Iran’s Year of Living Dangerously is Just Beginning

January 3, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: IranMiddle EastDonald Trump

Iran’s Year of Living Dangerously is Just Beginning

The U.S. needs to be constantly thinking about what Tehran might try next—and preempt it if possible, or respond and mitigate it if we can’t prevent the Iranian provocation.

The president’s critics are so desperate to pin a foreign policy failure on the White House that they jump on every news cycle like a starving man watching a Wendy’s commercial. So when news came of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad this week, they were off to the races.

Commentator Joy Reid on MSNBC called the incident Trump’s “Benghazi moment.” Having spent years claiming the Obama team did nothing wrong in the 2012 attack in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed, Trump-haters were quick to claim that the president had failed just like at Benghazi. It was almost as if they had forgotten their own talking points.

And as usual, they also spoke too soon. In less than 24 hours, it was clear that the American response in Baghdad was the polar opposite of Benghazi. The U.S. compound wasn’t overrun. No U.S. personnel were killed. The enemy retreated.

Then the U.S. took out Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force and several high-ranking Iraqi militia leaders in a strike outside Baghdad. And with good reason – they were planning more attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq. Yet the same critics who hailed Obama for getting Osama bin Laden immediately criticized Trump. That also looked churlish. There is really no difference. Both were terrorists. Both were legitimate targets.

While the dust-up in Baghdad falls flat for Trump-bashing, when placed in context, the incident has a lot to say about the struggle between America and the forces of mayhem in the Middle East.

Let’s be fair: The attack shows how much Iranian influence has penetrated Iraq. The Iraqi security forces literally stepped aside and let the Iranian-backed Shia militias storm the fences of the U.S. compound. That would not have happened if the people in charge didn’t tell people to step aside.

Of course, we didn’t need this incident to demonstrate that Iran is making a mess in Iraq. For many months, people in Iraq have been protesting against Iranian influence. Hundreds have died. Many thousands were injured. Much of the anger was focused on the corruption, exploitation and oppression dealt out by Iran’s stooges in Iraq.

In addition, Iran has been using the militias to ramp up attacks on U.S. personnel and security forces in the country who have been battling ISIS and providing advice and support to Iraqi security forces. Officially, there have been 19 such attacks over the last year, but the actual number of incidents is far higher.

This came to a head last week, when an Iran- backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, took credit for an attack on a base near Kirkuk, Iraq, killing an American civilian contractor and injuring four U.S. service members. In response, the U.S. bombed the militia’s bases in Syria and Iraq. This response preceded the assault on the American embassy.

Trump’s critics are quick to argue all this shows Trump’s Iran’s policy is failing and that Iran is winning. That sounds more like the guy with two black eyes who said he won the bar fight by smashing the other guy’s hand with his face and poking the other guy’s finger with his eye. Iran is doing anything but winning.

Since Trump came into office, his strategy has been to isolate and pressure Iran. It is hard to argue that hasn’t worked. Iran’s economy is in a tailspin. It’s selling virtually no oil. The people of Iran have been demonstrating against the regime for months. Iran’s surrogates are low on cash. What the regime in Tehran has been doing is trying to find some way to break out of the box Trump has put them. And they have failed at every turn.

They tried closing the Strait of Hormuz. They tried interfering with shipping. They shot down a U.S. drone. They attacked Saudi oil infrastructure. Nothing worked. The U.S. hasn’t backed off. Europe, if anything, is getting more estranged from the Iranian regime. Russia and China have not ridden to the rescue.

In ramping up the harassment of the U.S. in Iraq, Tehran is just playing another card trying to embarrass, punish or humiliate the U.S., hoping to prompt that famous withdraw of America from the global stage they hear announced so much by Trump’s critics. But it just isn’t happening. In fact, every time Tehran lashes out, Trump tightens down.

Iran may have also done itself a disservice in unleashing the latest attack on the U.S. embassy. The attack basically gives the U.S. a blueprint of who is really working with the Iranians, who the U.S. can trust and who it can’t. This incident really smoked them out. Not just Washington, but Iraqis on the street will soon know who is really just a stooge for Tehran.

Iraq is anything but a lost cause and an inevitable suburb of Tehran. Many Iraqis know that it is vital to keep an American presence in Iraq to balance Iranian influence. If the U.S. walks away, like Obama did in 2011, that could mean a resurgence of ISIS, domination by Iran or a civil war. Nobody wants that.

Iran may have just played another card too many.

Still, don’t think Tehran is chastened. They will try something else. They will continue to look at ways to poke at U.S. power. Every time they try and fail, however, the scales tip further in the U.S. direction. Still, for U.S. policymakers, that makes Iran never more desperate and dangerous. The U.S. needs to be constantly thinking about what Tehran might try next—and preempt it if possible, or respond and mitigate it if we can’t prevent the Iranian provocation.

Clearly, the U.S. is not escalating the conflict. All of its actions — from responding to the attacks on American bases, protecting the embassy, and taking out Soleimani — were wholly defensive. Really, what other options did Washington have? If the U.S. doesn’t defend its people, it’s basically saying it’s open season to attack Americans.

The administration’s actions over the last week have been responsible and prudent. Now we just need more of the same.

Without question, continuing to pressure Iran is worth doing. A stable Middle East is important to the United States. Iran is the chief source of destabilizing influence in the region. Making every day a bad day for the regime in Tehran is a good day in Washington — and the rest of the Middle East.

James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation.