Iranian Crisis: 8 January, 2020 Morning Update

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In a previous article I spoke a bit about how preserving one’s honor, aka saving face, is so significant in Middle Eastern politics. Given all of the troubles already facing it, the Iranian government probably does not want to spark a major war right now. Yet it could not simply allow the Soleimani killing to go unpunished. Tehran had to find an action that would allow it to save face with its allies and Iranian-supported proxy forces around the world, and satisfying internal elements such as the IRGC without inviting major US military action. The missile attacks against Irbil and Al Asad yesterday give the appearance of a compromise. The number of ballistic missiles used was limited, and the target selection demonstrates Iran’s desire not to inflict US casualties. Damage was caused against facilities used by US forces in Iraq, hopefully satisfying the desire for revenge among IRGC officers and troops loyal to Soleimani.

On the heels of the missile attacks are rumors that the IRGC intelligence organization arrested upwards of 50 IRGC commanders who were the most fervent followers of Qasem Soleimani. If true, this demonstrates the regime’s desire to control escalation, and prevent Soleimani’s faction from making unauthorized attacks against US targets in the Persian Gulf region. It also highlights the Iranian government’s main priority at the present time: Survival.

Then there is the Ukrainian airliner crash on the outskirts of the airport in Tehran last night. That will be discussed later, though at the moment it would appear to be a tragic accident at the wrong time.

More updates will come later in the day as time allows.

Targeting Soleimani was the Right Choice

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President Trump made the right decision in ordering the airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general officer and commander of the Quds force. He was a legitimate target, a man responsible for previous attacks against US interests in the region. The US government was current on Soleimani’s activities, and keenly aware of the reasons for Soleimani’s presence in Baghdad  Even more significant than his status as a legitimate target, is the fact that Soleimani was a terrorist responsible for the deaths of Americans. To not take advantage of the opportunity to neutralize him would’ve been irresponsible at the very least. The Trump administration’s handling of Iran has been strikingly different from how the Obama administration dealt with Iran. It’s more than fair to say President Trump’s approach has been far more effective. In this case, the president wasted no time, took decisive action, and dealt a considerable blow to Iran’s Quds force, and to Tehran’s shadowy activities across the region.

Having said all of that, we are going to see an Iranian response and possibly soon. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wasted little time in vowing revenge for the killing of Soleimani. This morning has seen much speculation in media circles as to what form Iranian retaliation will take. This matter has also been analyzed at length on this side of the fence by the US intelligence community, Pentagon, and outside advisers brought in to consult.

In short, the conclusion drawn is that the coming Iranian action will not adversely affect the calculus in the Persian Gulf area for US forces, or national interests. In all likelihood, the response will follow along the same lines of previous action, meaning attacks against US embassies, rocket strikes on bases where US troops are stationed, and perhaps a resumption of strikes against oil tankers operating in the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea. Iran may also seek to punish US allies in the region for what Tehran views as their complicity in the killing of Soleimani. The coming 24-36 hours will reveal much about the direction Iran has chosen.

In any event, it did not take long for 2020 to produce its first geopolitical crisis.

Iranian-Backed Militia Attacks US Embassy in Baghdad

Iraqi mourners storm US embassy in Baghdad after deadly strikes

Crowds of protesters in Baghdad attempted to storm the US embassy this morning. Reports are still unclear about the extent of the damage caused, or the current situation. Earlier, Iraqi government officials reported the US ambassador, diplomatic staff, and other employees had been evacuated from the embassy. The US State Department, however, refuted the claim and stated that the staff is still in the embassy compound in a fortified area. US Ambassador Matthew H. Tueller is currently out of the country on a pre-scheduled vacation. Video from the scene has revealed that US guards and employees are still at the embassy. The troops went into action using tear gas to keep the protesters at bay. Iraqi security forces later intervened and the situation, although still tense, has not escalated.

