What the Iraq War tells us about Iran

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a law last week labeling U.S. military forces in the Middle East a terrorist organization. This step follows the U.S. designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. For some, setting aside the irony of Tehran’s declaration, this may confirm fears that the designation of the IRGC would spark a dangerous escalation. In reality, history suggests that calling adversaries and terrorists by name is not the primary danger. The real danger is leaving them with the impression that they can target Americans and get away with it.

During the Iraq War, Iran was most aggressive when the U.S. failed to respond with strength to Iranian malfeasance. This is a consistent trend throughout the Army’s comprehensive two-volume study of the war, “The U.S. Army in the Iraq War,” for which one of us (Sobchak) served as co-editor. The Army study found that in the period immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s behavior in Iraq was relatively circumspect — almost certainly moderated by the fear that Tehran could be the next regime to be toppled in President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”

{mosads}But after it realized that the threat of regime change was overblown, Tehran started to act more assertively. It infiltrated IRGC personnel into Iraq, assassinated former Ba’athist leaders, and established safe houses for future operations. IRGC agents were incidentally detained by coalition forces during the conduct of normal operations, but the coalition did not specifically target them and ultimately returned them to Iranian custody.

By 2005 and 2006, when it became apparent that the U.S. was having difficulty in Iraq and that there were few consequences for Tehran’s actions, the regime again escalated by initiating a proxy war. IRGC advisory teams were deployed to organize, train, and equip Iranian allied militias, and American personnel were targeted and killed by explosively formed projectiles (EFPs). Tehran manufactured EFPs specifically designed to penetrate the toughest armored U.S. vehicles — killing and maiming the Americans inside. 

The Army report concluded that the IRGC’s “Quds Force and its Iraqi surrogates were the primary instruments employed by the Iranian regime to wage a proxy war against the United States at minimal cost.” The report found that Tehran’s Shi’a proxies in Iraq “owed their potency — and even existence — to the Iranian regime’s Quds Force and its powerful commander, Qassem Soleimani.”

Despite these attacks on U.S. personnel, the U.S. response was still constrained. At several points from 2004-2006 when evidence was becoming clearer that Iran was behind a deliberate and systematic series of attacks on Americans, the U.S. reviewed possible responses. The U.S. decided against a more aggressive response primarily out of fear of Iranian escalation. As a result, the targeting of Americans continued.   

This cautious stance disappeared near the end of 2006 concurrent with the change in U.S. strategy embodied in the “Surge” decision, and the U.S. began a long military campaign targeting and detaining IRGC operatives and killing their proxies. In response, rather than escalate, Iran withdrew some of their IRGC personnel from Iraq, and the number of casualties from Iranian EFPs slowly decreased as the military campaign bore fruit and countermeasures improved. 

{mossecondads}When U.S. strategic policy again changed with the decision to withdraw American forces, Iran reversed course and escalated their attacks with EFPs and improvised rockets. Ultimately, as a recent report from the Pentagon revealed, Iranian actions over the course of the war were responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. service members.

Thus, the historical record from the conflict is clear that Iran and the IRGC more aggressively targeted US troops when the regime felt that they could get away with it. According to the Army report, “The Iranian regime was content to fund, train, and supply all parties willing to attack the U.S.-led coalition.” This seemed to be particularly true when the U.S. signaled indecision or retreat. Conversely, Tehran backed down when the U.S. acted with strength.

Decision makers are right to consider as a top priority the security of U.S. service members. However, the best way to discourage attacks against our troops — and to protect American national security interests — is to maintain U.S. military power and readiness beyond challenge and to make clear that attacks on Americans will invite a devastating response. In short, Tehran’s perception of U.S. military capability and political will to punish terrorism will serve as the most effective deterrent of future attacks.

History makes clear there must be consequences for Iran when Tehran attacks Americans. Otherwise, we should expect more of the same.

Colonel (retired) Frank Sobchak (@AbuJeshua) served in various Special Forces assignments during his 26-year military career; his final assignment was a director of the Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group and co-editor of “The U.S. Army in the Iraq War.” He has taught at West Point and is currently a PhD candidate in international relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Bradley Bowman is former Senate staffer who served as an Army officer and taught at West Point and who now serves as senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (@FDD_CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD).

Tags Iran Iraq War proxy wars Quds Force Terrorist organization

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