In Iran, suspicions have arisen regarding an American move against pro-Iranian Shiite militias active in Iraq, and from an Iraqi prime ministerial election which could result in opposition to continued support for Iranian activities in Iraq. This comes after a renewed deployment of American forces at bases in the country and a number of reports in the international media claiming the United States plans to “crush” the Shiite militias loyal to Tehran. The main reports are focused on the Kata’ib Hizbullah, a member of the coalition of militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi) that has recently stepped up its threats to strike American forces and interests in Iraq.
On April 1, President Trump tweeted: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”1
On social media, Iranian regime supporters responded to Trump, mocking his tweet: “We are waiting for your newest silly move,” with an upload of a photograph of American naval officers who surrendered when apprehended a few years ago by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy, adding the hashtag #HardRevenge #عين_الأسد (referring to Ein al-Asad, the base that was attacked by Iran in retaliation for the assassination of Suleimani),2, 3 and accompanying photographs of coffins covered in American flags.
The First Public Visit of the New Al Quds Force Commander in Iraq
Tensions increased in light of the new Quds Force commander of the IRGC Esmail Ghaani’s first visit to Iraq. Ghaani replaced Kasem Suleimani, who was targeted on January 3, 2020. According to reports, Ghaani’s arrival by air was meant to consolidate the Shiite militias and to prevent the establishment of a new Iraqi government headed by Adnan al-Zurufi. Ghaani, who neither speaks fluent Arabic nor does he command the loyalty and the broad social network of his predecessor Suleimani, will be required to make great efforts in his mission to unify the Shiite factions and to prevent the election of al-Zurufi.4
Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson said that the deployment of Patriot anti-missile launchers in Iraq was meant to guard Iraq’s national security and that of coalition forces active in it after the attack on the American army at Camp Taji on March 11, 2020, in which three soldiers were killed (one British and two Americans). The decision to deploy the launchers faced opposition by a number of factions in Iraq, perhaps because the decision was made due to American estimates that Iran and its proxies would attack the bases by missiles, rockets or mortars.
The Reaction Against the United States Is Not Limited to Iraq
Security and political echelons in Iran warned in recent days of the difficult consequences to be expected if the United States should attack the Iranian loyalist Shiite militias in Iraq. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Iranian leader’s senior adviser on security and formerly the chief commander of the IRGC, said that he advises the security and political authorities of the United States to take responsibility for the possible consequences of their actions in Iraq: “The U.S. will absorb great strategic failure during this president’s term.”
The head of the Center for Strategic Research of the army, Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, warned that if the Americans make a mistake, the resulting retaliation will not necessarily be felt in Iraq, and American interests will be targeted everywhere. In any event, the predictable reaction will be “crushing and will cause great despair.” He added, that the “Resistance Front” (the Shiite militias in Iraq) and the “determined Iraqi people…are not interested in U.S. presence in the area.” He mocked the United States and called upon its security forces to focus on coronavirus victims in New York, Florida and other areas, before opening a new front in Iraq.5
“Every Military Mistake Will Bring the Elimination of Zionism”
On April 1, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of Iran, Abbas Mousavi, called on the United States to refrain from creating tensions in the region in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and to respect the decision of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people and leave the country. Media outlets in Iran quoted the Secretary General of the United Nations who called upon all sides to refrain from regional conflicts during the pandemic. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Special Aide to the President of the Islamic Parliament in Iran (Majlis), tweeted in English that it is clear that a deployment of forces in Iraq (specifically) and in the region (generally) constitutes a kind of “psychological war….Any military mistake by Americans will lead to their swift withdrawal from the region & Zionism termination.”6
Before this, Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC commander who today heads the Committee for the Protection of Iranian Interests, warned the United States not to take action directed against the pro-Iranian Shiite militias in the country. Rezaee tweeted: “Every action by the United States in Iraq is like an action of the Islamic State. There is no difference between terrorism that is carried out by a terror organization or by a state….the United States will not leave Iraq, the Iraqi people will expel them.”7
Nasser al-Shammari, the Secretary General of the Front said in this context that “if the choice is between death and the continuation of the American occupation, we then adopt the struggle with open arms.”8
The IRGC also released a warning on March 31, 2020, stating that “The smallest mistake by the Satan (United States) and Iran’s adventurous enemies will be their last mistake….Tehran’s reaction will be so bold, destructive and inconceivable that the enemy will not (even) be able to regret its action.” The message also emphasized that Iran’s influence extends much beyond the strategic region of Western Asia, and it has turned into “A nightmare for the leaders of the United States, the Zionist entity, and their Satanic allies.”9
The pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq continue to act against both American military and diplomatic interests in Iraq. For now, the United States has shown restraint regarding the recent death of its servicepeople in the March 11 attack at Camp Taji, yet it seems that the continuation of militia actions, with the encouragement of Tehran, will draw a broader American reaction.
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