A US confrontation with Iran could be deadly for American troops in Iraq

The World
Iran has been training and equipping Shi’ite militias in Iraq for years. Here, Shi’ite militiamen shell ISIS positions near Baiji in 2015

The Trump administration put Iran “on notice” on Wednesday, after Tehran tested a ballistic missile. “Nothing is off the table,” the president told reporters on Thursday.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer also cited Iranian threats to naval vessels as something that requires a US response. (It’s not clear if Spicer was referring to a suicide attack on a Saudi frigate Monday by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels off Yemen; or failed missile attacks on US warships last October, also off Yemen; or recent harassment of US ships by Iranian speedboats in the Persian Gulf.) 

“I think there’s real risk for the Iranians with this administration,” says Andrew Exum, a contributing editor at The Atlantic. “Because I think there is appetite in this administration to hold Iranian assets at risk, and to potentially pick a fight with Iran over some of the things that it’s doing.”

Exum recently left office after serving two years as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy. He previously served as an Army infantry platoon commander in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I do think there’s a strong strain of hawkishness that exists not only with the president," says Exum, "but also with some of his closest advisers, toward Iran.”

Iran has scoffed at the US threats, saying it will do whatever it wants to improve its defenses. The US says Iran agreed not to upgrade certain classes of missile, as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement with the international community. But Iran disputes that that was part of the deal.

Confronting Iran carries risks for the US, Exum warns. In particular, he highlights the vulnerability of US personnel in Iraq in a piece in The Atlantic.  

“The US has about 5,000 troops in Iraq, mostly focused on countering the Islamic State,” Exum explains. “For the most part the forces that we have in Iraq are busy enabling the Iraqi forces as they push on Mosul and the Euphrates River valley where the Islamic State still has a pretty significant presence.”

“We’ve been in this weird position with Iran in Iraq, in that strategically and regionally we’re often at odds with one another, but tactically and within Iraq we both share the same goal of defeating the Islamic State.”

Iran sponsors Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and uses them to help it pursue its regional strategic objectives, which include not only countering the influence of the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also destroying ISIS. Iran is a sworn enemy of the terror group. ISIS draws support from some Sunni Muslims, while Iran poses as the champion of Shiite Islam.

Iran and the US therefore are now fighting the same enemy in Iraq. But Iran's Shiite militias also fought US troops in the past, during the occupation of Iraq in the years after 2003.

“So we’ve seen firsthand how Iran can make our lives miserable in Iraq," Exum says.

“So if Iran wanted to escalate the conflict and escalate the risk to US soldiers, they could do it,” says Exum. “I think one of the things the Trump administration is telling the Iranians is that that is going to come at a cost.”

“I think the Trump administration is right to focus on Iran’s nefarious activities regionally,” says Exum. “They’re right to focus on Iran’s conventional weapons, and the threat that they pose. However, they need to be very careful in how they sequence their efforts, because what they don’t want to do is end up fighting two wars at once.”

“Unfortunately,” Exum cautions, “I think that a lot of Americans still feel that you can start a war at low cost — that, you know, you can punch Iran and Iran’s not going to punch back.”

“But the reality,” he says, “is that the 35,000 or so US troops that we have positioned in and around the Persian Gulf [that give the United States great strength], it also gives the United States great vulnerabilities. And as Iran has shown, it doesn’t hesitate to also escalate outside of the region through either their proxies like Hezbollah or through their own terror networks.”

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