WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is facing a dilemma in Iraq. A day after the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was stormed by pro-Iranian demonstrators, the White House needs to decide how to respond to the attack – which U.S. officials have no doubt was planned and orchestrated with Iranian approval. Trump has promised to punish Iran for its actions, but how far is he willing to go in this confrontation with the Islamic Republic?
The attack on the embassy was preceded by a week of violence in Iraq, during which an Iraqi Shi’ite militia – operating as a proxy for Iran – attacked an Iraqi military base, killing a U.S. civilian contractor and wounding several U.S. troops. In retaliation, the United States carried out three airstrikes on the same Iraqi militia, killing at least 25 fighters.
– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 55
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These events, which took place during the last week of 2019, represent a violent end to a year of constant tensions between the Americans and Iranians. They are the continuation of a series of escalatory steps taken by Iran during the course of the year – including an attack on two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia last September, and the downing of an American military drone over the Persian Gulf last June. But while the United States refrained from using military force in response to Iran’s provocations then, things were different this time. That is why several leading Democratic politicians warned Tuesday that Trump is risking an all-out war with Iran.
“Iran is ‘acting out’ because it is under a lot of pressure from American sanctions,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department Middle East director who is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The Iranians have been slowly and deliberately escalating their attacks, basically telling the United States: If you put us under pressure, we will put you under pressure as well.” She believes the Iranian regime will likely continue this behavior in 2020.
“The Iranians saw that there was no military response to their previous attacks, so they reached a conclusion that America doesn’t want a military confrontation,” Cofman Wittes says. “The Iranians also don’t want a military confrontation with the U.S. – and that’s certainly not what they’re trying to achieve with these provocations in Iraq. They have a different goal: Getting Trump to enter negotiations.”
Supporters and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force burning the U.S. flag during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, January 1, 2020. AFP
In May 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which had been signed by his predecessor Barack Obama. The U.S. administration has since placed tough sanctions on Tehran, triggering a financial crisis there that has led to massive street protests across Iran. However, at the same time as imposing these tough sanctions, Trump has also frequently expressed interest in negotiating a new deal with Iran.