The intense and bitter 40-year rivalry between the US and Iran has grown beyond settling pre-1979 scores into a contest to decide who will dominate affairs in the Middle East. There is a good chance that Iran’s “de-escalatory” missile attacks last week on US targets in Iraq will not be the totality of Iranian retaliation for the US drone missile strike that brought an abrupt end to Gen. Qassem Soleimani's growing megalomania.
The Quds Force, which the US had hoped to suppress, is likely to have an expanded role, especially after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pledged an extra $200 million for its operations and said military options alone were insufficient retaliation for Soleimani’s death. The elite unit of about 20,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel is responsible for expanding Tehran’s influence in the region via a network of armed sectarian groups; it is a little hypocritical that Iran should seek to “end the corrupting US presence,” while ignoring its own.
Of more concern is that Iran’s retaliation timeline can stretch for months, even years, with attacks on soft targets in places that are difficult to predict and therefore adequately secure, often carried out by proxies who receive support, weapons and training from Tehran.
The most recent protests at the US embassy compound in Baghdad were a brazen escalation by a group that receives its orders from Tehran via Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, an armed faction trained and funded by the Quds Force, and now part of the Popular Mobilization Forces — about 40 Iraqi militia groups of Shi’ites, Christians, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis. Pentagon assessments are that the PMU could become an integral part of a revived Iraqi national defense apparatus, provided it rids itself of ties to Tehran; PMU forces are under the direct command of the Iraqi prime minister, but Iran continues to undermine his authority with its support for extremist militias more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad.
There is no conceivable US exit strategy that would leave Khamenei calling the shots in Iraq after Washington spent nearly $2 trillion in the Iraq war and regaining a foothold in a country still struggling to bring about stable democracy, the rule of law and better internal security. The construction of a $750 million embassy complex covering 104 acres, the largest in the world, is indicative of America’s commitment to post-Saddam, post-ISIS Iraq — a prospect now under threat given a hostile Tehran, paused anti-ISIS operations and the Iraqi parliament voting for the withdrawal of US troops.
Nevertheless, Washington has long sought an exit, urging allies and regional partners alike to absorb more of its self-imposed obligations. For a wary, paranoid and meddlesome Tehran, a US retreat would deliver an opportunity to nurture “friendlier” governments, create a buffer zone and circumvent four decades of sanctions. It would also give the Quds Force more opportunities to embed itself and promote Iranian interests in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, even at the cost of domestic priorities such as internal security, stabilization, reconstruction and recovery. The changing dynamics of modern warfare have necessitated the creation of spheres of influence via proxies in neighboring states, maintaining close ties to highly placed individuals there to safeguard interests, while cozying up to major military powers via weapons purchases and joint military exercises.
An all-out war would engulf entire regions, endangering allies and dragging the world into yet another massive conflict that has no winners, only losers. In addition, the global community remains opposed to another war, and America’s regional allies have urged calm. Both sides also lack significant domestic support for an escalation beyond what has already played out; hence the use of terms such as “preemptive defensive strike” or “de-escalatory precision attack” to describe the recent exchange of fire between the US and Iran. A few years ago, such oxymorons would have been widely panned, but they have found room in a strange lexicon to describe the uncharted territory that Washington and Tehran have waded into.
Unfortunately, this stand-off has turned Iraq into a battleground of competing geopolitical interests, as more US troops head for bases strategically located in a buffer zone between Erbil and Baghdad, while Tehran’s network of proxies surround those same bases. Amid all this tension, an already overwhelmed Iraqi government will find it even more difficult to deal with a growing list of domestic issues, which have already sparked anti-government protests and forced the prime minister to resign.