the loss of lives was disproportionate to the loss of a drone.

This sent a message that the United States may retaliate against peripheral targets deep in the Iraqi and Syrian desert but would not risk an all-out confrontation with Iran’s proxies or Iran itself.

The White House needed to decide how valuable is its prestige as the world’s foremost power.

The repeated provocations and the attack on the US Embassy made that decision easy for Trump, who definitively re-established American deterrence by killing the most violent mass murderer in the Middle East. Washington was aware that Russia and China waiting for signs of weakness but Trump showed strength and established that US red lines are very much to be considered real.

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