international affairs

This Is a Particularly Bad Time for U.S.-Iran Tensions to Flare

Destruction at Karbala Airport in the Iraqi shrine city, one of the areas targeted by U.S. military air strikes against a pro-Iranian group in Iraq. Photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP via Getty Images

A sober American leader looking at the scale of the crisis she faced at home, recognizing that she had to contend not just with a novel virus but a fractured political system, under-invested health and local government infrastructure, and a public that wants results at the speed of an iPhone — might decide now was a good time to signal firmness but calm to the world. Ideally, she would also be calling, humbly, for global partnership to fight the virus and offering other societies the opportunity to learn from what the United States has so far gotten wrong.

Instead, of course, President Trump rolled out travel sanctions on Europe — but not on all of the countries where COVID-19 is most prevalent, only the ones that have an open-border arrangement whose internationalism he and his advisers despise. (That division also, conveniently, exempts countries where he owns resort properties.) Not only is he not cooperating with our European allies, he didn’t tell them first. The next president now has the unenviable task of convincing both our allies and our potential opponents that although Washington wouldn’t take the risk of letting Europeans into our country, the U.S. really would send Americans to fight and die if, say, Russia invaded Latvia.

This is thus an awkward moment for an uptick in U.S. military conflict with Iran and its proxies. But here we are. In response to an Iranian-backed militia rocket attack that killed U.S. and British troops in Iraq on Wednesday, the United States launched multiple airstrikes late Thursday against sites in Iraq controlled by the group, according to CNN.

The deaths of one British and two American soldiers on Wednesday were the first such fatalities since the December attack that prompted the U.S., in response, to kill top Iranian security official Qasem Soleimani as well as Iraqi militia figures. Notably, Wednesday was Soleimani’s birthday.

After the January 3 assassination, the region saw a set of retaliatory Iranian strikes that seemed to have been somewhat choreographed to avoid casualties, as well as the tragic downing of a civilian airliner by Iranian forces, which apparently mistook the plane for an incoming missile. But since then, relative quiet had reigned, with a few militia rocket attacks failing to injure or kill U.S. service members.

The Defense Department asserted that Thursday’s strikes were necessary to stop the attacks and bring back the quiet. “You don’t get to shoot at our bases and kill and wound Americans and get away with it,” said Defense Secretary Mike Esper.

Independent analysts aren’t so sure. The Century Foundation’s Dina Esfandiary predicted that tit-for-tat attacks will pick up again, telling me that “everyone got a little scared of how close we came to all-out war. But now that’s a distant memory.” Yes, in 2020, six weeks is a distant memory. Former Pentagon official Ilan Goldenberg told me that “the strike on Soleimani was supposed to ‘reestablish deterrence.’ It clearly has not.”
And internet rumors are flying that last night’s attacks may have killed a senior official in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — which, if true, may start the cycle all over again.

The U.S. military also announced Friday morning that it was sending Patriot missiles — which bring hundreds of additional U.S. personnel with them — into Iraq to defend bases against rocket attacks. That makes hundreds more targets for such attacks. Goldenberg was skeptical. “If we want to defend the bases against missiles, maybe buy Iron Dome systems from the Israelis. But I’d prioritize buying coronavirus vaccine from the Israelis,” he messaged me.

At this point we should perhaps step back and ask: Didn’t Congress pass a bill requiring the president to get congressional approval before acts of war against Iran? Yes, it did. Didn’t President Trump say we were withdrawing from Iraq? Yes, he did, repeatedly. So how is it that we will now have hundreds more troops there?

And just like coronavirus, the administration’s overarching strategy goes only as far as setting the headlines. Columbia University Iran-watcher Ariane Tabatabai described U.S. policy in the region as identical to its response to the health pandemic — “a giant mess the admin doesn’t know what to do with.”

Stay safe, everybody.

It’s a Particularly Bad Time for U.S.-Iran Tensions to Flare