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U.S. airstrikes in Iraq on December 29 — in response to the killing of an American contractor two days prior — killed two dozen members of the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. In the days since, thousands of pro-Iranian demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, with some forcing their way into the embassy compound and setting some of the outbuildings on fire. Below, Brookings experts analyze the Trump administration’s decision to retaliate against Kata’ib Hezbollah and what it means for U.S.-Iraq relations, Iran’s influence in Iraq, Iraqis’ attitudes towards the United States and Iran, and more.
Ranj Alaaldin (@RanjAlaaldin), Visiting Fellow in the Brookings Doha Center and Director of the Proxy Wars Initiative: U.S.-Iran tensions have manifested themselves on Iraqi soil for a number of years. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, in particular, American forces regularly targeted Shiite militias, and Iranian proxies launched some of their most audacious and brazen attacks on U.S. and other Western personnel. Kata’ib Hezbollah has long troubled the U.S. and Iraqi governments and has been at the forefront of efforts to violently suppress the civilian-led protests that have gripped Iraq in recent months, efforts that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians. Part of the challenge for Washington is that it still lacks a political strategy that allows it to leverage its military superiority over Iran and its Iraqi proxies, one that empowers U.S.-aligned groups in Iraq that have long desperately pleaded for a more assertive American presence in the country.
There are serious questions that have to be addressed in Washington and Baghdad: How is the U.S. working with its allies in Iraq to push back against Iran’s influence? Why did the Iraqi military allow Kata’ib Hezbollah militias to storm the U.S. embassy? What steps has the Iraqi government taken to ensure the U.S. and Iran do not use its territory as a launching pad for attacks on one another?
Things in Iraq could turn ugly very quickly. How would the U.S. react if there were another American fatality, this time in the heart of Baghdad? The storming of the embassy was partly the proxies reasserting their presence in the country and partly an attempt to diminish the protest movement. For the coming weeks, they’ll have the upper hand in the political theater, which is precisely what they wanted. Their rivals can only hope they won’t be able to sustain the momentum.
Moving forward, there needs to be a far greater effort by Iraqi politicians and institutions like the Iraqi military to constrain the space for Iran’s proxies to operate. Otherwise, Iraq could dramatically deteriorate, possibly prompting the U.S. to give up on Iraq’s institutions and move toward a more coercive containment strategy (including, for instance, airstrikes on Iraqi territory and sanctions on the Iraqi state). That would be catastrophic for a country that has yet to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS, is struggling to ensure it doesn’t relapse into another civil war, and is already on the brink of a socio-economic implosion.
Scott Anderson (@S_R_Anders), David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Governance Studies program: However justified, the Trump administration’s recent airstrikes do harm to U.S. interests in Iraq. For years, provocations by Iran-backed militias — like the December 27 rocket attack that tragically killed a U.S. contractor — have capitalized on the fact that any U.S. military response is likely to trigger Iraqis’ widespread post-2003 misgivings about U.S. military operations and undermine political support for the U.S.-Iraq relationship. By pursuing an aggressive response over the express objections of Iraqi officials, the Trump administration played into these predictable consequences. Nor are airstrikes likely to be an effective long-run deterrent, as they are too politically costly to pursue with any regularity — at least so long as the United States maintains a significant presence in Iraq.
The United States should have used the December 27 attack to make common cause against Iran-backed militias with Iraqi protesters, who have suffered even greater violence at the militias’ hands. Paired with sanctions and other measures, this could have put pressure on pro-Iran factions during forthcoming government formation negotiations (following the November 29 resignation of the prime minister) and strengthened ongoing efforts to assert government control over the militias. Even if the United States later pursued a military response, such visible early restraint would have strengthened the U.S. case that it was acting only as a last resort. Instead, U.S. actions have pulled public scrutiny off Iran onto itself, and strengthened the leverage of hostile political factions at a sensitive moment in Iraqi politics.
