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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Washington and the Iranian People Pressure the Iranian Regime

Smoke rises from the reception room of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that was burned by Iranian-backed militiamen and their supporters, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Iran and its proxies have been targeting Americans for decades, killing hundreds of U.S. servicemembers in Iraq and injuring many more, led by Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-Quds Force) and one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists.

The conflict between the U.S. and Iran escalated recently—beginning with Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. bases killing a U.S. citizen, America’s counter-attack on the proxy’s bases, and the Iranian-backed storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—culminating on Jan. 3 with the killing of Soleimani.

To retaliate against the United States for Soleimani’s death, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. and coalition military bases in Iraq—a limited strike that resulted in no American deaths.

But Iranian leaders’ dishonesty about the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after the attack has re-opened another conflict for Iran: the ongoing conflict between the regime and its people.

Iran’s leaders are facing these challenges because of the choices they have made—prioritizing nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and terrorism abroad.

The Iranian regime faces a clear choice: It can abandon its destabilizing activities and begin to meet the needs of its people or continue down the path of violence at home and terrorism abroad that it is on.

* * *

How did the latest events begin?

The events leading up to the violent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani are textbook examples of the unanticipated consequences that can arise when one country, Iran, uses its proxies in another country, Iraq, to attack a third party, the United States.

  • Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs)—large, well-armed and well-trained militias controlled by the IRGC—have been shelling U.S. bases in Iraq for well over a year. It is inconceivable that these groups would take such provocative actions without explicit orders from Tehran.

  • In late December, the PMUs killed their first American citizen, a civilian contractor, and wounded six American and Iraqi soldiers. The United States retaliated by attacking five PMU bases, killing 25 PMU militiamen and wounding many more.

In response, Iran ordered its Iraqi proxies to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—invoking the memory of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which launched Tehran’s 40-year campaign against America.

  • Tehran’s actions stemmed, in part, from the need to shift the focus away from its own recent killings of its citizens amid mass anti-government protests. According to the Iranian government’s own estimate, the regime has killed up to 1,500 of its citizens, thus far, who were protesting the regime’s economic failures, ingrained corruption and political repression.

  • The attack was also an effort to divert attention away from ongoing mass protests by Iraqi citizens against the Baghdad government’s corruption and incompetence, as well as Tehran’s unwavering support for and undue influence over Baghdad’s government. Iraqi security forces and Iranian militias have killed more than 500 mostly peaceful Iraqi citizen protesters since October 2019.

  • Last year, these protestors tried several times to penetrate Baghdad’s Green Zone to march on Iraqi government buildings, but Iraqi security forces and the PMUs–under the command of a senior Iraqi official openly allied with Tehran—easily blocked them.

  • The assault on the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, however, did not involve Iraqi citizens peacefully protesting their own government, but rather gangs of PMU militiamen acting on direct orders from Tehran. This time, Iraqi security officials, who had so effectively barred the protestors from entering the Green Zone previously, allowed the PMU gangs to flood the Green Zone, placing both the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices in jeopardy.

  • The Embassy attack was extremely violent, and the militiamen set fires throughout the Embassy. Only the durability of the Embassy’s inner walls and the timely arrival of U.S. Marines prevented the militiamen from taking over the Embassy and capturing U.S. diplomats. Most of the senior PMU commanders were present outside the Embassy directing the assault; some even alluded to acting on the orders of Soleimani.

Washington Responds

On the morning of Jan. 3, Baghdad time, using a reported combination of American and allies’ intelligence, the U.S. killed the IRGC-Quds Force commander via an armed drone, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the PMU militia that perpetrated the most recent attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and on the Embassy. Administration officials have stressed that the targeted killing was not just punishment for Soleimani’s past actions, but also a preemptive strike to thwart his ongoing plans to hit additional U.S. targets.

Iran Responds and More Protests Ignite

The regime retaliated for Soleimani’s death by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It is unclear whether Iran potentially sought to avoid casualties, but it is clear that U.S. early warned systems helped provided advance notice to U.S. and coalition forces. Soon after the attack, Iran’s foreign minister claimed Iran did not “seek escalation or war.” President Trump reiterated this conclusion, stating that Iran appeared to be “standing down.”

Amid the chaos of Iran’s final attack, though, the Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that had takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Iranian leaders now claim that the downing was unintentional, but for the three days following the incident they denied any involvement, blaming a technical error in the place instead.

Following Iran’s belated admission, thousands of Iranians took to the streets, voicing their opposition to the regime’s lying and incompetence. Iranian police and security forces have responded as they had to previous protests: with live ammunition, tear gas and arrests. Since November, when anti-government protests began, more than 1,500 Iranian citizens have been killed by Iranian security forces, and many more have been injured and arrested.

Moving Forward

Although the latest protests are linked to the regime’s announcement that it shot down the plane, the underlying sentiment behind the protests is much deeper.

  • The protests are a result of decades of the regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as frustration with the regime’s authoritarian rule.

  • Despite U.S. sanctions put in place over Iran’s nuclear program, support for terrorism and ballistic missile development, the regime continues to advance its nuclear program and spend billions of dollars per year supporting the brutal Assad regime in Syria and other terrorist groups across the Middle East, rather than investing in the Iranian people.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of continued conflict between Iran and the U.S. remains, as it has since the regime in Iran took power in 1979 and dedicated itself to conflict with America. Recent actions by the U.S., part of its maximum pressure campaign, incentivize the regime to end its aggressive activities.

  • The U.S. administration took a series of actions in response to the missile attacks, intensifying sanctions on Iranian regime officials and Iranian companies.

Increasing the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran will force the regime to make a clear choice: continue its destabilizing activities and face economic insolvency, or stop its destabilizing activities and begin to meet the needs of its people.

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report NERWinter2019-2020