Armoured vehicles of Iraq’s Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces militias advance through Anbar province in the western desert bordering Syria on November 25, 2017. (AFP)

By Joel Gehrke

March 20, 2020

Iran-controlled forces are launching rockets at U.S. troops in Iraq while Western leaders focus on a coronavirus pandemic that threatens to overwhelm hospital networks around the world.

“It feels like part of the American public may have forgotten that two Americans died in Iraq,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on the Iranian regime at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner.

American forces targeted five weapons depots controlled by Kataib Hezbollah, a Shia militia that the United States blamed for the attack that killed two Americans and one British service member last week. Yet the militias remain undeterred, as a Tuesday morning barrage marked the third attack on bases housing U.S.n troops in the last week, even as Tehran struggles to manage one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world.

“They view this as a kind of continuing campaign to push Americans out of Iraq,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, who directs the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told the Washington Examiner. “They’ve lost a lot of citizens to corona, but for those kinds of regimes, it’s really kind of inconsequential to them. They don’t place as high a premium on life as we do.”

Iran has taken the crisis more seriously of late, albeit over the objections of some clerics. State-run media warned Tuesday that “there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million people will die” if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. Nearly 15,000 people in Iran have tested positive for the coronavirus, and there have been 853 deaths, according to World Health Organization data, but U.S. officials believe the regime is under-reporting the crisis to minimize domestic backlash.

“Their inability to effectively respond to the coronavirus is, I think, inducing pressure on and inside the leadership,” Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate last week.

Some analysts believe that Iran has renewed attacks on U.S. forces in order to distract from the coronavirus outbreak. “Iranians are fiercely nationalistic,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin, who specializes in Iran and the Middle East, told the Washington Examiner. “And so, basically, it’s a no-brainer on the part of the Iranian regime to try to distract people from their own incompetence. And, even though — yeah, I’m a neocon, I’m a hawk, and so forth — I think the worst possible thing would be for Trump to hit Iran.”

Ben Taleblu disagrees that it is a distraction, saying, like Spoehr, that the latest attacks are part of Iran’s long-term effort to drive the U.S. from Iraq and require a response. He notes that either way, it’s hard to tolerate repeated attacks on the bases that house U.S. and other Western troops — attacks that have injured Americans even when they failed to kill any service-members. “Normally, had there been no coronavirus, there would have been a lot more attention to the recent loss of American life in Iraq,” the FDD analyst said. “Washington has to grapple with how to deter an actor like Iran at such a low and asymmetric level?”

The Washington Examiner

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.