By Natylie Baldwin
In response to an attack on Friday, December 27, 2019, in Iraq that killed a U.S. military contractor and injured several U.S. service members, the U.S. bombed Iraqi Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU’s), particularly one known as Ketaib Hezbollah, which it claimed was responsible for the Friday attack. The Iraq government warned Washington not to conduct the retaliatory attack, citing violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. The conflict has arisen amid a climate of relations that were already frayed as many of the recent popular protests in Iraq were partly an expression of disgust about perceived foreign control of the country by both the U.S. and neighboring Iran, in addition to domestic grievances. Common Dreams reported the following:
The U.S. strikes, which hit targets in Syria and Iraq, killed at least 25 people and injured dozens more.
The bombing campaign sparked swift condemnation from Iraqi leaders and warnings of a devastating proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, which the Trump administration says is funding and arming Iraqi militias.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on Sunday called the U.S. strikes “a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the region.”
Further reporting reveals Washington using the attacks in an apparent attempt to try to escalate tensions with Iran, claiming – without evidence – that Iran was behind the Friday attacks and that the PMU’s are proxies for Iran. This is in spite denials of responsibility and condemnation for the attack by Iran:
Following Sunday’s US attacks on Iraqi militia bases in western Iraq and eastern Syria, the US State Department is now saying that the attacks were a “defensive action,” and also were carried out as a “warning” against neighboring Iran.
As the U.S. bombing further inflamed tensions in Iraq, angry protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, forcing embassy staff to flee the building.
Trump is publicly blaming this turn of events on Iran also, stating in a tweet:
“Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many,” Trump tweeted. “We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”
Yesterday, Iran completed four days of joint naval maneuvers with Russia and China off the coast of Iran in the Gulf of Oman. According to the WSWS:
The chief of the Iranian fleet participating in the exercise, Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, said that its purpose was to demonstrate the close relations between Iran, Russia and China. “The message of this exercise is peace, friendship and lasting security through cooperation and unity, and its effect will be to show that Iran cannot be isolated,” Tahani said. He added, “Us hosting these powers shows that our relations have reached a meaningful point and may have an international impact.”
The Israeli government didn’t miss an opportunity to lobby for war against Iran on the eve of the maneuvers:
As Russian warships arrived in Iran [last] Wednesday, Israel’s Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi called for military action against Iran. “It would be better if we weren’t the only ones responding to them,” Kohavi said, in what the Times of Israel called a rebuke to Washington, the Saudi monarchy and other Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms for not attacking Iran earlier. Kohavi added that Israeli forces would operate openly as well as clandestinely across the area, “even at the risk of war.”
Representatives of both Russia and China sought to downplay tensions while insisting that the maneuvers were meant only to increase stability in the region and cooperation among the three nations:
Russian and Chinese officials guardedly expressed concern over possible war and their support for Iran. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “We are dealing with the issues of maintaining stability in the region, security and the fight against terrorism. This co-operation and interaction are built on both a bilateral and multilateral basis but exclusively on a legal basis.”
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said, “The drill will deepen exchange and cooperation between the navies of the three countries.” Wu called the exercises “normal military-to-military co-operation,” adding that they were “not necessarily connected with the regional situation,” an apparent reference to the risk of a US war of aggression against Iran.
In the event that the U.S. and/or Israel were to attack Iran, I think it would be unlikely for Russia or China to directly intervene in fighting. However, both countries, especially Russia, would go into overdrive diplomatically to de-escalate the situation. If that failed, then either or both countries may provide indirect support to Iran. Both China and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union are heavily invested in the New Silk Road/Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) which seeks to connect Asia, Europe and the Middle East in an economic and trade consortium. Iran is viewed as a critical hub in this program. Therefore, peace and stability is the primary goal of all three nations. Conversely, certain strategists in Washington would be just fine with keeping the region de-stabilized in order to prevent the successful viability of BRI, which would represent more strengthening of the region while the U.S. declines as the lone superpower.
Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, forthcoming in early 2020. She is also co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. The book can be purchased in paperback here or electronically here. Publisher’s page here. Learn more about Baldwin here.
This blog post appeared on December 31, 2019, here.