Daniel Byman (@dbyman), Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: The Trump administration’s decision to push back against Iran and its proxies is overdue — indeed, not responding to the death of an American at the hands of an Iranian-backed group would be a devastating admission of U.S. weakness. The good news is that Tehran is sensitive to U.S. pushback, recognizing the relative weakness of its own forces. The response and subsequent back-and-forth, however, also reveal some of the problems created by the administration’s inconsistent and uneven engagement with the region. In recent months, Iran has stepped up its aggression against the United States and its allies, even striking an oil processing plant in Saudi Arabia, an action that in another administration would have been well beyond any red line. The failure to respond to this and other Iranian attacks against allies, and Trump’s open desire to head for the exits, has made the U.S. hand weak, while Iran’s influence had grown. Even staunch anti-Iran powers like Saudi Arabia doubt the U.S. commitment to fighting Iran, and Iraqis recognize that Iran, not the United States, will remain in the region. So now that an open confrontation is occurring, U.S. allies are cautious, Iraqi leaders are skeptical of U.S. promises, and Tehran and its proxies are well-prepared for a long fight.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad (@AFathollahNejad), Visiting Fellow in the Brookings Doha Center: The attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was a show of force by the Iranian-aligned, Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Units and its faction Kata‘ib Hezbollah (or the Hezbollah Brigades). Kata‘ib Hezbollah, the most notorious and most potent Shiite militant force in Iraq, is the militia closest to Tehran, and has as a proxy also fought in the war in Syria under Iranian command.
The embassy attack was probably instigated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and demanded for some time now by Iran’s ultra-conservatives. It was a message sent to the U.S. that Tehran — and not Washington — is the main player on the ground in Iraq.
There can be no doubt that the U.S. — as much as Iran — is deeply unpopular in Iraq, given the legacy of the illegal and brutal U.S. invasion and occupation that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. This also helps explain the shaky grounds on which Washington operates in Iraq’s political scene, as well as Iraq’s propensity to call for a complete U.S. withdrawal from the country.
However, the hundreds of Iraqis attacking the U.S. embassy in Baghdad haven’t been mere “protesters,” as some media reports have called them. Rather, they are largely members of the same Iran-backed militias that, not least at the behest of the IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, were engaged in killing hundreds of peaceful protesters during recent anti-regime demonstrations in Iraq.
There is still an impotent central government in Baghdad that has long been afraid that Iraq would become a battlefield of escalating U.S.-Iran tensions. Dependent on both Washington and Tehran, and with one of the world’s worst corruption problems, it has not been able to craft policies to prevent that outcome and assert its sovereignty. Last but not least, the Islamic Republic — where the aftershocks from the unprecedented November 2019 protests are still felt — might see a mid-level escalation as welcome distraction. Crucially, the embassy incident also helps divert attention away from the Arab Spring-like demonstrations in Iraq’s “Tahrir Square” to these “Green Zone” protests as a way to maintain its challenged power and influence in Iraq. Yet, Iran’s dilemma lies in its collapsing financial means that might counteract its drive for escalation and limit its appeal for Iraq’s political class, whom it also cannot afford to further alienate by such brute shows of force such as the embassy attack.
Jeffrey Feltman, John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy: David Ignatius, in a January 2 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” compared U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to longstanding Israeli military practices: If the enemy kills one of yours, show decisively that the enemy will suffer a far higher casualty rate in response. But the comparison of the U.S. and Israel only goes so far: Israel has managed for years to strike Lebanese Hezbollah facilities in Syria, without triggering anything akin to the humiliation (with potential strategic reverberations) of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Of course, the Israelis do not have an embassy in Damascus, so there is no easy target for an Iranian-sponsored rent-a-mob. But that is the point: The U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew all American personnel in February 2012.
If the intended recipient of the U.S. message to the Kata’ib Hezbollah rocket attacks was predominately Tehran, one wonders why U.S. airstrikes did not focus on Iranian interests inside Syria. The risks of a significant Iranian counter-reaction with strategic implications for the U.S. seem lower in Syria than in Iraq. Trashing a chancery that has been vacant for nearly eight years does not pose a strategic conundrum about the vulnerability of U.S. personnel. The U.S. troops in northeast Syria do not rely on an official blessing from Damascus and presumably have in place significant force-protection measures. War-weary Syrians would be unlikely to muster sustained outrage about yet more violations of sovereignty. Hezbollah does have the power (and precedent) of attacking the U.S. embassy in Beirut, but Hezbollah is unlikely to present its hand-picked Lebanese prime ministerial candidate with a new crisis.
U.S. policymakers know that Iran will respond to pressure and attacks. But in this dangerous game, the U.S. needs to consider targets more carefully than was the case on December 29. The U.S. airstrikes in Iraq were a gift to Iran, eager to shift the focus of growing Iraqi nationalism from Iran to the United States.
I share the sense of Mike and Natan that de-escalation is the preferred course. It is important, however, not to let de-escalation be misunderstood. It is possible to signal support for de-escalation while also making clear that Iran cannot attack U.S. personnel with impunity. There are some steps we can take to link de-escalation to a vigorous effort to shift the focus back to Iran’s malign influence in Iraq, and our interest in countering its regional influence.
