U.S. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. (Reuters)

January 22, 2020

By Track Persa

In a long speech delivered on a screen in Nabatieh, Lebanon on Sunday, January 12, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iranian-allied Hezbollah warned that the US troops should have to leave the region dead or alive.

In his speech, Nasrallah paid tribute to  Qassem Soleiman, the head of Quds Force, the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was killed by a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport on January 2.  Iran’s retaliation for Soleimani’s death was firing a dozen of missiles at two airbases in Iraq, one of them is Ain al-Asad airbase, used by the US troops that did not kill a single American.

The Hezbollah’s leader described in his speech  the Iranian response to the Americans as “a mere slap on the US and not a full reprisal”, warning the Americans to “either leave the region vertically or horizontally (in coffins) and this is the ultimate resolution of the Axis of Resistance.”

Nasrallah claimed that the Iranian attack on the US interests in Iraq showed the might of Iranian military capabilities which meant all US bases in the region could be subjected to similar missile attacks, pointing out that Iran had more sophisticated and accurate missiles than the ones used in the Ain al-Asad attack.

Nasrallah did not only directly threaten the US with more similar attacks, but he also referenced the 1983 suicide attacks that targeted the US Marine barrack in Beirut which resulted in the killing of  307, including 241 U.S. military personnel and 58 French military personnel, in addition to 6 civilians. Hezbollah and Iran were the main suspects.  A few days later, a pro-Hezbollah tabloid in Lebanon featured on its front cover as full-page of the collapsed US Marine barracks attacked by a suspected Hezbollah suicide bomber.

However, Nasrallah’s rhetoric and threats of revenge for Soleimani’s death by singling out American soldiers as a target does not mean his options are not limited, given that Lebanon is in the middle of wide-ranging protests against the country’s corrupt ruling elite, which Nasrallah himself is a key player.

Today the Lebanese do not support any confrontation or attempt to drag their country into a war similar to the 2006 war with Israel which prompted the public in Lebanon and the wider region to rally around Nasrallah and his organisation. That said, if Hezbollah engages in any sort of war, there will be significant economic consequences which Lebanon cannot sustain, given the already severe economic crisis in the country and instigating another war will no doubt result in a public rage against Hezbollah.

Nasrallah could have another option — attacking the Americans inside Syria where Hezbollah fighters and other Iranian-backed militias are present. However, this option seems unfeasible because the US troops are working within a multinational coalition force whose mission is to fight the Islamic State (IS) extremist organisation. Consequently, attacking the coalition forces will instigate a confrontation between Iran and its ally Hezbollah on the one hand and the other countries which are participating in the military mission in Syria, which is not in Iran’s interest as it can lead it to fight on several fronts at the same time.

Additionally and based on Tehran’s and Nasrallah’s rhetoric after the assassination of Hezbollah senior member Imad Mugjniyeh in Damascus in 2008, Hezbollah will unlikely attack US citizens or US interests in Lebanon or Syria for the near future.

Will Iran use proxies in Iraq to attack US interests?

Nasrallah’s threats in that speech coincided with reports revealing that the Iranian regime had tasked Nasrallah with sponsoring mediating talks to unite Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to form “resistance” to US troops in Iraq.

One of the outcomes of these mediation talks, according to the reports, is that the leaders of the most powerful militias which are part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), commonly known as Hashd al-Sha’bi, a government-sponsored militias which are umbrella of Iranian-allied militias, have heeded Nasrallah’s initiative and agreed to put their differences aside and address the leadership vacuum in the wake of the killings of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy leader of PMF and chief of Iraqi Hezbollah Brigade. It seems that Nasrallah succeeded in convincing the Shiite rival militias to quell in-fighting over their long-simmering feuds and support Hadi al-Amiri, head of Iraq’s Badr Shiite militia, as the new leader of PMF.

After finishing the talks brokered by Nasrallah, these militia leaders flew to the Iranian city of Qom to meet with Moqtada al-Sadr, the most powerful Shiite cleric and the leader of Sa’iyroon militia which is also part of PMF.  Al-Sadr’s recent actions and statements indicate that he has been dragged to the camp of the pro-Iranian factions after longstanding rift and hostility which he did not hide.

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran has preferred campaigns to operations that can achieve a long objective that is the removal of the US military presence from the region. However, based on outcomes of the development in Iraq, Iran’s exploitation of victimhood to instigate the Shia communities in the region against the US will unlikely succeed.

And since October 2019, young Iraqis have taken to the streets demanding reform and the downfall of the political establishment, and its main external backer Iran. The political establishment, including political parties and militias close to Tehran, failed to appease or suppress these protests. After the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis, Iran-backed militias tried to (re)gain popularity from their own population, by drawing on the old tool of anti-Americanism. When that did not work, the Iranian-backed militias have intensified their assassination and intimidating campaign against the Iraqi protesters. This campaign has backfired and now the majority Iraqis have been protesting against the existence of these militias and their role in killing the protesters and kidnaping anti-government activists and hold them accountable for the failure of the Iraqi state.

The use of Iran-affiliated factions against US targets in Iraq to at least provide Tehran with a degree of plausible deniability is no longer feasible, given that US President Trump has rejected separation between  Iran and its proxies.

The new Trump administration’s policy has been adopted after the IRGC-commanded Iraqi militia Hezbollah Brigade attacked an Iraqi airbase used by US troops in the north of the country that killed an American civilian contractor. The US response was striking several positions belonged to Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria. The US response ended up with the killing of the two notorious chiefs Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

After Trump rejected  the policy of separation between Iran and its proxies adopted by his predecessors including Barack Obama, Tehran should have realised that any lethal attack against the US military or US civilian targets, regardless of whether it has carried out by its proxies, will result in a US attacking “52 pre-selected targets inside Iran”, as Trump put it.

By this threat, Trump means that he has lifted the immunity and plausible deniability that Tehran enjoyed over the last four decades. This also means that if Iran’s surrogates decide to attack US citizens or US interests, Tehran should expect it will be targeted by the US too.

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.