A report from The New York Times that said President Trump considered attacking an Iranian nuclear site last week seems to have spooked Iran. Iraqi officials told The Associated Press that an Iranian general delivered a message this week to its allies in the region to be on high alert and avoid provoking tensions with the US.
With Joe Biden expected to be inaugurated on January 20th, the Trump administration is ramping up its “maximum pressure” campaign in hopes it will make it impossible for Biden to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal. The Times report caused some to fear that a military strike could be added to the “maximum pressure.”
Iraq served as a stage for a US military strike on Iran at the beginning of the year when the US assassinated Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The series of events that led to the general’s killing was sparked by a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that killed a US contractor. The US blamed the attack on the Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah, but it was later revealed that ISIS could have been the culprit.
The drone strike that killed Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who led the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a group of Iraqi-state-sponsored militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. The US provocation enraged many in Iraq and caused an uptick in rocket attacks on US convoys and bases housing US troops in the country.
The Trump administration blames all of these attacks on Iran, but there are plenty of forces in the country with their own motives to fire on the US besides militias that receive support from Tehran. Some groups just want the US to leave Iraq, while others like ISIS could benefit from a war between the US and Iran.
An official told The Washington Post that President Trump would be ready to respond against Iran if any American killing in the region can be “tied back to instructions from Iran.” The president’s comments suggest that if an American is killed in Iraq between now and January 20th, it could result in a military strike on Iran.
With all of these factors at play and an incoming administration that could seek diplomacy with Tehran, Iran has every reason to avoid provoking a military confrontation with the US.