Iranian backed proxies in Iraq carried out a rocket attack in mid-March that killed three members of the U.S.-led coalition, including two American soldiers. It is the latest of dozens of similar attacks that have plagued U.S. forces in Iraq over the past year as Iran increases its threats to Washington. However, the recent violence comes with an added concern: Iran now is one of the worst hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic and it blames the U.S. for COVID-19. Tehran may be poised to take more risky action.
Since May 2019, Iran and the U.S., as well as their allies in the Middle East, have been on a collision course of rising tensions. That included the mining of ships in the Gulf of Oman, which the U.S. blamed on Iran, drone strikes on Saudi Arabia, and shipments of Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. After the recent attack on U.S. forces in Iraq, including two incidents of rocket fire on the Camp Taji base in one week, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released a series of tweets documenting Iran's threatening behavior. While the U.S. is engaged in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Iran is plotting attacks. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of CENTCOM, has cautioned Iran and its proxies from endangering U.S. and coalition forces.
In Iran, the novel coronavirus has hit hard — both the leadership and society. At least 23 members of Iran's parliament were reported to be infected. A deputy health minister, a vice president and numerous officials, clerics, and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are threatened by the virus. This is a shock to the regime because in February, when the virus began to spread in Qom and Tehran, the government encouraged people to go to the polls rather than self-quarantine. Only now has the regime changed its tune, claiming U.S. sanctions are harming the ability to fight the virus, and pushing conspiracy theories in pro-government media. Iran's officials say the virus is "biological warfare" and quote conspiracy theories that allege it was created by the United States.
As part of Iran's "biological war" narrative, the government has embarked on a campaign to use the army to clear the streets and hold nationwide biological warfare drills, according to Iran's Press TV. It appears Iran increasingly is turning over efforts to fight the virus to the IRGC, the same military group that has worked with proxies in Iraq to target U.S. forces. Iran sent its head of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, to Iraq on Feb. 8, on the eve of rocket attacks on U.S. forces. He met with leading Iraqi politicians who are opposed to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, according to Iran's own news agencies.
Among those with whom he met was the Badr Organization, whose head Hadi al-Amiri leads the Fatah Alliance in Iraq. Badr has called for U.S. forcesto leave and arranged protests against the U.S. presence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has singled out these Iranian-backed groups for their attack on the U.S. embassy in December 2019.
The picture that emerges is an Iran on edge and a precarious position for U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran has watched the U.S. drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and is eager to pressure the U.S. in Iraq. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Iranian regime may be more emboldened and beholden to its more militarist elements in the IRGC.
Iran still wants to avenge the U.S. killing of IRGC Quds Force commanderQassem Soleimani, and Iran claims the "countdown" to U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has begun. One way for Iran to distract from its mishandling of the coronavirus at home, and push its "biological warfare" narrative against the U.S., is to continue provoking the U.S. in Iraq and across the Middle East. The virus may make the regime lash out, rather than heed the lessons of the past year and be cautious.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.