The renewed hostilities suggest that Iran and its Iraqi proxies were undeterred by the killing of senior Iranian strategist Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militia commander in a U.S. drone strike in early January. They raise anew two critical dangers for the Trump administration: that Iran will succeed in pushing U.S. forces out of Iraq, or that it will draw the United States into a larger military conflict.
Those might seem like extraordinary ambitions for the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a time when it is grappling with one of the world’s most severe outbreaks of coronavirus, on top of a severe economic contraction and mounting domestic unrest. But the ruling ayatollah may see conflict with the United States as the best way out of his internal challenges; after all, the death of Soleimani produced a rare outpouring of nationalist sentiment.
Moreover, the Iranian campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq is not easily countered. It is hard to defend U.S. forces posted on Iraqi military bases from sudden volleys of short-range rockets, like those that have rained down on Camp Taji in the past week. And retaliatory U.S. action inside Iraq risks further alienating the Iraqi government, some of whose leaders are already pressing for a U.S. withdrawal.
President Trump may well be tempted to withdraw the 5,000 U.S. troops deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq. On Monday the anti-Islamic State mission announced that hundreds of troops would be redeployed from several smaller bases to larger ones in Iraq, or in Syria and Kuwait. While that may be prudent in view of the mounting risk of rocket attacks, a full U.S. pullout would hand Iran a major strategic victory. Having made containment of Tehran’s regional ambitions a pillar of his foreign policy, Mr. Trump would have ensured Iranian dominance in Iraq as well as Syria and Lebanon.
One alternative is to step up U.S. counterstrikes against Iranian targets in Iraq and perhaps in Iran itself, in an effort to restore deterrence. That would risk a political backlash in Iraq and perhaps more U.S. casualties from Iranian counterattacks — which is what the hard-line Iranian leadership may be hoping for. Or U.S. commanders could seek to muddle through with partial redeployments, more defensive measures and appeals to Iraqi leaders to rein in Iran’s proxies.
In all, Mr. Trump faces a perilous Middle Eastern morass that is mostly of his own making. His reckless decision to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran and renew economic warfare on its regime has led directly to an unnecessary crisis he must now manage amid the covid-19 pandemic.