- Work to secure support from Iraqi officials for a U.S. policy of holding Iran accountable for any actions that place U.S. personnel and facilities at risk, including our right to take punitive, retaliatory actions.
- If we want to bolster Iraqi sovereignty, we should avoid actions that undermine it, which means more extensive consultations with Iraqi officials about U.S. intentions if/when future actions are determined to be needed.
- Undertake a vigorous public messaging effort in Iraq, making clear that the U.S. is working to strengthen Iraqi sovereignty and the capability of legitimate armed forces, while Iran is undermining sovereignty and empowering its affiliated militias. Make clear we stand with the protestors seeking Iran’s removal from Iraq.
- Respond to the belligerent statements of Kata’ib Hezbollah by noting that the U.S. is capable of asymmetric responses to Iranian aggression. Iran is on a back foot at home, in Lebanon and Iraq, and even in Syria, where Russia is consolidating influence while Iran’s is eroding. Regionally, it is in a more vulnerable position now than at any time since 2011. Visible efforts to lend appropriate support to civil society forces working against Iran in the region should be a priority. But it is only one part of what should be a broader strategy to exploit Iranian weakness. As an aside, it is important to establish that the purpose of such an effort is not regime change, but to work toward a regional security architecture that responds to the interests of all regional actors. It’s worth reinforcing, especially given the biases of the Trump administration, that treating regional security in zero-sum terms is not helpful.
Suzanne Maloney (@MaloneySuzanne), Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy program and Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: The Trump administration is learning a lesson that came at hard cost to each of its predecessors over the past 40 years: There are no quick fixes or cheap victories in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran. U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military superiority over the Islamic Republic is and always has been crystal clear. However, from the very earliest days of the mutual antagonism, Washington’s approach to Iran has been tempered by bipartisan judiciousness about our capabilities and priorities in the Middle East. Policymaking is at its essence about harmonizing resources and objectives, and the prospective costs and risks to American regional interests and partners has always outweighed unconditional ambition and discouraged illusions about a panacea to the Iran problem.This is why Jimmy Carter agonized over a military response to the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, why Ronald Reagan withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon after Iranian-orchestrated terrorist attacks, why both Presidents Bush countenanced diplomacy toward Tehran even as they confronted Saddam Hussein, and why the Obama administration invested in constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions without predicating a deal on any wider amelioration of Iranian domestic or regional malfeasance.
Surrounded by hawks and unfettered by insight or policy deliberation, President Trump has jettisoned the prudent calculus of the Republicans and Democrats who came before him, instead gambling on maximalist tactics as a silver bullet. His far-reaching blockade of Iranian trade and financial transactions has indeed dealt a devastating blow to the country’s economy. Unfortunately, disregarding policy trade-offs doesn’t make them disappear. Through a series of attacks in and around the Persian Gulf since Trump ratcheted up economic pressure, Iran’s leaders have used provocation to generate leverage, inject urgency among world powers, and dissuade their neighbors from cooperating with Washington. The attack on the fortified American presence in Baghdad’s Green Zone was just the latest demonstration of Tehran’s ability to impose costs on U.S. interests and allies.
Although it will receive less media attention than the evocative images of another U.S. embassy under siege, the relatively orderly denouement of the latest skirmish is as telling as its eruption: Tehran is dictating the pace, scope, and location of escalation with precision and deliberation. Iran’s leaders are shrewd navigators of the unsettled regional environment and above all their self-interest lies in regime survival. They sense a particular historical resonance in the vulnerability of an American president in an election year, and they will continue to strike where they see some possibility of enhancing their own advantage and alleviating the siege on their economy. That Iraq has become the foremost arena for this clash only compounds the tragedy, as Iraqis have already paid too high a price for American hubris and Iranian aggression.
President Trump has jettisoned the prudent calculus of the Republicans and Democrats who came before him, instead gambling on maximalist tactics as a silver bullet.
Michael O’Hanlon (@MichaelEOHanlon), Senior Fellow and Director of Research for Brookings Foreign Policy: In this situation, it’s most crucial to keep our eye on the ball in Iraq and not jeopardize the U.S.-Iraq security relationship (thereby increasing Iran’s influence further, and risking an ISIS or al-Qaida resurgence). To my mind, the U.S. competition and conflagration with Kata’ib Hezbollah (and thus, indirectly, with Iran) is secondary to the Baghdad-Washington situation. Tehran, and Kata’ib Hezbollah leadership, were happiest after the unilateral U.S. airstrikes led many Iraqi politicians to talk about revisiting the entire U.S.-Iraq security partnership. We need to avoid descending further down that road.
