Emboldened Enemies and Disappointed Allies: America’s Decaying Status in the Middle East

On March 12, Iran launched 12 missiles, targeting Erbil in northern Iraq. The missiles landed near the U.S. consulate there and most reports indicated that the strike’s impact was restricted to material damages, with only one civilian injured by the attack. According to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, their target was an Israeli Mossad operational center, which they described as “the Zionists’ strategic center of plotting and evil.”

This brazen and aggressive action on behalf of Iran against neighboring Iraq is far from a rare occurrence. This was the first time in recent years, however, that Iran openly acknowledged its responsibility for such an attack. The wording of the IRGC’s statement, along with the timing of this dangerous escalation in the region can only be understood in light of global developments, particularly given the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin also framed as a military action against evil, neo-Nazism in this case.

Simply put, as Iran’s current hawkish leadership witnessed the feckless Western response to Putin’s military adventurism, it felt emboldened to test the waters and target the American consulate or an Israeli operational center in Erbil. Either possible target was probably good enough to make the point that Iran is capable of inflicting enough hurt on Western interests in the Middle East and that it anticipated no serious retaliation, another parallel with Russian expectations when they invaded Ukraine. In fact, no retaliation followed and Iran’s aggression against its neighbor went unpunished.

As it happens, I was on a trip to Lebanon when the events in question took place. Wanting to hear people’s opinions on Iran’s actions, I was not very surprised to witness a general consensus concerning rationalizations of Iran’s deed.

Ali, a former supporter of the Iran-affiliated Hezbollah, was very direct in his assessment: “Iran will do whatever it wants in the region and the Americans will do nothing about it.” He followed with the astute observation that, given the uncertainty in the global energy sector because of the war in Ukraine, nobody would presently dare take action against one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers and exporters. He even took a jab at Joe Biden, joking that “by the time Biden actually wakes up and learns of this, it will be old news,” drawing parallels with Lebanon’s own octogenarian head of state, who is notorious for his habits of falling asleep during public events and embarrassing himself with slips of the tongue.

Even many Western-oriented Lebanese seemed to share similar feelings, albeit with an added layer of disappointment. George, a supporter of the steadfast pro-American and Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces party, drew similarities between Kurdish Erbil, Ukraine, and Afghanistan, to claim that, in one year, the United States demonstrated to the world that it was unwilling and incapable of supporting its allies abroad, cowering when faced with a determined opponent.

I overheard the same sentiment echoed at the Istanbul airport, where people gathered around a TV screen to listen to the latest news on war-torn Ukraine. On that day, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy had asked Turkey’s Erdogan to close down the straights of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to Russian ships. In broken English, and with a visibly distressed tone, a young Turkish man responded to Zelenskyy’s on-screen mugshot: “and what if we go to war with Russia over this? Will the Americans help us the way they helped you?”

Indeed, it seems that the image of the United States in the Middle East eroded enough over the past year to embolden its enemies and demoralize its allies. This trend will most likely intensify due to the current administration’s proven inability to manage and proactively respond to emerging crises. In contrast, when I asked Ali whether Iran would have taken similar action during the Trump presidency, he simply said: “Trump? That’s a guy who shook hands with Kim Jong-Un and did not hesitate to kill Qasem Soleimani. You do not mess with a guy like that.” 

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About Hicham Tohme

Hicham Tohme is the director of Trans-Atlantic Network Consulting. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Sheffield and is an expert on Russian military interventions and foreign relations, particularly in the Middle East. He is the author of Russia's Geostrategic Outlook and the Syrian Crisis (2020).

Photo: An overnight attack in Erbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on March 13, 2022. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)