Clearly, Washington was at one with Israel in trying to curb Iranian power in Iraq. Following an attack on an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk that housed American soldiers, in which an American contractor was killed, American jets struck PMF headquarters in al-Qaim. In response, on December 31, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On January 3, 2020, President Trump ordered the assassination of General Suleimani and his companions at Baghdad International Airport.
The assassination bore the hallmark of American-Israeli cooperation involving the assassination of Mughniyah in Damascus. It was carried out against the background of intensified asymmetrical warfare between Iran and Hezbollah, on one side, and Israel and the United States, on the other. Both Washington and Jerusalem unmistakably frowned upon Suleimani’s strategy that provided Iran with strategic depth, potentially deterring and containing Israel. Neither Jerusalem nor Washington could have afforded Suleimani’s stewardship of Iranian military defiance. His elimination was essential to disrupt, even temporarily, Iran’s regional realignment of its proxy forces and by extension Iran’s strategic depth. If the past is any guide, Washington and Jerusalem definitely shared intelligence and cooperated to bring down what they deemed to be an essential target. Armed with credible intelligence, American drones were ready to eliminate Suleimani and his trusted companion al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
No doubt, the assassination was successful on the tactical level by removing the author of Iran’s regional strategy; but it was a failure on the strategic level by rallying enough Iraqi forces to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Though largely symbolical, Iran’s retaliatory attack on al-Asad Iraqi military base that housed American forces was directly carried out. This not only expanded the theater of operations of but also transformed the asymmetrical warfare into a vicious cycle of overt and covert operations.
At the time of this writing, whereas Washington and Jerusalem seek to check the power of Iran, including if possible removing its regime, Tehran seeks the eviction of Washington from the region while deepening Tehran’s regional deterrent-by-terror strategy. These new dynamics make a clash almost inevitable despite all the parties’ desire to avoid a regional war.
What’s also making the matrix of U.S.-Israel-Iran relationship conflicted is the way Washington and Iran responded to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic for their foreign policies vis-à-vis each other. Blaming U.S. sanctions on Iran for deepening the deadly impact of COVID-19 on Iranian society, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intensified his anti-American rhetoric. Conversely, the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council have not only insisted on maintaining maximum pressure policy on Iran but also called for military actions against Iran. Recently, notwithstanding Tehran’s consistent escalatory responses to Washington’s maximum pressure policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien counterintuitively argued that “tough action while Iran’s leaders were battling the coronavirus ravaging the country could finally push them into direct negotiations.”
At a time of global distress over a deadly pandemic, all parties should prioritize military restraint and pursue sober diplomatic engagement. Otherwise, the cost of fighting a regional war and ravaging pandemic will be both inhibitive and prohibitive.
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He can be followed @robertgrabil.