Thus, even if the recent U.S. airstrikes were justified, in some sense, it may not be wise to repeat them. Doing so may play into the hands of Iran’s Quds force as well as Kata’ib Hezbollah leadership, putting the continuation of an American military and diplomatic (and economic) presence within Iraq in jeopardy.
We should in fact limit any future unilateral military action within Iraq to direct, prompt defense of attacked U.S. assets and/or personnel, and perhaps to hot pursuit of anyone who has just attacked us, but should not conduct asymmetric retaliation under any similar circumstances. That kind of action should only be taken in collaboration with Baghdad, unless circumstances change dramatically.
Most of all, we need to work with the Iraqi government on a strategy to constrain Kata’ib Hezbollah. Of course, Baghdad can’t and won’t cut off the group altogether. But the Iraqi government might, for example, stop payments to any cells or sub-units of Kata’ib Hezbollah that shell U.S. facilities in the future, since it is on the Iraqi government payroll as one piece of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces. At least, we should attempt this strategy — and let the Iraqi people (and Iranian government) know that we are doing so, before any repeat of the kind of airstrikes that were just undertaken.
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence:
The United States needs a drastic reboot of its Iran policy to avoid drifting into a region-wide war with Iran and its proxies. Three and a half years ago, the U.S. led an international coalition that had persuaded Iran to freeze its nuclear weapons program. The secretary of state had a working relationship with his Iranian counterpart to resolve outstanding disputes or at least contain them. It was far from perfect, but the vital interests of the nation were protected.
Foolishly and recklessly, the Trump administration threw this all away. It may prove to be the worst decision ever in American foreign policy. Egged on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the policy changes have ironically made Israel and Saudi Arabia less safe. Israeli security experts bemoan the loss of the nuclear deal. The Iranian attack on the Saudi oil facilities in September illustrated dramatically the vulnerabilities of our gulf allies. The Iranians’ proxy in Iraq is now threatening the Saudi, Bahraini, and Emiratis embassies in Baghdad.
It will be hard to find a way out of the hole the administration has dug.
It will be hard to find a way out of the hole the administration has dug. The first step is to avoid escalation in Iraq. Iraq is the battlefield most friendly to Tehran. Iran has embarked on a high-risk strategy of attacking its neighbors and now America. The extremists are pushing the fight. A multilateral effort to restore the nuclear deal, ease sanctions, and open dialogue is essential.
Natan Sachs (@natansachs), Director of the Center for Middle East Policy: Until these latest events, the Trump administration has for the most part displayed a surprising willingness not to react to Iranian belligerence, at least visibly. The most glaring of these, as Dan notes, was the attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia, a watershed moment and one that brought home to the Middle East the overdue understanding that for all his tough rhetoric, Trump-in-the-Middle East is not a return from Obama to Bush, he is considerably “softer” than Obama.
Speaking of Bush: In the latest escalatory situation in Iraq, Trump’s willingness to let enemies strike the last blow, even if sometimes misguided, has merit when used properly. Here he should stick to direct U.S. interests — the well-being of its diplomats and other personnel, and, as Mike notes above, the security cooperation with Iraq.
The U.S. should look now to deescalate.
The fight with Iran calls for tough action, but the battleground should be chosen wisely, and should not be chosen by Iran. A fight with the U.S. in neighboring Iraq would be a godsend to Iran. The U.S. should look now to deescalate.
Shibley Telhami (@ShibleyTelhami), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: President Trump’s call for the Iraqi people to stand up against Iran, following the assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, reveals a superficial administration assessment of the Iraqi people’s attitudes toward the United States. Sure, in recent months, Iraq has witnessed unprecedented demonstrations against Iran, including among some Shiite. But to assume that anger with Iran would suddenly translate into an embrace of the U.S. role is a misread of Iraqi attitudes. Indeed, the lowered profile of American involvement in Iraq in recent months is probably one reason that Iraqis’ focused turned to Iran.
Now, the U.S. finds itself in a real bind. It’s caught between, on the one hand, the president’s desire to look tough on Iran, bolstered by administration advisers who see a need to respond to actions of Iran and its regional allies; and on the other, the president’s strong determination to avoid escalation and new military entanglements. These contradictions are further exacerbated by the thinnest of experts who are heard at top levels of decisionmaking. The day may be saved by the fact that no one wants escalation — including Iran — and certainly not Iraq’s dependent government. But the contradictions in the U.S. approach, and within Iraq, mean this crisis will not be the last.