Twice in a span of 40 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has managed to humiliate the world’s preeminent superpower by striking at one of its main symbols, and in the exact same way.
In 1979, supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking its staff hostage. On Tuesday, on the last day of 2019, members of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad—almost taking American hostages again.
In many ways, Tuesday’s humiliation was even more stinging. The “Green Zone” in Baghdad, which houses the U.S. Embassy along with other embassies and government buildings, is a fortified area, perhaps one of the most guarded compounds on the planet, surrounded by outer and inner rings of Iraqi soldiers and security personnel. Dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints are positioned on the roads leading to the Green Zone.
In hindsight, it appears the compound’s guards stood by as thousands of protesters entered through the main gate and allowed them to advance unimpeded toward the embassy, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.
Images broadcast from inside the embassy, where several rooms were torched by the militiamen, showed American soldiers crowded together, besieged and likely frightened regarding their fate.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Tuesday that Iran was behind the embassy attack, and he wasn’t wrong. Over the past six months, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has watched as the Americans have completely failed to respond to a series of provocations he has ordered in retaliation for the economic sanctions imposed on his country—from the lack of response to the targeting of oil tankers and downing of an American drone in the Persian Gulf, to ignoring the bombing of Saudi oil facilities.
Soleimani concluded that it was safe to raise the stakes. The rocket attack last week by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah Brigades militia, under direct orders from Tehran, on the American-Iraqi base near Kirkuk—which killed an American defense contractor and wounded two others—was a planned ambush. The American counter-strike, which claimed the lives of 30 militiamen, gave Soleimani the opportunity to order the participants in their funerals in Baghdad on Tuesday to storm the U.S. Embassy.
In general, Iraq is Soleimani’s preferred area of operations in the war he is waging against the United States in the Middle East, for several reasons. One is that it allows the Iranians to use their proxies, keeping their hands clean. Secondly, the thousands of American soldiers in Iraq are a convenient target, because many of them are stationed in bases located within easy range of the pro-Iranian militias.
Thirdly, a conflict with the United States on Iraqi soil via the militias beholden to Tehran helps the Iranians strike a wedge between Washington and the Iraqi government. Thus, for instance, because many of the militia fighters who were harmed in the American airstrikes were Iraqi citizens, the outgoing Iraqi prime minister was forced to condemn the American action and the “violation of his country’s sovereignty”—without even mentioning the attack on the American base in Kirkuk.
Furthermore, it became clear on Tuesday that Iran intends to exploit the “embassy incident” to rally public support in Iraq for expelling American forces from the country.
To this end, the protesters were instructed to erect tents around the embassy compound and prepare for an extended stay—which is why Washington quickly demanded their immediate removal by the Iraqi government.
The clash with Iran on Iraqi soil, which escalated on Tuesday, presents the Trump administration with a difficult dilemma. On one hand, maintaining its policy of restraint in the face of Iranian provocations will only encourage the Iranians to carry out even more brazen attacks via their proxies—and if, heaven forbid, Trump ultimately decides to withdraw his forces from Iraq, Iran will celebrate its greatest victory.
On the other hand, any decision by Washington to continue hitting Iran and its proxies militarily, while certainly appropriate, could ensnare the United States in a war that Trump, in an election year, really doesn’t want.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.