The US Got Our Message! That is how the retreating pro-Iranian protestors viewed the latest standoff around the US embassy in the highly-fortified ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad. The prolonged war of words between the Trump Administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran took a turn for the worst following the killing of an American contractor and injury to a few American soldiers in an attack carried out by a pro-Iranian militia.
This led to President Trump ordering an attack on five locations of the paramilitary force, in which at least 25 people were killed and double that number injured. This infuriated the pro-Iranian elements in Iraq, who attacked the US embassy in Baghdad; tried to scale the compound wall, and the US Marines stationed inside the perimeters had to resort to shooting to restore some order.
The initial attack on the US position along the Iraq-Syrian border was carried out by Kataeb Hezbollah, the Brigades of the Path of God, a Shia paramilitary force that is a part of the Popular Mobilisation Forced (PMF) backed by Iran. Kataeb Hezbollah had become active in the Iraqi civil war following the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and has been involved in the Syrian civil war in support of the beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.
Explaining the US reprisal attacks of 29 December against five locations of the paramilitary groups, President Trump tweeted: “…We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq.” He later thanked the swift response of the Iraqi government in ensuring the safety of the US personnel, but then came his New Year warning: “…Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very big price! This is not a warning, it is a threat. Happy New Year!”
Meanwhile, the Iranian Quds Force Commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in an American airstrike in Baghdad. The US Defence Secretary Mark T Easper said the Pentagon had taken a “decisive defensive action”.
The escalating US-Iranian tensions come against the backdrop of Trump Administration pulling out of the nuclear deal in May last year and the renewal of sanctions directed at the Iranian energy industry. In recent weeks, Iran has been witnessing widespread protests over the economic hardships faced by ordinary Iranians, both due to sanctions and domestic financial mismanagement.
Until now, both sides have restrained from a direct confrontation, but reports indicate that elements closer to or identified with Iran would attack high-priced targets of the US allies to convey Tehran’s defiance of American diktats.
Even after the protests pulled back, President Trump warned that Iran “will pay a Big Price.” Hence, the timing of the current escalation can be linked to the domestic woes of Trump. Last month, the US Congress had approved the Articles of Impeachment against President. As the Christmas recess ends, the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi is strategizing her plans before handing over the issue to the Senate. President Trump needs some diversion and what would be more spectacular than some ‘fiery’ moments in far-off lands. President Bill Clinton attacked al-Qaida positions in Afghanistan to divert his detractors during his impeachment trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But there are red lines that both sides would not like to cross. On an election year, the US President would not want another hostage crisis that ruined the Carter Presidency way back in 1980. That 444-day saga sowed the seeds of four-decade-long animosity between Washington and Tehran. Neither President Trump nor Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would want the repeat of that episode.
India has high stakes in the region high due to energy security, a huge expatriate population, and remittances. Indeed, since 2017-18 Iraq has replaced the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and emerged as the largest supplier of crude oil to India. Already the US-sanctions have had a debilitating effect on the Indo-Iranian energy trade. Hence, an early de-escalation of the ongoing US-Iran standoff in Baghdad is critical for India’ interests in the Persian Gulf region.
Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU