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Iran is once again waging a low-intensity conflict in the Middle East Image Credit: Gulf News

To call the US Embassy in Baghdad merely a diplomatic mission is to severely understate its scope and size. At 104 acres, the compound is nearly the size of Vatican City and comes complete with its own dormitories, dining halls, electrical plant, fire department and everything else needed to support the thousands of diplomats housed inside its thick walls.

So it was shocking to read that hundreds of supporters of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia, broke into the compound on Tuesday and ransacked the reception areas. To anyone of my generation, it instantly conjured up terrible memories of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981.

The protesters even shouted the same slogan — “Death to America” — as the Iranian hostage-takers. Mercifully, Tuesday’s embassy invasion ended without anyone being harmed after Iraqi security forces belatedly arrived to restore order.

Trump shows little interest in either seriously negotiating or fighting. He has waged economic warfare on Iran while doing nothing to curb its regional aggression; indeed, by withdrawing US troops from part of northern Syria, he has allowed an extension of Iranian influence

- Max Boot

This is another reminder that in the long-running conflict between the US and Iran. Indeed, for the past 41 years, Iran has put on a master class in irregular warfare, leaving the US flummoxed about how to respond.

In the 1980s, Iranian-backed forces took dozens of Americans hostage in Lebanon and demolished both the US Embassy and the US Marine barracks in Beirut with truck bombs that killed hundreds.

President Ronald Reagan was so desperate to free the hostages that he was willing to sell missiles to Iran — a back room manoeuvre that blew up into the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration after the proceeds were secretly diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras.

In 1987, Reagan sent US naval forces to prevent Iran from closing the Arabian Gulf as part of its war against Iraq. One US Navy frigate was nearly sunk by an Iraqi missile and another by an Iranian mine, but US forces inflicted heavy damages on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy and accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger airliner.

Damage via proxies

This was the first and last time that US and Iranian forces engaged in direct battle. Iran prefers to do most of its damage via proxies.

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian-sponsored militias killed hundreds of US service members. President George W. Bush condemned Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” but wisely decided against escalating hostilities. The United States was mired in enough wars without starting another one against a nation of 81 million people.

The Iranians took advantage of Bush’s ill-advised decision to overthrow their nemesis Saddam Hussain to extend Iranian influence across Iraq under the very noses of American occupiers. Iran was already the dominant player in Lebanon. In the past two decades, it has become the dominant player in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, too. Iranian influence stretches from Tehran to Beirut.

The only effective US response to the Iranian threat since Reagan’s tanker war was President Barack Obama’s decision to conclude a deal with Iran in 2015 that would freeze its nuclear program. The deal did nothing to curb Iran’s regional power play and may have even fuelled it by lifting economic sanctions. President Trump exited the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed economic sanctions on Iran in 2019, even though it was complying with the agreement.

Pushed into a corner, Iran and its proxies have lashed out by allegedly attacking oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf, shooting down a US drone, hitting a major Saudi oil facility with cruise missiles — and now rocketing a compound near Kirkuk, Iraq.

The latter attack, which killed an American contractor and injured four US troops, led Trump to retaliate with air strikes across Iraq and Syria that killed 25 members of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia blamed for the rocket attack, and sparked anti-American outrage. The embassy invasion was Iran’s riposte to make clear that it will not bow to American pressure. Your move, Mr Trump.

The United States has only two ways out of this escalating crisis: fight or negotiate. A war with Iran could be the mother of all quagmires; it could easily spin out of control with tit-for-tat responses of the kind we have seen in recent days. Better to negotiate. That would mean trying to rebuild a tougher nuclear deal in return for the lifting of US sanctions.

But Trump shows little interest in either seriously negotiating or fighting. He has waged economic warfare on Iran while doing nothing to curb its regional aggression; indeed, by withdrawing US troops from part of northern Syria, he has allowed an extension of Iranian influence. So we are left with the worst of all possible worlds: Iran is once again waging a low-intensity conflict, and America once again has no effective response.

— Washington Post

Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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