US reminds Iran of red line on Iraqi turf

Debris at the headquarters of Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia after the US airstrike, Qaim, Iraq, December 30, 2019

The “precision defensive strikes” by the United States at five targets of Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq and Syria on Sunday night can be seen as a new vector of Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach to Tehran. The Pentagon statement said that the strikes aimed at degrading the Iranian proxy group’s “ability to conduct future strikes” against US bases in Iraq. 

The immediate provocation was a recent attack on a US base near the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk which resulted in the death one American military contractor and injured four US military personnel. 

However, the Pentagon statement made it clear that Sunday’s strikes (by F-15 Strike Eagle fighter planes) carried a message for the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which comes directly under Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

On the one hand, the statement described the US strike as “exercising the right of self-defence” while on the other hand, it rebuked Iran for supporting the Iraqi militia group and gently warned Tehran and its proxy group that any further attacks on US targets by the militia would trigger “additional defensive actions by US forces” — meaning, retaliation.

The US Defence Secretary Mark Esper later disclosed that he had discussed with President Trump “other options available” in the event of Iran taking any further “actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.” He added that the US “would take additional actions as necessary to ensure that we act in our own self-defence and we deter further bad behaviour from militia groups or from Iran.” 

Taken together, US-Iran tensions may appear to be on the escalatory ladder. But the US-Iran tango is often difficult to gauge. 

Clearly, the US does not buy Iran’s disclaimer that the Iraqi militia group is acting independently. (Nor does Iran expect the US to believe its claim.) Now, in the recent months, the militia group has been testing the US resolve by poking at US bases. 

Tensions are running high in Iraq also because of the political instability in Baghdad with a dysfunctional government and the recent big protests by the Iraqi public over economic privations (which also incrementally assumed anti-Iran overtones.) 

Tehran has alleged that Saudi Arabia and the US are fuelling instability in Iraq. Added to this is the power vacuum in Baghdad with rival Shi’ite political groups jostling for supremacy in electing a new prime minister — and Iran and the US pulling strings from behind the curtain. 

Simply put, the political uncertainty in Iraq and the ensuing rivalry between Iran on the one hand and the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia and UAE) on the other hand regarding Iraq’s political future provide the backdrop to Sunday’s US strikes. 

Having said all that, the US and Iran, especially at the military level, also have a long history of calibrating their mutual tensions and rivalries with an unwritten understanding not to let a flashpoint develop or let the tensions spiral out of hand. 

The Pentagon statement is in measured language and stresses that the US air strikes on Sunday were in “self defence” and in no way intended to confront Iran. Notably, Iran’s reaction to the US strikes too has been restrained in content, albeit couched in rhetorical language. 

The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman condemned the US strikes but dealt with it as a matter between the US and the Iraqi militia group, and, secondly, as a question of Washington violating Iraqi sovereignty and weakening the fight against terrorism. 

Apart from demanding a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and warning the US vaguely of “consequences” for Sunday’s strike, Tehran has not responded to the development. This approach is also evident in the polemical route that Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif chose to take, while moving on.  

Zarif plans to visit New York, ostensibly to attend a UN conference, in the coming days. Will visa be granted to enable Zarif to undertake the visit? The US reaction will give clues as to the Trump administration’s intentions. If Zarif lands in New York, it is entirely conceivable that some back channel contacts may take place with US officials. 

There has been heightened diplomatic traffic between Tehran and Muscat lately. Oman had previously acted as the go-between to initiate direct negotiations between the US and Iran that eventually resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal. Without doubt, Iran is keen to talk. And, Trump also stands to gain out of a foreign policy success story. 

From such a perspective, Sunday’s strikes can even be regarded as an act of grandstanding by the Trump administration. In fact, the IRGC has made light of Sunday’s strike on Iraq and all but belittled the strike as a show.

On the ground, the US air strike on Sunday hardly makes any difference to the balance of forces in Iraq. The Iran-supported militia groups (of which Kataib Hezbollah is a major constituent) are estimated to have anywhere upto 150,000 fighters in Iraq. Taking them head on is way beyond the US capability at present. Thus, in political terms, the Trump administration would like to hold Iran to certain red lines in Iraq. Any physical threat to the security of American personnel will be most certainly the decisive red line.