In Iran, suspicions have arisen regarding a possible American move against pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias active in Iraq, and due to an Iraqi prime ministerial election which could result in opposition to continued support for Iranian activities in Iraq. This comes after a renewed deployment of U.S. forces at bases in the country and a number of reports in the international media claiming the United States plans to “crush” the Shi’ite militias loyal to Tehran. The main reports are focused on the Kata’ib Hezbollah, a member of the coalition of militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi) that has recently stepped up its threats to strike U.S. forces and interests in Iraq.

On April 1, U.S President Donald Trump tweeted: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

On social media, Iranian regime supporters responded by mocking Trump, tweeting: “We are waiting for your newest silly move,” with an upload of a photograph of American naval officers who surrendered when apprehended a few years ago by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy, adding the hashtag #HardRevenge #عين_الأسد (referring to Ein al-Asad, the base that was attacked by Iran in retaliation for the U.S. assassination in January of IRGC chief Qassem Soleimani), and accompanying photographs of coffins covered in American flags.

The new Quds Force commander’s first public visit to Iraq

Tensions rose following the first public visit to Iraq by IRGC Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani. Ghaani replaced Soleimani, who was killed on Jan. 3. According to reports, Ghaani’s arrival by air was meant to consolidate the Shi’ite militias and prevent the establishment of a new Iraqi government headed by Adnan al-Zurufi. Ghaani, who neither speaks fluent Arabic nor commands the loyalty and the broad social network of his predecessor Soleimani, will be required to make great efforts in his mission to unify the Shi’ite factions and prevent the election of al-Zurufi.

Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson said that the deployment of Patriot missile launchers in Iraq was meant to guard Iraq’s national security and that of coalition forces active in it after the attack on the American army at Camp Taji on March 11, 2020, in which three soldiers were killed (one British and two Americans). The decision to deploy the launchers faced opposition by a number of factions in Iraq, perhaps because the decision was made due to American estimates that Iran and its proxies would attack Iraqi bases by missiles, rockets or mortars.

The anti-U.S. reaction is not limited to Iraq

Security and political echelons in Iran warned in recent days of the consequences to be expected if the United States attacks the Iranian loyalist Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Iranian leader’s senior adviser on security and formerly the chief commander of the IRGC, said that he advises the security and political authorities of the United States to take responsibility for the possible consequences of their actions in Iraq, saying, “The U.S. will absorb great strategic failure during this president’s term.”

The head of the Iranian army’s Center for Strategic Research, Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, warned that if the Americans make a mistake, the resulting retaliation will not necessarily be felt in Iraq, and American interests will be targeted everywhere. In any event, the predictable reaction will be “crushing and will cause great despair.” He added that the “Resistance Front” (the Shi’ite militias in Iraq) and the “determined Iraqi people … are not interested in U.S. presence in the area.” He mocked the United States and called upon its security forces to focus on coronavirus victims in New York, Florida and other areas, before opening a new front in Iraq.

‘Every military mistake will bring the elimination of Zionism’

On April 1, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Abbas Mousavi, called on the United States to refrain from creating tensions in the region in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and to respect the decision of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people and leave the country. Media outlets in Iran quoted the Secretary General of the United Nations, who called upon all sides to refrain from regional conflicts during the pandemic. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Special Aide to the President of the Islamic Parliament in Iran (Majlis), tweeted in English that it is clear that a deployment of  forces in Iraq (specifically) and in the region (generally) constitutes a kind of “psychological war … Any military mistake by Americans will lead to their swift withdrawal from the region & Zionism termination.”

Before this, Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC commander who today heads the Committee for the Protection of Iranian Interests, warned the United States not to take action directed against the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in the country. Rezaee tweeted: “Every action by the United States in Iraq is like an action of the Islamic State. There is no difference between terrorism that is carried out by a terror organization or by a state … the United States will not leave Iraq, the Iraqi people will expel them.”

Nasser al-Shammari, secretary general of the Iran-backed Iraqi Hezbollah Al-Nujaba Movement, said in this context that “if the choice is between death and the continuation of the American occupation, we then adopt the struggle with open arms.”

The IRGC also released a warning on March 31, 2020, stating that “the smallest mistake by the Satan [United States] and Iran’s adventurous enemies will be their last mistake … Tehran’s reaction will be so bold, destructive and inconceivable that the enemy will not [even] be able to regret its action.” The message also emphasized that Iran’s influence extends much beyond the strategic region of Western Asia, and it has turned into “A nightmare for the leaders of the United States, the Zionist entity, and their Satanic allies.”

The pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq continue to act against both American military and diplomatic interests in Iraq. For now, the United States has shown restraint regarding the killing of its people in the March 11 attack at Camp Taji, yet it seems that the continuation of militia actions, with the encouragement of Tehran, will draw a broader American reaction.

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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