Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts U.S.-Iran Escalation in the Age of COVID-19
U.S.-Iran Escalation in the Age of COVID-19

U.S.-Iran Escalation in the Age of COVID-19

On the night of March 11, approximately 18 107mm Katyusha rockets hit Camp Taji near Baghdad. The attack killed three soldiers—one British and two Americans—and wounded 14 others. U.S. and coalition forces quickly determined that Iran-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah had been the culprit. Early Friday morning (Iraq time), U.S. forces retaliated against the group, striking a number of sites linked to the Iraqi militia across Iraq.

This lethal flair-up—the latest between the United States and Iran, and its proxies—could not come at a worse time for any of the countries involved. All reports suggest that Iran is currently overwhelmed with the COVID-19 outbreak, with hundreds dead, over ten thousand infected, and the virus spreading among regime elites and officials. The virus is also steadily spreading in the United States, with major outbreaks on the West Coast, in New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. causing widespread social and economic panic. Iraq is in a much more fragile situation. It has also been hit by the virus, and will likely see its cases of infection rise. But beyond that, Iraq is in throes of a political crisis fueled by fierce factionalism, old divisions, and foreign interference. Corruption and insecurity have given rise to an intrepid grass-roots protest movement, which has sought for months to overturn a political system riddled with corruption and dominated by Iran and its militia allies.

Given the context, why would Iran and its proxies court escalation with the United States now?  There are a few possibilities: First, Iran might be betting that a short conflict with the United States could galvanize public support at home and/or distract from its poor handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Second, Iraqi militias might see escalation with the United States as a pretext to build pressure against the current protest movement, or eradicate it altogether, citing national security concerns. The argument against that logic is that Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed militias have already moved against the protest movement in the past without needing such a pretext. The protest movement has so far proved resilient in the face of significant violence against it.

A more compelling reason might be found in attack’s timing, which occurred on what would have been Qasem Soleimani’s 63rd birthday. Soleimani was killed on January 3, when a U.S. air strike hit his vehicle convoy as it departed Baghdad airport. Also killed in the strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi official and leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, a pro-Iran proxy militia. Would Soleimani’s birthday be an important enough pretext to warrant the inherent risk of a lethal strike on U.S. forces by Iran and/or its proxies? The date is unlikely to be a coincidence, but it is equally unlikely to have been the sole motivation.

More likely is that the attack was designed to advance a strategic aim. Iran’s leaders and their proxies have made it clear that they want U.S. forces out of Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah has been leading the political charge in that effort, and in recent weeks, has threatened violence against U.S. forces to compel such an exit. This week’s attack seems to be the logical extension of those threats. Even though the group has not claimed responsibility for the attack, they praised the action, and used it to renew calls for a U.S. departure. The Trump administration has demonstrated already that the deaths of Americans is a red-line that will be met with military action. When Kata’ib Hezbollah killed an American contractor in a similar strike back in late December, the U.S. military responded with air strikes on the organization’s bases in Syria and Iraq. A few days later, Soleimani and al-Muhandis were also killed. Kata’ib Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups used that retaliation to accelerate their campaign to expel U.S. forces from Iraq, which has so far failed.

Given U.S. red-lines, retaliation to Wednesday’s attack was guaranteed by the deaths of two Americans. President Donald Trump wasted little time in giving the appropriate authorizations for a potential military response. On March 12, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said, “I have spoken with the president. He’s given me the authority to do what we need to do, consistent with his guidance.” He added: “I’m not going to take any option off the table right now, but we are focused on the group — groups — that we believe perpetrated this in Iraq, as the immediate (focus).” Hours later, U.S. forces began striking sites connected to Kata’ib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups in Babil province. According to a U.S. Department of Defense Statement, the strikes targeted Kata’ib Hezbollah -linked sites, including five weapons storage facilities in order to “significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks on coalition troops.” Early reports seem to suggest that the buildings struck were largely unpopulated. The Iraqi military, which condemned the attack, claimed that three of its soldiers and two police officers were killed. Neither Kata’ib Hezbollah nor other militias have reported deaths yet, but some militants appear to have been wounded in the strikes.

This might not be the end of American retaliation, but if it is, then it was designed to be limited. By comparison, the U.S. strikes in late December hit Kata’ib Hezbollah bases, resulting in dozens of deaths. Kata’ib Hezbollah’s leader and his Iranian benefactor were also assassinated a week later. Either way, the U.S. response probably fits right into the aims of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iran. They have more Iraqi deaths and destruction to fuel their effort to expel U.S. forces from the country. They also have cause to respond further, if they wish, in order bait the U.S. into additional aggressive acts on Iraqi soil. Yet, doing so would compel the U.S. to respond in kind, and the cycle of escalation would continue toward certain conflict.

The x-factor in all of this is the COVID-19 outbreak. How it influences the U.S. president’s decision-making, or the advice given to him by defense and military officials, is unknown. Likewise, how Iran’s leaders view their domestic crisis, or the impending one in the United States, is unclear. No sides are in the position to fight a war when their countries are plagued by pandemic. But there will always be opportunists who aim to exploit crises to their advantage. Perhaps Iran and its allies are aiming to do so here. Perhaps not. Time will tell. What there should be little doubt of, however, is that there is no chance the context has escaped the minds of decision-makers on all sides. This moment is sui generis. It is escalation in the age of COVID-19, and it is the last thing the people of Iran, Iraq, or the United States need.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.