A French attempt to jump-start talks between the United States and Iran got plenty of attention over the weekend at the Group of Seven summit, but it might have been less serious than it seemed. Though President Trump agreed with French President Emmanuel Macron that a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could happen within weeks, Iran’s foreign minister dismissed the prospect as “unimaginable.” Meanwhile, the hype over a possible diplomatic breakthrough obscured a much more ominous development: another escalation in Iran-related tensions across the Middle East, this time driven by Israel.
Since July, Israel has quietly expanded its air campaign against Iranian assets and allied militias from Syria to Iraq, with potentially far-reaching consequences for U.S. forces in the region. U.S. officials have said a July 19 airstrike on a weapons depot north of Baghdad was carried out by Israel, which has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria in recent years but had not targeted Iraq since 1981. Three other recent attacks on arms storehouses controlled by Iranian-linked militias are also believed to have been Israeli operations.
Last Sunday, a drone attack on a Shiite militia convoy in western Iraq reportedly killed a senior commander and up to eight others. The previous night, an Israeli air raid in Syria killed two operatives of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which also blamed Israel for a drone that crashed near its media center south of Beirut. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed credit only for the Syria operation, saying it had preempted an Iranian-directed drone attack on multiple military and civilian targets inside Israel.
Israel clearly has a right to defend itself from Iranian attacks, and there should be no objection to its action in Syria, a lawless country where Tehran and its allies operate with impunity. But the expansion of what has been a mostly measured and covert Israeli campaign to Iraq comes with considerable risks - including for the United States. Some 5,000 U.S. troops are still based in the country - and could be targets for Iranian reprisals; at the same time, the Iraqi government, which remains allied with Washington, is highly vulnerable to pressure from the Shiite militia groups, which among other things control a large bloc in parliament. That faction reacted to the attack on the militia convoy by blaming both Israel and the United States and calling for U.S. forces to leave the country.
The Pentagon’s response was notable: A statement strongly denied any involvement in the convoy or arms depot attacks and went on to condemn “any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq.” That would certainly appear to include air raids by Israel. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, was working to prevent an escalation between Lebanon and Israel; according to Lebanese reports, he offered the government assurances that Israel did not intend to rupture a de facto cease-fire with Hezbollah.
The Washington Post