Iran’s rock and America’s hard place

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 29 Jun 2021

US air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria this week may prove a headache for Baghdad, writes Bassem Aly

Iran’s rock  and America’s hard place
The funeral of a fighter of Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary alliance who died during US air strikes on the Syrian-Iraqi border (photo: AFP)

As if proving that Iraq is destined to be an arena of strategic tensions between the Iranians and the Americans, the United States launched “defencive precision air strikes” early on Monday against Iran-backed militias in both Syria and Iraq.

The aerial campaign targeted “operations and weapons storage facilities” at three locations. Two of them were in Syria, while the remaining one was in Iraq.

The strikes came on the order of the Biden administration, which believes that the selected targets were “utilised by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq.”

US official estimates suggest that at least five drone attacks have been carried out against US personnel and facilities used by the US-led Coalition forces in Iraq over the past two months.

The strikes are a headache for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, however. Jason Brodsky, a senior Middle East analyst at the London-based Iran International TV, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Iraq would continue to be caught between “an Iranian rock and an American hard place, as they say, for some time.”

He also said that Al-Kadhimi had failed to stop an “uptick” in attacks on US troops in Iraq.

“I think the prime minister is under a great deal of pressure, and that’s why we have seen some aggressive statements from Baghdad today after the air strikes. He is obviously trying to placate a domestic political audience,” Brodsky said.

He said Washington still thinks of the Iraqi prime minister as an important partner, which is why it was “taking care not to launch too provocative air strikes on Iraq in order to avoid inflaming the domestic political situation” for Al-Kadhimi.

Although the Biden administration has reached a point at which “it needs to reestablish deterrence in Iraq,” US troops have only attacked one site in Iraq, wanting to make “careful decisions” with regard to the country.

But Brodsky said that this approach had not stopped the Biden administration from targeting websites linked to Iranian media such as Press TV and starting to employ more aggressive public messaging regarding its posture in the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear deal, saying it is prepared to “walk away” if the talks continue to drag on and the Iranians do not “seriously engage.”

Sitting next to Israel’s outgoing president Reuvin Rivlin in the Oval Office in Washington on Monday, Biden pledged that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch.”

Iran has not officially responded to the air strikes, but the Iran-sponsored Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces said the air strikes had killed four of their militants. The group announced that “we affirm that we maintain the legal right to respond to these attacks.”

Another Iran-backed militia, Kataeb Hizbullah, said that this “crime will not go unpunished.” On Twitter, Iraqi Army Spokesman Yehia Rasool described the air strikes as “a blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security.”

There have already been responses to the attacks elsewhere. Wayne Marotto, a spokesman for the US military mission in Baghdad, tweeted on Monday that at 7:44 pm local time “US forces in Syria were attacked by multiple rockets.”

Marotto confirmed that no one had died or been injured, noting that the extent of the damage was being studied. The US forces in Syria had responded with artillery fire at the sites where the rockets were launched, he announced.

Many Iraqis want the US troops to leave Iraq, said Trita Parsi, executive vice-president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington. He said that Iraq’s parliament had officially demanded the departure of US troops from the country.

“The US does not need to be in Iraq to protect its own interests. Moreover, if the idea is that the US military presence is supposed to help make Iraq safe, then that cannot by definition be achieved if the US itself is engaged in a proxy war in Iraqi territory,” he said.

Asked if the aerial attacks could be a US bid to appease Israel, which refuses a nuclear deal with Iran, Parsi said “it is not implausible.” He said that Biden might have sought to demonstrate to Israel his commitment to confronting Iran in the region “even if a nuclear deal is achieved.”

“In return, the Biden administration wants the new Israeli government to avoid opposing the JCPOA [the nuclear deal with Iran] publicly, something that the [Israeli Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett government appears inclined to go along with,” he explained.

The tense relationship between the United States and Tehran began years before Biden was president. It was a major cause of Donald Trump’s, Biden’s predecessor, withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.

Alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the shooting down of a US drone in the Gulf and the US killing of Qassem Al-Suleimani, the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al-Quds Force who handled the Iraqi militias, are examples of this tension.

The impact of the recent US airstrikes on Iraq and Syria is still to be seen. They are “militarily minimal,” but they could be promoted by the Biden administration as evidence of its tough posture in the region, said Kanishkan Sathasivam, a professor of international relations at Salem State University in the US.

“But it is not going to impress the Iranians, or the Iraqi militias, or the Israelis in any way. I expect the only people who will be impressed are naïve US news media commentators,” Sathasivam said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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