(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At the beginning of the year, the U.S. and Iran came close to war, following a series of attacks in Iraq. Now, as all three countries grapple with the coronavirus epidemic, another round of confrontation is looming.
Once again, rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups on American targets in Iraq are driving the escalation. On March 11, an attack on Camp Taji attributed to the Kataib Hezbollah group killed two U.S. and one British servicemen. The next day, the U.S. retaliated with at least five attacks on group’s weapons depots.
It was strikingly reminiscent of the exchange of attacks that culminated in the January 3 killing, by a U.S. drone strike, of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran’s retaliation did not take any American lives, but left scores of soldiers with hear trauma. An uneasy lull followed.
Now the two sides are again threatening each other with dire consequences. On April 1, Donald Trump said Iran was planning a “sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq” and warned the next American “response will be bigger.” Iran responded that the U.S. would face “the fiercest response” to any counterstrike.
Why is this happening now? Because both sides see an opportunity.
The escalation is largely driven by Iran’s ongoing imperative to carve out some breathing space from the suffocating U.S. economic sanctions. Tehran is convinced that it needs some military leverage to achieve this. And Iraq is the place that Iran can challenge the U.S. directly, without having to pay the bills, literally and metaphorically. Many of the Iraqi militias, even those that take instructions from Tehran, are funded by the Iraqi government.
Iran now finds itself on the back foot across the region, as well as dealing with several crises at home. Its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, are in the uncomfortable position of having responsibility—it prefers to have just power—in the middle of an economic catastrophe. In Syria, Iran is being increasingly elbowed to the sidelines by Russia, Turkey and the Assad regime. And in Iraq, its proxies allies have so far failed to secure their own candidate for the prime ministership and are trying to fend off an effectively pro-Western candidate, Adnan al-Zurfi, nominated by President Barham Saleh.
But Iran still has a trump card in Iraq: the Shiite sectarian militia groups collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Using them to attack the U.S. provides that military leverage with a degree of plausible deniability.
The regime in Tehran also needs to exert its authority over the militias. Al-Muhandis was the PMF’s unquestioned leader, but although Iran and its allies were able to replace him with another Kataib Hezbollah commander, Abu Fadak al-Mohammedawi, at least two other candidates have challenged his leadership. The coordination of the PMF groups is in relative chaos, and the authority of Abu Fadak—and hence of Iran—is yet to be consolidated. A bloody battle against U.S. troops in Iraq might help establish the new man’s credentials.
Moreover, Iran needs the PMF groups to consolidate their position within the Iraqi political structure and fend off a potential pro-U.S. prime minister.
The Iranian regime and revenge-seeking Iraqi militants aren’t the only ones yearning for a fight. A contingent within the Trump administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, believes now is the time to escalate pressure on Iran, as it is battered by an economic crisis brought on by intensifying U.S. sanctions, the coronavirus epidemic, and the collapse in the price of oil, as well as a myriad of regional woes. The Pentagon has ordered commanders to draw up a plan to try to destroy Kataib Hezbollah’s capability to attack U.S. forces in Iraq.
This was strongly opposed by the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White. President Trump, too, appears reluctant to intensify the escalation with Iran under current circumstances.
But Iran and its Iraqi client groups may be encouraged by reports that U.S. forces are being consolidated into a smaller number of forward operating bases; the regime in Tehran believes this is an important step to the eventual removal of all American troops from Iraq. They will want to hurry the U.S. departure, but in a way that doesn’t invite massive retaliation.
American casualties from rocket fire would require Trump to act decisively to restore deterrence, which has weakened since the drone strike on Soleimani and Muhandis. Several Patriot missile batteries have been installed to protect bases from incoming rocket fire.
There are just too many itchy fingers on triggers in Iraq for anybody’s comfort.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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