While the United States and Iraq are pursuing a rare “strategic dialogue” on a host of economic, energy, political, security, and cultural issues, Israel’s relatively silent military campaign against Iran-linked positions in Syria persists unabated.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), unidentified aircraft launched eight airstrikes against Iranian militias at the Maizilah base in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, killing at least 12 fighters. Two days earlier, Israeli warplanes targeted facilities reportedly belonging to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center near the city of Masyaf in northwest Syria.
SOHR put the death toll from the attack at nine, including four Syrian nationals. Some independent journalists have questioned the accuracy and reliability of SOHR’s reports in this respect, but the fact that Israel has kept up its air campaign against Iran in Syria remains indisputable.
Israel’s continued “campaign between wars” strategy — as the relentless strikes have come to be known — has evidently not stopped Iranian efforts to equip Hezbollah with advanced weaponry, including precision missiles, or the capacity to produce them in Lebanon, and thus to change the “balance of threat” to Tehran’s advantage in the Israeli backyard as part of its “strategic depth” security policy.
Yet, the military campaign has arguably been successful in disrupting the Iranian entrenchment endeavor and slowing down the flow. So much so that some former American officials and current critics of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against the Islamic Republic have proposed that the United States “learn from Israel” and replicate the offensive strategy in Iraq in order to effectively “deter” Tehran and at the same time avert war.
Former American officials have proposed that the United States “learn from Israel” and replicate the offensive strategy in Iraq.
This is a fundamentally misguided recommendation that can lead to further escalation and even all-out military confrontation between the two traditional foes, which would be the exact opposite of what its American proponents have in mind. It can also bedevil US plans to “continue reducing forces from Iraq” as part of its new strategic arrangement with the Arab nation.
An American “mabam” against Iran in Iraq?
According to Illan Goldenberg, a former senior US Department of State official in the Obama administration, and his colleagues at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), “Israel’s ‘campaign between the wars’ [the Hebrew acronym is mabam] against Iran and Iranian-backed groups in Syria has been one of the most successful military efforts to push back against Iran in the ‘gray zone’” and “US policymakers and military planners should examine it carefully” for useful “lessons” it may provide.
And most importantly, the proposal has been made as an alternative to recklessly hawkish measures by the Trump administration such as the assassination of former Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani in January, so that Washington may avoid a calamitous conflagration with Tehran and yet manage to deter and contain it.
“In most cases US administrations have been hesitant to respond at all, for fear of starting a larger conflict,” Goldenberg et al. wrote in the CNAS policy paper, adding in a related commentary that “there is a middle ground that may be more effective.”
While this “middle ground” approach has partly worked for Israel in Syria, “mabam” cannot be easily transposed to Iraq.
However, while this “middle ground” approach has partly worked for Israel in Syria and advanced its national security interests, “mabam” cannot be easily transposed to Iraq. It is actually very likely to backfire there, triggering an outcome that its adherents have clearly been striving to avoid all along.
The strategic rationale for such a confrontational scenario is simple but perhaps not immediately clear: Iran views Iraq – its immediate neighbor with a shared border of about 1,600 kilometers – quite differently from Syria in the framework of its national and regional security strategy. Accordingly, hostilities in Iraq are perceived in Tehran as a graver threat that warrant a more serious and effective engagement compared to those unfolding in Syria.
It is unsurprising that the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria did not elicit a swift concerted military response from the Islamic Republic, despite ISIS’ rabidly anti-Shia positions and atrocities. But, Tehran did not hesitate to intervene with military assistance against the terrorist group as soon as it seized territory in Iraq and established its cross-border Caliphate in 2014.
Even if the Iranian leadership does not want, at a personal and political level, to treat its western neighbor as a security buffer, its unconventional “strategic depth” policy of keeping the fight as far away from national borders as possible structurally compels it to do so. This constitutes a key pillar of Tehran’s overall defense posture, alongside its nuclear and missile capabilities.
In other words, as long as Tehran pursues, and invests in “strategic depth” as a central component of its national security strategy, Iraq, a Shia-majority population, will likely be treated as a buffer that might descend into a battleground under critical circumstances. Indeed, it was, first and foremost, fears of Israeli entrenchment in Iraqi Kurdistan that convinced the Revolutionary Guards to help neutralize the Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017.
Under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has increasingly relied on Iraq to bypass US sanctions.
But Iraq is much more than a security buffer for the Islamic Republic. Under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy of economic asphyxiation in particular, Iran has increasingly relied on Iraq to both bypass US sanctions and dilute their crippling effects.
In the words of Hamid Zadboum, Chairman of the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran, Iranian exports to Iraq constitute a quarter of the latter’s total imports. “Twenty-five percent of the import market in Iraq is held by Iran, as the value of Iranian goods makes up $10 billion USD of the total of $40 billion USD in Iraqi imports [per annum],” Zadboum said in December 2019, adding that “currently, 800 trucks carry Iranian goods and products into Iraqi Kurdistan on a daily basis.”
Add to these factors the deep-rooted cultural and religious ties as well as the traumatic history of an eight-year-long bloody war (1980-1988), and it might become clearer why Iraq is perceived as the most important country in the Islamic Republic’s strategic orbit.
This was on full display when Iran-backed paramilitary forces — as part of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad at the end of December 2019 in response to American airstrikes that killed 25 members of Kata’ib Hezbollah, a Shia militia group close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Even more ostensibly, Iran-linked drone and missile attacks on Aramco oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia in September 2019 are believed in some intelligence circles to have been triggered by the Saudi complicity in earlier Israeli strikes against PMF positions in Iraq.
While Israel’s “campaign between wars” in Syria has relatively succeeded, it carries a “risk of war” if pushed to extremes.
While Israel’s “campaign between wars” in Syria has relatively succeeded in not only making it more difficult for Tehran to establish a cost-effective land corridor to the Mediterranean but also generating friction between Tehran and its partners, particularly Moscow, it carries a “risk of war” if pushed to extremes.
On June 7, The Jerusalem Post cited a report claiming that the Revolutionary Guards might no longer tolerate increased Israeli air raids on its installations in Syria and seem to be making tentative arrangements for retaliation.
As a number of Republican lawmakers prepare the “biggest-ever” sanctions package against the Islamic Republic and its paramilitary allies in the region, Iran is even more unlikely to tolerate such a “middle ground” military campaign in neighboring Iraq, unlike what anti-war Obama era officials seem to believe.