The December 29 U.S. strike on the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah (KAH) militia in Iraq represented the first kinetic U.S. response to Iranian provocations that began in May.
The U.S. strike, although provoked by a KAH rocket attack that killed a U.S. defense contractor, has harmed U.S. relations with Iraq’s government and could complicate the ongoing U.S. effort against the Islamic State.
Iran’s response, the storming of the outer areas of U.S. Embassy Baghdad by pro-Iranian Iraqi protesters, could signal the start of a U.S.-Iran conflict with no territorial boundaries or clear termination in sight.
Iran has numerous options to escalate the confrontation further, both inside Iraq as well as throughout the broader Near East region.
On December 29, U.S. combat aircraft bombed five bases controlled by the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah (KAH) Shia militia, killing a reported 24 of its members; three of the bases were in western Iraq, and two were on the Syrian side of the border. The Defense Department described the strikes as ‘defensive’ – a response to a large-scale KAH rocket attack the previous day on a base in Kirkuk, which killed a U.S. defense contractor and wounded four U.S. soldiers. The Kirkuk attack was the latest of eleven attacks on Iraqi bases where some of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are co-located, and most were believed to have been conducted by KAH. The United States has designated KAH as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and the group is widely considered an Iranian proxy that fields, among other weaponry, Iran-supplied short-range ballistic missiles with which Iran can project power throughout the region. The Trump administration apparently determined that the loss of life in the latest KAH attack had crossed a U.S. ‘red line’ and necessitated a kinetic military response. Iranian and Iran-backed attacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf during May – August and its September 14 strike on critical Saudi oil infrastructure did not result in any deaths.
No matter the justification for the U.S. strikes on KAH, the bombing drew harsh condemnation by Iraq’s leaders. Even though KAH is widely assessed as taking direction from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), it is one of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that are, at least nominally, under Iraq’s official military command structure and pivotal to the effort against the Islamic State. The PMF leaders are politically powerful figures and, likely instigated by Iran, they organized and led hundreds of Iraqis in the storming of the outer areas of U.S. Embassy Baghdad on December 31. The attack faced almost no resistance from Iraqi security forces but also seemed to purposely stop short of breaching the core of the buildings or attacking any U.S. diplomats. Whether or not by Iranian design, the events in Iraq have upset the balance that Iraq’s leaders have sought in their alliances with both Iran and the United States. The PMF leaders are likely to use these events to escalate their longstanding political push to compel the Iraqi government to expel U.S. forces from Iraq, although that outcome is unlikely given Iraq’s reliance on U.S. military strength against the Islamic State.
The U.S.-Iran escalation inside Iraq increases the potential for the Trump administration to be drawn into a war with Iran that President Trump has said on numerous occasions that he does not want. The administration has relied on its campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ – the application of strict economic sanctions – to compel Iran to accept a revised nuclear accord that, in contrast to the 2015 nuclear deal, would contain binding limits on Iran’s regional operations. However, the KAH attacks on U.S. forces, and particularly the September 14 Iranian strike that temporarily crippled Saudi oil production, make clear that the maximum pressure campaign has not weakened Tehran’s ability to project power. Instead, the campaign has prompted Tehran to launch a ‘maximum resistance’ policy to compel the Trump administration to ease sanctions.
Any U.S.-Iran conflict is likely to expand to multiple fronts and present the United States with no clear military solution. Tehran’s national security strategy is based on an ability to use regional allies and proxies, such as KAH, to potentially attack a wide range of U.S. or U.S.-allied targets throughout the Near East region. Iran has shown an ability to attack any of the Persian Gulf states and international shipping in the Gulf or the equally vital Bab el-Mandeb Strait, either directly or through allies such as the Houthi movement in Yemen. Iran can threaten any city in Israel through its allies Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as through Iranian forces hosted by Iran’s key ally, President Bashar Al Assad of Syria. Iran also has allies in neighboring Afghanistan, where 13,000 U.S. troops continue operations. It can be argued that only a political solution which offers some easing of economic pressure on Iran as part of a broader bargain, can avoid a region-wide U.S.-Iran conflict.