If you listened closely this week, behind the terrifying clamor of Covid-19 sweeping across the planet, you might’ve heard the sound of war nearly breaking out again between the United States and Iran.
On Wednesday, the birthday of assassinated Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a barrage of rockets slammed into the Camp Taji airbase north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. The attack killed two Americans and a Briton, while wounding 14 others. A day later, U.S. forces in Iraq hit back, carrying out airstrikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia that it blamed for the attack. It is a safe bet that the violence between the United States and Iran will not stop there. Already on Saturday morning, reports emerged of another attack at the same base that wounded three more U.S. service members.
Despite a terrifying pandemic that has overwhelmed entire cities in Iran and now looms over the United States, the crisis between the two countries that began when the Trump administration exited the 2015 Iran nuclear deal shows no sign of abating. The possibility of war in the midst of a global public health crisis is, to put it mildly, outrageous. Iranians are believed to be among the most numerous victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their government’s decision to risk a conflict at this moment is both mystifying and galling.
But Iran’s grim determination to hit back against the United States regardless of its people’s suffering does illustrate an important point. It puts paid to a major Trump administration justification for the controversial assassination of Suleimani in a January drone: deterrence.
In the immediate aftermath of Suleimani’s killing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “the entire strategy has been one of deterrence,” claiming that the drone strike against the general had sent a decisive message to the Iranian government that would force it to refrain from future acts of aggression.
But if deterrence really was the strategy, it’s been a resounding failure. Even before this week’s deadly attacks, rockets have continued to periodically rain down on U.S. bases in Iraq, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Iran has indicated in public statements that it plans to take what it views as a full revenge for the killing of Quds Force chief Suleimani at a time of its choosing. The deadly attack on Camp Taji suggests that they are not bluffing.
There is historical context to consider as well. Since the 1979 revolution that brought the current government to power, Iran has shown that it is willing to endure a tremendous amount of punishment to achieve its strategic goals.
During Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini continued to battle Saddam Hussein long after his attempted invasion of Iran had been repelled. Hundreds of thousands on both sides were killed over years of grueling World War I-style trench warfare, all in dogged pursuit of Khomeini’s goal of forcing the Baathists from power and placing an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. (The Iranians would have to wait until 2003, when the United States graciously accomplished this goal for them.)
Today, even amid a cataclysmic public health crisis that is said to have killed hundreds of Iranians, including several top political and military leaders, the Iranians show no sign of relenting on what they view as their primary geopolitical interests. Their continued attacks on American targets in Iraq suggest that they are pushing forward toward their main strategic goal: ejecting American troops from Iraq.
In an article about the recent violence, Afshon Ostovar, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” wrote that the Iranian-backed militia attack on Camp Taji and the U.S. military response “fits right into the aims of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iran.” The attacks by U.S. aircraft help increase public anger in Iraq against U.S. military activity there and lay the groundwork for a broader confrontation that might force the United States to leave for good.
Iran and its Iraqi allies “have more Iraqi deaths and destruction to fuel their effort to expel U.S. forces from the country,” Ostovar wrote. “They also have cause to respond further, if they wish, in order bait the U.S. into additional aggressive acts on Iraqi soil. Yet, doing so would compel the U.S. to respond in kind, and the cycle of escalation would continue toward certain conflict.”
Despite its overwhelming military advantages, that would be a conflict the United States would be poorly positioned to win. The U.S. public is already exhausted and disillusioned with years of seemingly pointless fighting in the Middle East. Most Americans are also anxious over the impact of Covid-19 at home and unlikely to be thrilled with the idea of diverting more resources to fighting another war with no clear end goals.
Unlike Iran, where the government wields authoritarian and sometimes brutal power to quell public dissent, the U.S. is constrained in its capacity to ignore the wishes of its own people. That’s why U.S. officials like Pompeo have insistently portrayed Suleimani’s killing as a way of tamping down violence in Iraq rather than escalating it. It’s a disingenuous claim that is getting harder to defend.
The proxy war between the United States and Iran looks certain to continue. It seems that not even a global health crisis can stop it. One thing is clear however: Ordinary Iranians, Iraqis, and Americans can ill-afford this kind of violence right now.
Even before the devastation wrought by Covid-19, Iran was struggling to cope with the consequences of American sanctions. It is in even worse shape today. The United States under Donald Trump, meanwhile, seems ill-prepared for the social and economic upheaval that will accompany a major pandemic on U.S. soil. It doesn’t seem like much to ask that U.S. and Iranian leaders postpone their score-settling until the pandemic threat that faces us all can be brought under control. But even that modest hope may be out of reach.