Are the U.S. and Iran Inching Toward War?


Though the U.S. military’s footprint in the Middle East has been significantly reduced since the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 40,000 U.S. troops remain stationed at various bases large and small across the Middle East. At Politico Magazine, Michael Hirsch examines the logic of the U.S. maintaining its presence in the region:

For America, the Jan. 28 drone strike at an obscure outpost in Jordan — a base few Americans knew existed — is yet another tragic illustration of the risks of leaving forces forward-deployed around the world, sometimes with no obvious mission. Currently the U.S. has about 2,500 troops in Iraq training the Iraqi military, another 900 in Syria, and a few hundred in Jordan ostensibly to ward off the return of ISIS. Every one of these military personnel is a potential victim who could trigger a future conflict.

For Iran, the U.S. retaliation underway is an illustration of the dangers of running proxy militias on multiple fronts that Tehran may no longer be able to fully direct, if it ever did. While Iran seems to have averted an attack inside its borders for the moment, Biden says he’ll continue striking back, and Tehran may find that its ultimate fate could be determined by an Iraqi or Syrian militia leader if more Americans die.

For both countries, in other words, events are on a permanent hair trigger that is constantly threatening to explode at the slightest pressure.

At Foreign Policy, analysts Adam Weinstein and Steven Simon argue that while U.S. troops still play an important role bolstering Iraqi forces, it’s no longer worth the risk:

There’s no feasible way for 2,500 U.S. troops to both assist Iraq against the Islamic State and contain Iran-aligned militias without the explicit approval and cooperation of the government in Baghdad. Ditto for the approximately 900 U.S. troops in Syria which rely on support from the U.S. military presence in Iraq and neighboring countries. The era of troop surges and active U.S. combat is over. With the global Islamic State threat decreasing significantly, attacks are down by over half compared to 2022. The operational benefit U.S. troops provide to Iraqi partners simply isn’t worth the risk of escalation if U.S. troops are killed. Some may argue that withdrawing from Iraq militarily would benefit Iran and its proxies, and they would be right. But by providing them with troops to target, the U.S. inadvertently validates their raison d’être, while perpetuating the risk of an undesirable war with Iran.

And the Atlantic contributor Arash Azizi writes that Iran has a lot less control over the militant groups it backs than it may seem. In fact, he explains, the whole relationship is a hot mess of Iran’s making:

The Iraqi militias form perhaps the rowdiest part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance and are among the most firmly rooted in Iran’s Shiite Islamist ideology. But unlike in Lebanon, where all supporters of Iran’s Islamist government are united in the ranks of Hezbollah, the militias have never coalesced into a single outfit in Iraq. Instead, each militia has a strong identity, usually organized around a single charismatic leader, and they cooperate through ad hoc umbrella groups, such as the military Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee and the parliamentary Shiite Coordination Framework. …

The ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, and Khamenei, its current leader, run deep in the Iraqi militias. But this ideological fervor makes them, ironically, hard for Tehran to control, because they are not always prone to be convinced by the strategic calculations of the Iranian establishment’s more pragmatic sections. Tehran and the IRGC leadership have thus struggled to keep the militias in check—and to restrain them from attacking U.S. forces, in particular. Wrangling them has become especially difficult since Soleimani’s killing, because the current head of the IRGC’s external operations wing, Esmail Qaani, doesn’t have Soleimani’s charisma, personal ties with the militias, or even a good command of Arabic.

He also reports that there is hardly a consensus appetite for war with either Israel or the U.S. inside Iran’s regime:

Whatever their feelings about Israel, serious Iranian analysts know that it doesn’t make strategic sense for Iran to get into a military confrontation with the Jewish state and its American and Western allies. I have spoken with Iranian military and security figures in recent days, and some among them have asked: If Arabs themselves refuse such a confrontation, why should Iran accept this dangerous burden? Those I spoke with suggested the existence of sharp internal disagreements about the future direction of Iran. 

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