Just about two weeks ago it seemed like the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran was heading for open warfare. And contrary to what many believe, the danger hasn’t abated at all for American or European troops in the region.
It began with Iranian-led militias that had rocketed and mortared over a dozen times bases in the region that housed U.S. troops. The United States responded with heavy airstrikes on Iranian proxy militias in both Iraq and Syria. That’s when the proxy militias in a tit-for-tat campaign escalated things with two days of attacks against the United States Embassy in Baghdad. When American intelligence learned that General Qassem Soleimani — the commander of Iran’s Quds Forces, Iran’s “fighters without border” and in charge of the militias — was flying into Baghdad, they struck.
Soleimani’s small convoy of vehicles was located and hit by missile fire from an American drone on January 3. Soleimani and the Deputy Commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iranian proxy forces militia, were killed in the attack.
Worries were that this act would lead to open warfare. And as much as some in the Iranian and U.S. governments may have wanted that, neither side wants it to actually happen. The Iranians responded with a missile attack on January 8, which hit a couple of U.S. bases. No one was seriously wounded or killed. Although several American troops were later treated in Kuwait and Germany for concussion injuries.
Some predicted that this last Iranian action would de-escalate things back to a manageable level for both sides. And to a degree that has happened. However, the original news that there were no U.S. casualties, had to infuriate the ayatollahs in Tehran.
The message coming out of Tehran speaks of perhaps a power struggle between the government and the military. As for the government officials, we’d draw the line at calling any of them “moderates,” however, they seem to feel that the regime exacted its pound of flesh. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that the attacks “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”
However, Esmail Qaani, the new Quds Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), stated that Iran will hit its “enemy in a manly fashion.” So any hopes of things calming down in Iraq and elsewhere is a remote possibility right now.
Iran isn’t going to back off at all, even with the threat of a conventional war, which they really don’t want or need, hanging over their heads. The Iranians told the Europeans that they will quit the nuclear deal. The Europeans, now playing the same tit-for-tat game with Iran, initiated a dispute mechanism that was worked into the Iran Nuclear Deal, which can lead to the return of even more of the United Nations sanctions on Iran. The Iranian authorities have hinted about quitting the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Whether or not they do that, is another matter. Not helping matters is that Israel has long stated that they will not tolerate Iran having a nuclear weapon.
Iran has threatened to hit Haifa in Israel and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Greece if the U.S. responds and attacks targets on Iranian soil by using bases in Greece.
What do the Iranians do now? The feeling here is they will continue doing what they’ve been doing all along. The Quds Forces will continue to fund, train, equip, and lead proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza as well as in South America.
While many of the heated rivals and haters of the sitting president in Congress stated that he was guilty of escalating the violence, they are unaware or ignoring the fact that Iran under Soleimani and Quds has created, trained, and led tens of thousands of proxy militias throughout the region — all of them hostile to the United States and our aims in the Middle East.
In Iraq and Syria, the Iranians have created several groups among them Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib al-Imam Ali, Liwa Zeinabiyoun, Liwa Fatemiyoun, Quwat al-Ridha, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, and Quwat Imam al-Baqir.
Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Iranian proxy, is steadily gaining influence in the country. Their leader, leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that American “military bases, soldiers, officers, and warships” will be targeted. The Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza receive Iranian support.
The Houthi rebels in Yemen are largely supported by Iran. The government of Yemen, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, admit that the Houthis must be part of the solution to the Yemeni civil war. The Saudis are scaling back on the air raids in the country while the UAE withdrew all of their troops from Yemen in the summer. In Syria, the Iranians have an uneasy coexistence with Russia… for now.
None of these groups will temper their attacks against the U.S., our European allies or Israel. They won’t stop until they push the U.S. out of the Middle East. And the killing of Soleimani was neither the end nor the beginning of the end.
Attacks against Americans and American interests will continue in the region. Proxy forces will give Tehran the deniability that will allow them to keep pushing its agenda.