After six months of calibrated escalation on land and at sea by Iran and Iran-backed groups, Tehran’s foreign legion has lurched across a U.S. red line: One American citizen — a contractor — was killed last week at a base in northern Iraq that was barraged by rocket-fire from a pro-Iran militia.
In response, the U.S. conducted what appears to be its first simultaneous airstrike in both Iraq and Syria against Kata’ib Hezbollah — the Iran-backed Shiite militia responsible for the recent rocket attack. The strike — against five different targets — also marked the first time the Trump administration used military force in response to Iranian belligerence since Tehran opted for a more confrontational posture in May 2019.
But will it be the last time?
Already, pro-Iran forces are responding. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad has become the target for angry protesters, some of whom managed to penetrate part of the compound. While some may see this as a nationalist backlash, it’s all par for the course for Tehran, where a hardline newspaper editor on at least two occasions has recommended Iraqis emulate Iran’s 1979 hostage crisis, and storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Taken together, the attacks and embassy protests can be read as a response by Iran-backed groups against Washington’s brandishing of hard power. Until last weekend, the U.S. had been “absorbing” Iranian escalation and responding — under the auspices of its “maximum pressure” campaign — through a creative cocktail of sanctions, cyber-attacks, and military deployments. While Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back Former defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions MORE noted that Washington “will take additional actions as necessary” to deter Iran, according to Reuters, at least one unnamed U.S. military official is uneasy about the potential escalation ahead.
For Washington’s strikes to create a deterrence dividend, Iran, as well as its proxies and partners that constitute “the Axis of Resistance,” need to read a U.S. show of force as a signal of resolve, rather than a one-off, which would in fact signal weakness and thus invite a doubling-down.
To do this, Washington cannot shy away from all elements of national power. By keeping hard power in reserve until the loss of an American life, the administration may have inadvertently signaled that the rest of Iran’s malign activities — so long as they don’t threaten Americans — will be treated as a tier-two policy priority. Such a move undercuts messaging by the administration about U.S. intentions to defend its security, interests, and allies, in the face of growing Iran-backed aggression.
While there are academic reasons why Washington could have wanted to tout its recent record of “patience” in the face of Iran-backed aggression, there is now half a year of data to contend with. In just six months, Tehran went from damaging oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz to launching cruise missiles against what is arguably the most important oil installation on the planet.
At no point was there any kinetic retribution against a regime asset or interest, even indirectly, outside of Iranian territory. And because of that, at no point did Tehran look for an off-ramp.
In fact, the motive behind the crescendo of aggression by Iran is clear. The Trump administration’s overall approach is working, and Tehran is trying to engineer a change in policy. Greatly akin to asphyxiation, the sanctions regime unlocked by Washington’s departure from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have literally choked-off Iran’s revenues.
New designations and enforcement actions have had a compounding effect for these penalties. But like choking-out an adversary in a fight — and make no mistake, this is a fight — the greater the asphyxiation, the more flagrant the hand-waving (read, in this context: regional and other escalation) and flailing is to be expected. Washington should have had a contingency plan in place for how to respond to this escalation, as well as gamed-out Iranian countermoves based on the success of Washington’s polices. The recent airstrikes begin to course-correct for this oversight.
Since October alone, there have been a reported 11 rocket and mortar attacks by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq against U.S. facilities and Iraqi instillations. Pressuring Washington through such attacks complements Tehran’s goal of working to evict U.S. troops from Iraq, something it has relied on select pro-Iran Iraqi parliamentarians with ties to militias to do.
The major beneficiaries of this policy would be Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its extraterritorial special operations unit, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF). Thanks to these forces, Iraq is now home to a growing arsenal of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles, as well as a frequent host to the sanctioned IRGC-QF Commander during periods of government formation. The IRGC-QF was, is and remains a key point of operational contact for Shiite militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah.
It’s no surprise then that in addition to perfunctory condemnations of the U.S. airstrike from Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, the IRGC itself issued a formal press release lambasting America for the strike and praising Iraq’s Shiite militias. These militias, after all, are pawns in Iran’s larger game of strategic competition against Washington and feature prominently in the regime’s regional designs. Without them, Tehran would have to take on Washington directly, something it has long sought to avoid.
Whatever 2020 holds for the U.S.-Iran conflict dyad, at least for now, Tehran and one of its key proxies have paid a price, and hopefully learned a lesson. The spilling of American blood has consequences. Let us see if attacking an embassy has one as well.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on a host of Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.