In recent weeks, Iran-backed Shiite militias have become more empowered and emboldened in attacking US personnel in Iraq and advancing Tehran’s geopolitical, strategic and ideological interests.
According to American officials, almost every day there are reports of “imminent” attacks against its diplomatic and military bases or facilities in Iraq. US President Donald Trump has become alarmed, as he last week 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.”
There are several reasons why Iran and its proxies are ratcheting up attacks against US-linked entities. First of all, from the perspective of the Iranian leaders and their Shiite militia groups, they have not yet taken proportionate revenge for the January killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and several Iraqi Shiite militia leaders, including Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Iran’s retaliation is not over yet because Soleimani’s death was a monumental blow to the Iranian regime and its prestige on the regional and global stage.
The Iranian leaders, particularly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, continue to mention Soleimani. On Khamenei’s official website, an editorial on March 31 stated that: “The assassination of General Soleimani and his companions by the US was a turning point in security-related developments in the tumultuous West Asian region and the hostile policies of the US towards the Islamic Republic of Iran.” It added that the death of Soleimani “closed the door to all endeavors to manage and reduce tensions.”
To fully take revenge, Iranian leaders are most likely seeking to push the US forces out of Iraq completely — and preferably the entire region. This would allow the ruling mullahs and the Quds Force to wield more influence in Iraq and more effectively control the political, security and religious institutions of this Arab state. Khamenei’s website also made mention of this mission: “The most important consequence of General Soleimani’s assassination for US policies in West Asia is the formation of a regional consensus among the people and resistance groups for expelling American forces from the region.”
Iranian leaders scored a political victory when the Iraqi parliament voted to expel US forces from the country in the aftermath of the Baghdad airport attack that killed Soleimani. Tehran is capitalizing on this vote by mobilizing its Shiite militias and targeting US-linked bases.
From the point of view of the Iranian authorities and their Iraqi proxies, they have made significant progress in pressuring the US forces to pull out of the country. Following their recent attacks, America and its allies, including France, have been withdrawing forces from Iraq.
Khamenei boasted in a February speech: “There are tens of American military bases in different countries surrounding us. However, these military bases will have no use for them. These bases are useless for America and useless for those miserable people who pay for them and have hope in them (for protection).
They are useless even for them. If something happens, they will not be of any use. In the same way that the Titanic’s glory and splendor could not save it from sinking, America’s glory and splendor will not stop it from sinking. And America will sink.”
More importantly, escalating tensions with the US will weaken the Iraqi political system and increase instability in the country, which is conducive to the Iranian regime’s parochial interests. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and militia groups thrive on conflicts, insecurity and chaos in the region. The instability and violence also allow Iran’s militias to be engaged in various crimes against civilians, including summary executions, disappearances, torture, the use of child soldiers, widespread demolition of buildings, indiscriminate attacks, and unlawful restrictions on the movement of people fleeing the fighting.
Another reason for the increase in attacks on American interests in Iraq is that the US is currently focused on the coronavirus crisis and the Iranian regime therefore believes it is less likely to engage in military offensives in the Middle East. Washington has so far only imposed sanctions in response to the Iran-backed militias’ attacks in Iraq. Last week, it placed five Iran and Iraq-based companies and 15 individuals on its blacklist for supporting terrorist groups.
With Iran’s retaliation for Soleimani’s death not over yet and the US occupied with the coronavirus crisis, Tehran and its militias are seizing the opportunity to try to push all American forces out of Iraq.