Tehran has in the past targeted American assets in Iraq and Afghanistan and could again lash out as its back is pressed up against the wall
The United States military fears that Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria could have a boomerang effect resulting in the targeting by Tehran of American soldiers stationed in the Middle East, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Responding to the report, a Pentagon spokesperson said that while the U.S. “support[s] Israel’s inherent right to self-defense,” the American military nevertheless would take “appropriate measures” in the event any action places its personnel in jeopardy.
Israel has over the past two years conducted some 200 cross-border missions in Syria with a view to preventing Iran from establishing a permanent presence in the country and from transferring advanced weaponry to its Hizbullah underling in Lebanon.
The report suggested that the issue is of “growing concern” for U.S. army commanders, who believe that Tehran could respond to Israeli raids by ordering its Shiite proxies throughout the region, in particular in Iraq, to attack American forces, a move that also would provide the Islamic Republic with plausible deniability.
“It is a reasonable worry as this is the modus operandi of the Iranians, who send their proxies to do their dirty work,” Avi Melamed, Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Washington-based Eisenhower Institute, contended to The Media Line.
“If you recall, following the [launch of a series of mortars in early September towards the Green Zone in Baghdad where the American embassy is located], Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that the U.S. would hold Iran accountable for any violence [perpetrated] by its Shiite militias. There are many groups that could be activated, but right now Tehran is likely to be very cautious.”
Indeed, Iran is facing the prospect of a severe economic crisis as U.S. sanctions targeting its crucial oil sector are set to take effect on November 4. This, as President Donald Trump repeatedly has emphasized his intent to roll back the Islamic Republic’s “nefarious” expansionism.
In this respect, Iranian-supported fighters have long been active in Iraq, where, most recently, they played a central role in ousting the Islamic State from major cities. Thereafter, some of these groups were incorporated into the Iraqi national army, giving Iran significant influence over security issues. In Syria, the Revolutionary Guard Corps commands thousands of Hizbullah troops along with tens of thousands of imported Shiite mercenaries.
“The U.S. is definitely looking at multiple flashpoints where Iran can retaliate over the next few months,” Dr. Sanam Vakil, Senior Consulting Research Fellow and head of the Iran Forum at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, related to The Media Line. “There is a confluence of factors but more than anything else Iran is motivated by a willingness to prove it is capable of reacting asymmetrically to Israel and the U.S.
“There is a miscalculation on Washington’s part,” she continued, “that economic pressure on Iran will lead to its retreat. Based on past behavior this is unlikely and, perhaps, quite the opposite: Tehran could hold down its positions and bide time or open up [fronts] in Syria, Iraq or Yemen and potentially beyond the Middle East.”
Notably, there have been no reports of Israeli strikes in Syria since last month’s downing by Assad regime forces of a Russian reconnaissance plane in Latakia, although a senior official in Jerusalem claimed Monday that operations have since been undertaken and that coordination with Moscow continues unabated.
The Kremlin blamed the incident, in which 15 servicemen were killed, on an IDF mission that minutes before destroyed an Iranian weapons depot in the area. While most analysts have attributed Israel’s subsequent relative inactivity to Russia’s transfer to Damascus of the sophisticated S-300 defense system, questions are now being raised as to whether Washington is reining in the Jewish state.
To date, the White House has provided unequivocal support for Israeli operations that curb Iranian influence, with a spokesperson for President Trump reiterating this week that “Iran and Hizbullah cannot be allowed to build an arsenal of weapons on Israel’s border that threatens the region.” The statements echoed those of national security adviser John Bolton, who during an August visit to Israel defended the IDF’s maneuvering as “legitimate” and called for the complete removal of Iranian-aligned forces from Syria.
“There is dialogue going on all the time and there could be instances when there is disagreement, but for the most part the Trump administration and the Israeli government are on the same page and recognize the danger associated with Iran’s involvement in Syria and this is unlikely to change,” Melamed stressed to The Media Line.
Overall, there is a perpetual risk to Americans posted to the volatile Middle East, as evidenced by the evacuation last month of the U.S. consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra following attacks pinned on Iranian-backed fighters.
This reality is reinforced by previous U.S. intelligence assessments that directly linked at least 500 American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan to organizations connected to Tehran.