Iran-Iraq Snowball Puts U.S. Mideast Policy to the Test

As the new civil year begins, an isolated event in northern Iraq threatens to snowball into an avalanche that will put America’s entire Middle East strategy to the test. The death of an American citizen in a rocket attack on an Iraqi base by an Iran-backed Shi’ite militia this weekend led to a large-scale retaliatory U.S. airstrike in which at least 25 militiamen were killed in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, the Iranians and their allies responded with a violent demonstration staged by militia members outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, culminating with protesters breaking into the secured compound and American diplomats hastily evacuated from it.

The Iranian action caught U.S. President Donald Trump at a difficult moment. The next presidential election is less than a year away. Facing an unexciting array of Democratic candidates, Trump’s situation appears rather reasonable, especially if the economy continues on the relatively positive path he inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

But the public and humiliating attack on an American symbol in the Middle East doesn’t look good. And if U.S. countermeasures lead to casualties, that would look even worse.

Trump, as has been said many times, has for years opposed military adventures in faraway countries in which he sees, at most, a limited American interest. In contrast, he seems to be infatuated with the policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran, under which Washington has gradually intensified its sanctions on the country. Even now, the administration is considering additional sanctions.

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The damage these sanctions have caused Iran’s economy is indeed great, but so far, they haven’t had much diplomatic impact. Tehran hasn’t agreed to make the terms of its nuclear deal with world powers (from which America withdrew in May 2018) more stringent, and so far, it has even rejected the idea of a summit between the two countries’ leaders.