Mark Esper, US secretary of defense
The heated situation in Iraq is expected to take a turn for the worse after Iran launched a volley of missiles early Wednesday at Iraqi bases housing US and other coalition troops.
The Iranian military machine and Tehran’s proxies in the region are readying to retaliate for Washington’s assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) figure who had commanded the elite Quds Force. The orders that the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued to this effect have further ratcheted up tensions in the region, raising the spectre of a full-scale war that could easily spread well beyond the Iranian/Iraqi theatre. The US, in response, has raised its state of alert to maximum. Military observers fear that the rules of engagement between Tehran and Washington are spiralling out of control and that attempts to pull the two sides away from the brink will prove futile. Operation Blue Lightning, the codename given to the American targeted assassination of the Iranian commander, has triggered a dynamic more widespread and unpredictable than a turning point in Iranian-US relations.
It is important not to overlook the other Iranian figures who were killed alongside Suleimani. Foremost among them was Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandes, deputy head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). This occurred, moreover, only a few days after more than 25 PMF operatives were killed in other US strikes in Iraq, including Abu Ali Khazali of the Hizbullah Brigades. Khazali, a senior PMF figure that Iran had relied on to ensure its supply lines to the fronts in both Iraq and Syria, had been close to both Suleimani and Al-Muhandes. As a result, the desire for revenge will spread among many of the groups that fall under the PMF, including the Hizbullah Brigades and Asaib Ahl Al-Haqq (League of the Righteous), both of which the US has branded as terrorist organisations. Other Shia forces, including those not as structurally or ideologically linked to Iran, will feel compelled to join the forthcoming confrontation against the US, most notably the Peace Companies, a revival of the Mahdi Army created by the Shia religious leader Muqtada Al-Sadr.
The “fourth strike” in the escalating exchange between the US and Tehran will set the contours of this confrontation. The first strike was carried out by the Iraq Hizbullah against the K1 airbase near Kirkuk. This was followed by US strikes against Hizbullah targets in Iraq and Syria, to which Iran replied by mobilising the demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in Baghdad. The third was the US strike that killed Suleimani. The fourth will depend on the results of the exchange of messages between the two sides via the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
One possibility is that Iran will undertake a single retaliatory strike against a US target if Washington shows a constructive response, after which it will work to strike a new “deal” through negotiations. Trump has indicated a willingness to talk with Tehran on numerous occasions. He has said more than once that Iran can win in negotiations while it can’t win in war. In the event of such a deal, Iran would be able to keep its Iraqi-based militias as a guarantee.
Another possibility, however, would be a strategy of going for the head, involving a risky leap that would put President Trump in the position of having to declare war. The inspiration, in this regard, would come from the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, which brought the end of the Jimmy Carter administration. As soon as Ronald Reagan won the next elections, Tehran freed the hostages.
The current administration in Washington, which claims not to want to engineer regime change in Iran, is bent on a strategy of going for the heads in quarters of the regime that threaten the US. It will continue this strategy in the form of “pre-emptive” strikes and “deterrent” measures.
Each side is now scrambling to reinforce their fronts, especially the ones that bring them face to face. The US was in the process of reducing its military presence in the Middle East. Now it is doing the reverse. In the aftermath of its Blue Lighting Operation, it announced that it would send an additional 3,000 troops to the region. It has not indicated where the troops will be deployed, but the lion’s share will probably be destined to Iraq. This will pose a challenge to any new Iraqi government in view of the pressures exerted by PMF militias and other political forces to rescind the agreement Baghdad signed in 2014 with the US-led anti-Islamic State group coalition, permitting the presence of foreign troops in Iraq in order to fight terrorism.
Suleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani
Tehran, for its part, is rebuilding and reinforcing the PMF military infrastructure that was damaged in Iraq, as well as the military infrastructures of its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and, perhaps, elsewhere in the world where it may have sleeping cells. There is no doubt that the Iranian deterrence theory and architecture have received debilitating blows. Its lines of support for its proxies abroad have been exposed in many ways. The Israeli drone strikes against PMF bases in northern Iraq tangibly threw into relief the need to reinforce these bases. But more stinging was the blow delivered to Iranian intelligence and security by the assassination of the strongman in the Iranian military/security apparatus.
It is commonly believed that Washington handed Iraq to Iran without resistance for which it is certainly paying the price today. But it is no secret that the US and Iran have been coordinating with each other in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. Since 2011, in particular, they have exhibited a considerable degree of flexibility towards each other in their handling of the situations in Syria and Iraq, primarily using the Iraqi government as an intermediary. That mechanism is no longer functional and both sides must be thinking that the continued presence of the other in Iraq is no longer sustainable. If Iran hopes to end the US military presence there, using pressures asserted by the parliament in Baghdad, Washington is clearly bent on getting Iran out of Iraq where it poses a direct competition to the US presence in the region.
As tensions flare and the world girds for the next Iranian move in the Tehran-Washington boxing match in the Iraqi arena, it is impossible to predict whether the two sides will slip over the brink into a war that could engulf the Middle East, or whether appeals for restraint will prevail and bring an end to the dangerous tit-for-tat cycle. What is certain is that there are no guarantees that the dynamics between the two sides can be kept under control. Another sad certainty to be derived from recent developments is that the Arabs do not hold the key to transformations in the large swathe of the Middle East. Rather, it lays in the hands of outside powers with expansionist ambitions that set their sights on Arab countries.
Iraq is one of these countries that is paying a tragic price and that has been reduced to an arena for the battles between other powers. Forthcoming developments will not only reveal how the Iran-US conflict plays out in Iraq, but also how similar regional/international power struggles play out in other Arab countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.