A report from The New York Times that said President Trump considered attacking an Iranian nuclear facility raised fears of a possible US strike on Iran before January 20th. An official familiar with the meeting told The Washington Post that while a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program was off the table, President Trump is ready to respond to attacks in the region that can be tied to Iran.
According to the official, Trump emphasized that any killing of an American that can be “tied back to instructions from Iran” will spark an immediate US response. The official said the president was “very forceful” and that if Iranians kill Americans, the US response will be swift and painful.
The Post story came after rockets fell inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US embassy is located. No casualties were reported near the US embassy, but the Iraqi Army said rockets landed outside of the Green Zone, killing a child and injuring five civilians. The Post said the rockets were “apparently fired by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia,” although it is not yet clear who is responsible.
President Trump’s comments suggest if a similar rocket attack kills an American, it means the US would retaliate against Iran. The series of events that led to the assassination of top Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was sparked by a rocket attack on a US base in Kirkuk, Iraq.
In December 2019, the attack in Kirkuk killed an American contractor, and the US retaliated against Kataib Hezbollah, a Shia militia. US airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah killed 25 of its fighters and sparked protests at the US embassy in Baghdad, which led to the US killing Soleimani. But the US never presented proof that Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for the Kirkuk attack, and Iraqi intelligence later revealed that they believed it was more likely that ISIS killed the US contractor.
Abu Ali al-Basri, Iraq’s head of intelligence and counterterrorism, told The New York Times that the US did not share any information about the Kirkuk attack. “They did not ask for my analysis of what happened in Kirkuk and neither did they share any of their information,” he said. “Usually, they would do both.”
The US drone strike that killed Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force, a group of militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. Iraq’s parliament voted unanimously to kick US troops out of their country after the killing of Soleimani and al-Mohandes. The assassinations also sparked more rocket attacks on bases housing US troops in Iraq.
In October, Iraqi militias vowed not to attack US targets, a ceasefire that hinges on a full US withdrawal from the country. Tuesday’s rocket attack could have been sparked by the US announcement of only a partial withdrawal from Iraq, but it is still not clear who the perpetrators are.
While the Trump administration will label any groups that attack US targets in Iraq “Iranian-backed,” there are plenty of forces in the country that have their own reasons to fire on the US. Whether it’s militias that want revenge for the killing of al-Mohandes, other groups that just want the US to leave, or a group like ISIS, who would benefit from a conflict between the US and Iran and welcomed the killing of Soleimani.
Others fear Israel and Saudi Arabia could take advantage of the tensions between Iran and the US in the coming weeks. European officials spoke with Business Insider and expressed their concern over the situation. Some officials fear Israel or Saudi Arabia might see the end of the Trump administration as their last chance for a war with Iran. Another fear is that the US will go through with a unilateral action to force a military confrontation with Iran.
The Trump administration is expected to ratchet up pressure on Iran as much as possible before January 20th through sanctions. The goal is to make it difficult for a Biden administration to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.