(December 31, 2019 / JNS) As events unfold rapidly in Iraq, one emerging trend is already clear: Iran is seeking to exploit events to change the anti-Iranian narrative in Iraq and to punish America at the same time for its airstrikes.
On Monday, the U.S. Air Force launched attacks on multiple bases of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah Shi’ite militia in Iraq and Syria, killing dozens of people. The airstrikes came in retaliation for a rocket attack on Saturday launched by the militia on a U.S. base in northern Iraq, killing an American contractor.
The U.S. strikes caused at least 25 casualties, according to reports.
In a tit-for-tat military dynamic, the Iranians and their militias could “reach a situation in which the Americans respond to everything they do as they did on Monday, which reportedly ended with dozens of casualties, including Iranian officers,” Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS.
“What the Iranians know is that intelligence-wise, there is someone giving the Americans information on where Kataib Hezbollah is located, and information on the Popular Mobilization Forces [the umbrella organization representing some 100,000 Shi’ite militia members in Iraq]—in short, all of the information on pro-Iranian militias in Iraq,” stated Rabi.
“There is an intelligence capability, there is a military-technological capability, and therefore, the bottom line is that there is a situation where if they respond to a response, they enter a place from which they don’t emerge well,” he added.
On Tuesday, under the orders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq have led mob attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a place Rabi described as highly symbolic and sensitive. “They are trying to divert the protests in Iraq, which among other things are aimed against them and against foreign intervention in general, and to give the Americans a hard time as a response for what they did,” explained Rabi.
Mob attacks on an embassy create plausible deniability for Iran, making it an attractive option to Tehran, he said. “Ultimately, the Iranians are showing the Americans that they have many options on the ground. That they don’t have to respond with missiles or drones when they can make life bitter via the streets. At present, the Iranians are trying to create a situation in which the U.S.’s presence is seen at the problem. And they’re doing it via a ‘theater of civilization’: the U.S. embassy.”
Rabi described this response as essentially a psychological and perception maneuver, as part of a wider shadow war.
“In this war, Iran is receiving many blows, including on the Syrian-Iraqi border,” said Rabi, referring to reports of alleged recent Israeli attacks on Iranian weapons, bases and militias. “One must hope that some of the things happening in Iraq will turn into a pressure belt around the Iranian regime’s neck.”
‘Protests had an anti-Iranian sentiment’
Col. (res.) Udi Evental, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said a struggle over narratives is currently raging within Iraq.
“The Shi’ite militias and Iran are trying to divert the focus from the anti-Iranian sentiment of the demonstrations that have occurred over the past two months and turn the rage in the direction of the United States,” Evental, formerly head of the Strategic Planning Unit of the Political-Military and Policy Bureau of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, told JNS.
“This is their objective. The attack on the embassy was organized by the militias; their supporters pounced on the embassy following funerals of casualties from the U.S. attacks,” he said.
In the short term, Iran will likely have some success in changing the course of the Iraqi protests that have targeted severe failures among the government in Baghdad, which was under the influence of Iran and corrupt Iraqi elites.
“The protests had an anti-Iranian sentiment. Now the Iranians are trying to change that,” said Evental.
For now, , however, Iran’s chances of succeeding are low since the demonstrations have been occurring for two months, and some of the 400 Iraqis killed while protesting were shot by militias under the command of the Iranian Quds Force.
“Iran, the Quds Force and the militias are partners to the brutal repression inside Iraq that led to many casualties. Hence, what we are seeing [around the embassy] is mainly militia activity. I’m not sure they will be able to change the focus of the protests,” said Evental.
While all Iraqi political leaders have condemned the U.S. strikes, some prominent figures—heads of Shi’ite political parties not subservient to Tehran—have also criticized the actions of Tehran’s militias.
“The picture in Iraq is complex,” said Evental. “This is still an event that is forming..
‘How to respond to future attacks’
Washington faces new dilemmas, said Evental, since in the immediate future its freedom of maneuver in Iraq has been restricted. While that restriction probably won’t last, the Iranians are unlikely to be deterred by the airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah.
“Strategically, the Iranians aren’t deterred. Iran will tell itself, ‘If they hit our proxies but not us, we can continue to operate by proxy,’ ” said Evental.
“The strategic attack that the Iranians are planning, which the commander of U.S. Central Command spoke about, I don’t think the American airstrikes will dissuade them,” he continued. “The U.S. is in a dilemma over how to respond to future attacks. The militias have vowed revenge.”
Although the embassy incident could come in place of armed attacks, the loss of 25 casualties will spark a fierce desire for a response among Iran’s militias. As a result, Evental argued, America needs to decide whether the next time it comes under militia attack, it will hit Iranian targets directly instead of making do with striking Iran’s proxies.
A direct strike on Iranians will risk escalation and being dragged into a wider Middle Eastern clash—something U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated he wishes to avoid.
With Iran likely to continue attacks around the region, including in Iraq and the Gulf, Israel is likely to continue to have to deal with the Quds Force largely on its own in Syria, said Evental.
Israel’s own shadow war against Iran will have to be guided with extra caution when it approaches the Iraqi-Syrian border, he stressed.
“Iraq is a boiling arena at the moment,” he noted. “Any operation that comes close to this area has to be very coordinated with the Americans, to avoid tripping them up in Iraq, where they are involved in an intensive effort.”
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