Opinion: US Sabotages Its Grip on the Middle East in Tug-of-War with Iran
Author: Karuna Savoie
Amidst a cycle of retaliation, the U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed militia groups in March are another reminder that the U.S. is sabotaging its grip as the world’s leading superpower.
Since the strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Shiite militias backed by Tehran, like the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), formerly lead by al-Muhandis, have launched missiles against U.S. targets roughly every two weeks. Iran was found responsible for the Jan. 8 missile attack on two Iraqi bases stationing U.S. soldiers.
On March 11, Iranian-backed militia groups, notably Usbat al-Thaireen (which U.S. officials believe is a front for the PMF) fired rockets at the Camp Taji military base north of Baghdad, killing two American and one British service member, and wounding 14 others. Since the Camp Taji attack, there have been at least four attacks around U.S. installations in Iraq.
“This has been going on for several months. We complain, the [Iraqi] government doesn't do anything. The militias do it again, the government doesn’t do anything,” an anonymous U.S. official told The Washington Post.
The U.S. did respond to the Camp Taji incident on March 12 by launching airstrikes against five facilities thought to hold weapons used to target U.S. troops. Britain declined to aid the American retaliation, as it did not believe the U.S. had enough evidence to justify a strike.
Kata’ib Hezbollah is the militant wing of Hezbollah belonging to the PMF’s Iraq-sponsored coalition against Israel and “Western” interference in the Middle East. The U.S. believed the group to be responsible for the Camp Taji attack, and targeted them in the retaliatory March 12 airstrike. However, the group’s loyalty to Iraq is split—like many PMF militias, Hezbollah receives large amounts of financial support from Iran.
Soleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps deployed forces abroad in the 1980s, where Hezbollah took credit for bombings at the U.S. embassy in Beirut that killed 241 service members, the deadliest terror attack against the U.S. before 9/11. A Hezbollah member was also responsible for bombing and killing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Manish Rai, a writer for Kurdish outlet Bas News, explained that “taking revenge for Suleimani ... is not about pleasing Iran … For [Hezbollah], it’s personal loss too. As the primary architect of Iran’s strategic efforts to promote its expansion and undermine U.S. influence, Suleimani was particularly beloved by Hezbollah.”
In 1992, Hezbollah orchestrated a suicide bombing at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and wounding more than 200, after Israel assassinated their secretary-general Sheikh Abbas Musawi. Hezbollah has long been capable of lethal vengeance worldwide; they have killed the highest number of Americans after Al-Qaeda. Hezbollah does not make hollow threats.
These Iran-backed militias have been legal agents of the Iraqi government since 2016. While the U.S. wants Iraq to take action, the militias’ power hinders Iraq’s ability to curb the violence.
“No judge will issue an arrest warrant against a senior militia member if he wants to stay alive,” a senior Iraqi military official told The Washington Post. “Let’s be honest. If the militias want to attack the bases, we can’t stop them.”
Militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah might be Iraqi-based, but their ties to Iran are deep. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps trains them, but through these proxies, also provides services and security to desperate communities by taking over humanitarian organizations. This has enabled Iran to acquire popularity and loyalty to their cause.
Iran-Iraq spy cables leaked in 2019 reveal Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq: co-opting leaders, paying agents who work for the U.S. to switch sides, and infiltrating every aspect of Iraqi politics. Rather than constraining Iran’s influence, the U.S. has funneled billions of dollars into supporting Iraq’s already-compromised government, according to the spy cables.
Rather than an effective act of deterrence, the killing Soleimani shows that the U.S. is becoming weaker. Shortly after the funeral procession for the Shiite militants killed in the U.S. strikes on Dec. 31, a large crowd of Kata’ib Hezbollah supporters, as well as other militant group members connected to Tehran, stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This humiliating moment is just one of the many that symbolize America’s loosening hold on Iraq.
Despite having more than five thousand advisors to assist forces in rebuilding Iraq’s military—for the second time since 2003—the U.S. has done little to convince Iraq that their actions are in their interests. The U.S. has abandoned economic reform and stability in the region, and instead, has a president who speaks about withdrawal. Meanwhile, there is no question that Iran is committed to shoving the U.S. out of the picture.
Ultimately, Rai says that America should not differentiate between Iran and Hezbollah. They are one entity, and intend to force the U.S. out of Iraq, and the Middle East, for good. In this tug-of-war on its soil, Iraq is caught in the middle.
Abu Hussein, a fighter in the PMF, claimed that “more attacks are coming, and more bases are going to be hit … Iran will not stop attacking until American is out of the Middle East completely.”
Iranian generals cannot be killed without consequences, that much is clear. For the U.S., this begs the question of how to deter militias from taking further action without risking the lives of more troops.
The fact that the U.S. must continually retaliate shows just how weak it is in Iraq. American presence is not enough—its shell of an embassy shows that much. American force is not faring any better.
“My assumption is that the president is going to say ‘I’m not willing to escalate, to start something in an election year while we have coronavirus at home,” Kirsten Fontenrose, former senior official on Trump’s National Security Council said.
Despite this, the president is, and has been, starting something. Tensions in the Middle East have only risen since the U.S. left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and began reinstating sanctions. The U.S., and six European countries, gave Iran greater access to the global economy in exchange for lessening Iran’s capabilities of developing a nuclear weapon.
“I have outlined two possible paths forward; either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw,” Trump said in January of 2018. Instead, he wants more intrusive inspections and to extend restrictions put on Iran’s nuclear program so that the provisions would not expire.
The problem is, the agreement was not just about nuclear weapons, it was also about economic influence.
The world economy is largely influenced by American values of market-based trade, an economy that has even adapted to include competitors like China. By abandoning this nuclear agreement, the U.S. has failed to do the same with Iran, to integrate another competitor into its sphere of influence. By withdrawing, the U.S. chose “nothing” in a scenario that was anything but “all or nothing.”
The airstrikes give the same message. Instead of cooperating with Iraq to find a bilateral solution to the militias’ shows of force, the U.S. dove further into an expanding cycle of retaliation that could put both American lives and Iraqi sovereignty at risk. If the U.S. worked with the Iraqi government to achieve stability through diplomatic and economic means, then Suleimani’s assassination would have provided some leverage against Iran, a supplement of force. Instead, the U.S. continues to use Iraq as a front for confrontation with Iran.
“We are all against foreign interventions, whether from Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States,” another protestor, Mustafa Nader said. “If America were to intervene at the same level as Iran, you will see as much objection as there has been against Iran, and maybe stronger.”
The U.S. needs to acknowledge its current shortcomings, not just in the words of international relations scholars, in order to maintain global influence. It must recognize that respect for another country’s sovereignty still applies even in times of needed foreign interference. If the U.S. wants everything, it must prove that influence can be retained through compromise, not just force.