Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani recently traveled to Iraq and summoned together leaders of the Iran-affiliated Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary forces. His message to them was crystal clear: Prepare for war.

According to US intelligence reports, Soleimani instructed Iraqi proxies to target American troops. A similar message was passed to Lebanese and Yemeni proxies, with Houthi rebels last week noisily proclaiming responsibility for drone strikes against Gulf oil pipelines. Iran was also inevitably behind sabotage attacks against oil tankers in Gulf waters, possibly via its proxies.

Most Western politicians I speak to are wholly ignorant of who Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and its sister forces are. Officials with responsibility for Iraq radiated complacency that we shouldn’t worry about these paramilitaries, which a decade ago slaughtered more than 600 coalition troops. Hashd commander Hadi Al-Amiri — a Western diplomat reassured me — “is first and foremost an Iraqi nationalist.” How recently were we hearing similar platitudes about Hezbollah’s commitment to Lebanese sovereignty, stability and territorial integrity?

Yet, in recent days, Britain and the US have raised threat levels or scrambled to withdraw non-essential staff from embassies in Iraq, as intelligence reports belatedly acknowledged that these militias do indeed pose an immediate threat. Aviation companies were warned that overflying commercial airliners could be “misidentified.”

Tehran spooked US intelligence by loading rockets onto dhows circling in Gulf waters. Meanwhile, a large missile convoy was apparently the target of Israeli airstrikes against Damascus, renewing fears of conflict across Lebanon and Syria. With so many balls in play — even if Tehran doesn’t want war — a miscalculation could pitch these belligerent antagonists into mutually escalatory confrontation. US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s saber-rattling may leave America looking isolated, but NATO allies will rapidly fall into line when faced with Iranian provocations.

A Washington Post analysis concluded that Tehran had chosen the path of confrontation because “waiting out the Trump administration wasn’t working. Sanctions were squeezing too hard, and Trump looked as though he might be re-elected.” I hear observers comment how “cunning” the Iranians are in wreaking such mayhem and panic against the mighty Americans. By ruthlessly exploiting the limited means at its disposal, Tehran is indeed tactically very clever, but strategically exceedingly stupid and rash.

Yes, the Trump administration is ridiculous and incompetent in so many ways; yet Iran is like a tiny bug provoking an aging and irascible sleeping lion, which will eventually extinguish its microscopic persecutor with a lazy swipe of its paw. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is gloating that his engagement with China and Russia has resulted in endorsements of good behavior concerning the nuclear issue, but will these states shield Tehran after it goads the American lion into hostilities?

Caught up in their own overheated rhetorical delusions of regional supremacy, the ayatollahs have never tried to hide their ambitions to deploy their transnational paramilitary mercenaries in the cause of regional dominance and striking Western interests. Soleimani hubristically declared: “The Red Sea is no longer secure for the American presence… Trump should know that we are nation of martyrdom and that we await him.”

Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal led to the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars, with European multinationals queuing up to invest in Iran. Instead of pouring this fortune into the Syrian meat grinder and bankrolling regional militancy, Iran could have overhauled its economy and revolutionized its citizens’ well-being, bolstered by massive influxes of oil wealth. Yet this rogue regime only knows how to survive in a frenzied atmosphere of confrontation. Leaders who came of age amidst the Islamic Republic’s 1980s logic of “exporting the revolution” can’t resist frittering away their wealth, sponsoring militants to inflict anarchy and sectarian bloodshed upon neighboring nations.

Daesh was always highly skilled at getting itself into the news through gruesome and spectacular violence. Iran’s proxies are equally skilled at staying out of the media. Both Al-Qaeda and Shiite death squads were responsible for sectarian cleansing in Baghdad around 2006, yet Iran-backed entities were more systematic in murdering tens of thousands of civilians and terrorizing hundreds of thousands of Sunnis into exile. Within 18 months, they ensured that most of Baghdad’s 66 demographically mixed neighborhoods became exclusively Shiite. Yet it was Al-Qaeda that dominated the headlines thanks to its conspicuous and indiscriminate bombings that terrorized Sunnis and Shiites alike. After 2014, the world also conveniently ignored Hashd war crimes in the Sunni cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and Mosul — as long as this was all in the good cause of combating Daesh (although Hashd leaders left the toughest urban fighting to the regular army).

Donald Trump, who is desperate to avoid conflict, rejects perceptions that Bolton is steamrolling him toward war. The US president is reportedly pursuing communications channels to Tehran via the Swiss. A call by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Sultan of Oman may have had the same purpose. Trump deludes himself that the ayatollahs are on the verge of begging for talks; showing how little he understands Iran.

Centrists like President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif were undermined by Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Hardliners cite this as proof that America can’t be trusted. Iran’s political spectrum is thus united in vociferously defying renewed US pressures, making capitulation politically impossible — at least for now. Rouhani compared the hardship imposed by new sanctions to the ravages of the Iran-Iraq War. Just as Ruhollah Khomeini supped his “cup of poison” to end the 1980s conflict, the regime may be eventually forced to capitulate; but let’s remember that this previously took eight years of senseless bloody stalemate, leaving a million dead.

With Trump’s desperate pleas for talks, the 2018 closure of the US Basra Consulate (after being shelled by proxies), the draw-down of US staff in Baghdad, and the Syria pullout, this all looks to Tehran like proof that Americans respond to pressure by running away. They may interpret Trump’s obvious distaste for conflict, and policy disarray in Washington, as evidence that they can terrorize the US president into a humiliating U-turn; just as Kim Jong Un can nowadays run rings around America and continue testing missiles, while Trump proclaims undying love and friendship (having earlier threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang). US officials promise zero tolerance for Iranian provocations but, after failing to respond to attacks on Gulf shipping and oil infrastructure, Tehran has clearly noticed that the emperor in Washington is wearing no clothes.

Yet, in this explosive and unpredictable status quo, Iran’s hubristic stupidity in deploying paramilitary assets to goad and provoke the Americans can ultimately only end with Tehran being reduced to rubble and the region again being caught in the crossfire.

The world can no longer feign ignorance about the proxy paramilitary threat. There is no peace for the Middle East as long as these regionalized militia hordes are wielded like a sword above our heads. Decisive action must be taken by the international community to curtail this militant menace, before Tehran’s kamikaze regime and a war-crazed Bolton set us on a course of mutually assured destruction.

Source » arabnews