The US embassy in Baghdad is located in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

The Trump administration wasted little time blaming Iran for orchestrating the action. Many of the protesters appear to be members of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia. Over two dozen militia members were killed in US airstrikes on Sunday that came in retaliation for the rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk which killed one US defense contractor, and wounded several US troops.

The crowd now gathered outside the US embassy now appears to be setting up for a long-term protest and siege of sorts. Tents are being erected, and the number of protesters appears to be increasing. A Kataib Hezbollah spokesman said the militia plans to remain encamped outside of the embassy until it closes and all US personnel leave Iraq.

More information on the situation in Iraq will be posted later in the day.

US Suspects Iran Could Be Planning Military Action

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In the last twenty-four hours signs have appeared indicating Iran could potentially be planning a military move somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. The indicators started coming to the surface shortly after it was revealed that a US Navy warship seized a major shipment of Iranian arms headed to the Houthi rebels in Yemen last week. Since then, US military and intelligence officials have been closely analyzing the information coming out of the region and are concluding that Iranian action is possible.

It appears that Iran is using the chaos in Iraq as a cover to secretly move additional short-range ballistic missiles into the country. From points just outside of Baghdad these missiles can be launched against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively. The appearance of missiles in Iraq is not a new development. US intelligence has been warning of their presence since last year, and Israel launched airstrikes to destroy the hidden weaponry. The threat from the short range ballistic missiles is increasing as their numbers have been increasing lately.

Earlier in the week, the Trump administration has hinted that it could be sending additional troops to the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran continue to rise. The size and make up of the new deployment remains to be seen, however, as the week has gone on, it seems certain that new US forces will begin moving to the Gulf in a matter of days in an attempt to strengthen US military options in the region should Iran decide to move.

The Iranians appear to be reacting to the prospect of more US forces in the area. According to reports from media sources, and from inside of the Pentagon, Iran has started moving additional air defense units to Bushehr, site of its sole nuclear reactor, and also the location where a new reactor is under construction. Obviously, the air defenses are being strengthened there to deter the US from launching air and cruise missile strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Dark Days Ahead for Iraq?

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Iraq continues to deteriorate as the anti-government protests that have plagued the nation since October threaten to turn into a full-scale uprising. As if this were not enough to contend with, the government is now facing a full-blown political crisis that could potentially unravel the central government at the worst possible moment. On Thursday security forces opened fire on a group of protesters in Nasiriyah killing 24 and wounding over 200. Protesters were also killed in Baghdad, and Najaf. On Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation, resulting in a cautious optimism among protesters. Mahdi leaving office is a start, but there is still much work to be done.

The protesters in Iraq are seeking a reform of the government, and an end to Iranian influence in Baghdad. The resignation of one man alone will not be enough to satisfy them. Too much blood has been shed in the streets. Too many promises have been left unfulfilled by the leaders in Baghdad. When Mahdi’s resignation is approved by parliament, the search for his successor will begin. This will likely be a long-term process. In the meantime, Mahdi’s cabinet could stay in power as a caretaker government. The protesters may not respond kindly to this scenario if it becomes reality. Their battle against an entrenched and corrupt political class will continue, and as it does, the post-Saddam Iraq constructed by the United States hangs in the balance.

When US troops completed their withdrawal in 2011, the hope was that the new Iraqi government’s foundation would be strong enough to withstand the coming challenges. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. Without US support the foundation rapidly transformed to quicksand. Corruption, and nepotism swept through the public sector. Sectarianism became endemic. These factors, coupled with the removal of American forces created a vacuum in Iraq that its neighbor to the east swiftly moved to fill. Iranian actions, and influence have helped to bring the Iraqi system to the verge of a permanent breakdown.

The Iraqi parliament will have 15 days to name a new successor. Yet, as I mentioned above, it has historically taken much longer to name a new leader in post-Saddam Iraq. The clock is running though. If a leader who appeals to all major factions cannot be agreed upon, Iraq could be plunged into a full-fledged civil war.