Israel Attacks Iran—Trump Approves over Pentagon’s Objections

August 31st, 2019 - by Jason Ditz / & Joel Gehrke / The Washington Examiner

Netanyahu Confirms Moves Against Iran ‘Including in Iraq’

Iraq MP confirms Israel ‘certainly’ behind several strikes

Jason Ditz  /

 (August 30, 2019) — With Iraq officials expressing growing concerns at recent Israeli attacks on their territory, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doubling down on the policy, declaring that he is “doing everything” to defend Israel, including attacks in Lebanon, Syria, and in Iraq. He added that Israel is “surrounded by radical Islam.”

Israeli attacks in Syria are common enough, and they’re always talking up possible fights with Lebanon. Iraq is something very different, however, and it is putting a strain on Iraq’s Shi’ite government, with its close ties to the US and to Iran.

It’s been a challenge for the US as well, with the State Department taking the historical position supporting Israeli attacks on whoever Israel wants to attack as “self defense,” and the Pentagon warning against nations attacking their allies in Iraq.

Iraqi officials are still putting together the case for how many Israeli attacks there’ve actually been with top MP Ahmad al-Assadi, who is closely tied to the Shi’ite militia movements, saying Iraq has confirmed Israel is “certainly” behind several of the strikes.

Iraq, after all, has explosions and attacks all the time, and while there seem to be more than a few Israeli strikes in the mix, it also is possible that there are other strikes mixed in, since Israel isn’t being super direct on which ones they did.

White House and State Department Greenlight Israeli Strikes on Iranian Proxies in Iraq Despite Pentagon Disapproval

Joel Gehrke / The Washington Examiner

(August 29, 2019) — Washington gave Israel its blessing to strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq a day after Pentagon leaders distanced themselves from the operations, emphasizing the United States is a “guest” in the country.

“It’s our position that if neighbors of Israel allow a malign third country that does not share a border with Israel to use their sovereign territory as holding ground for increasingly sophisticated dangerous weapons, the only purpose of which is to attack Israel, I think those governments, if they cannot curb or control those elements, are going to have to be prepared to be responsible for them,” a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters Thursday. “So be it Lebanon, be it Syria, be it Iraq — I think that has to be our very clear message to those governments.”

That is the Trump administration’s most explicit signal of support for Israeli operations against Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israeli forces have reportedly targeted Tehran-controlled weapons depots in Iraq and on Sunday conducted an apparent drone strike against Hezbollah’s Iran-supplied missile systems in Beirut.

Military offensives in both countries could complicate the regional situation for the US and Israel, but those dangers have been trumped by alarm that Iran is amassing an arsenal in strategic locations throughout the Middle East.

Iran has transferred more than 100,000 rockets to Hezbollah in recent years, according to US officials. The Sunday operation targeted some of the systems Iran has been developing to upgrade those rockets into precision-guided missiles. The size of that arsenal suggests that the Israeli Defense Forces would not be able to shield every building in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in a conflict.

“It’s our position that Israel is only acting because of Iran’s actions,” the official said, all but confirming that Israel is responsible for the recent strikes in Iraq and Lebanon. “If Iran is not pouring heavy weapons and fighters into Israel’s neighbors with the express purpose of threatening Israel, I wouldn’t think Israel would be needing to take any of these actions. And we fully support Israel’s right to self-defense and denounce Iran’s regional campaign of violence.”

The sorties against Shiite militias around Baghdad have irritated Iraqi leaders and stirred unease among American military leaders, in part due to the risk of political or terrorist blowback against the approximately 5,000 US troops in Iraq as part of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. Iranian-backed militias gained ground and influence in Iraq after the US withdrew in 2011.

Defense Department officials, wary of any policy that might trigger another war in the Middle East when the Pentagon is bracing for long-term competition with China, distanced the US military from Israel’s reported operations in Iraq multiple times this week.

“We support Iraqi sovereignty and have repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq,” the Pentagon said in a statement Monday. “The government of Iraq has the right to control their own internal security and protect their democracy.”

Pentagon leaders expressed the same sentiments Wednesday, in the first press conference held by a defense secretary in a year.

“We are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and we are there and focused on one thing, our forces, and that is working with and through the Iraqi forces to execute the D-ISIS campaign,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Wednesday when asked about the reported Israeli operations in Iraq. “Obviously, we’re concerned about anything that may impact our mission, our relationship, or our forces,” he said. “We remain focused on supporting Iraq and supporting our forces in Iraq to go after ISIS.”

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who appeared alongside Esper, concurred. “Again, all of our operations are consistent with the agreements that we have with the Iraqi government. All of our operations, in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Force, are focused on ISIS. All of our operations,” he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense in a Thursday morning radio interview.

“Each time Israel has been forced to take actions to defend itself, the United States has made very clear that that country has not only the right but the duty to protect its own people,” Pompeo told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt. “And we are always supportive of their efforts to do that.”

That’s a natural attitude for Pompeo, who has helped orchestrate the administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran in the year since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and renewed sanctions on the regime. The Israeli strikes provide a martial component to that campaign, which the administration maintains is designed to pressure the regime to negotiate new restrictions on its nuclear program and tame Tehran’s actions throughout the Middle East.

“If there’s any one thing that is pretty clear about American strategy, it is precisely that the way to get Iran to the table and to get a better deal with Iran if we ever get to that is to keep the pressure on on every front,” David Pollock, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Washington Examiner. “Economically, militarily — whatever we can do, and our friends in the region or elsewhere can help us do, to keep the pressure on Iran, that’s good.”

What’s not clear is how far apart the White House and Foggy Bottom are from the Pentagon.

“They’re kind of speaking to two different audiences, but I don’t think it’s a deep split,” James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner, speaking of Pompeo and Esper. “Both are committed to the containment of Iran, it’s just the Pentagon in Iraq in the short run is focused on preventing ISIS from returning.”

Pollock agreed that Esper is signaling that Netanyahu should keep one eye on the potential for retaliation against the US, either by local fighters or by politicians in Baghdad.

“It was not a sign of surprise or anger or something like that at Israel for doing it,” Pollock said. “It was an expression of concern — be careful and remember we’re here too, and we don’t want to be tagged with your operations because they’re yours, not ours.”

There is broad consensus that American officials have a real stake in maintaining a good relationship with Iraqi political leaders, at least publicly.

“It’s a matter of jeopardizing the American military presence in Iraq, and whether because of direct retaliation or because Iraqi politicians will finally carry out the threats that some of them have been making for a long time, which is that we don’t want the Americans here,” Pollock said. “As serious as it is, it’s probably outweighed by the larger strategy — which is not to accept, either on behalf of the US or Israel, the Iranian entrenchment in Iraq.”

Trump’s team showed little interest in questions about whether Israel’s operations violate Iraq’s rights as a sovereign nation.

“I think that’s actually an excellent question for the Iranians,” the senior administration official said. “Where was their respect for Iraqi sovereignty when they were putting this material into Iraq? That seems to be a pretty gross violation of sovereignty, if that’s the topic under discussion.”

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