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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - This week’s 24-hour siege of the American Embassy in Baghdad is the latest – and perhaps one of the most high-profile – incidents of tit-for-tat engagements between Tehran and Washington since tensions escalated last year.
But while the siege, by Iranian-backed militiamen, opens the possibility for a new, more kinetic confrontation, it leaves Iran further away from its goal of mitigating US sanctions.
The sanctions have done little to curb the country’s clerical rulers or their regional muscle-flexing, but they brought significant damage to Iran’s economy.
Relatively controlled reciprocal actions have marked the tension between the two countries over the last 18 months.
After 25 militia being killed in US raids, pro-Iranian Shiite militias surrounded and then withdrew from the embassy compound on Wednesday. The raids came as retribution for the killing of an American contractor in Iraq two weeks ago.
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper warned on Thursday that America will take pre-emptive action if they have intelligence of further attacks. The US is, at least for now, unwilling to back down. But the impact internally in Iraq could be significant.
The siege had already deflected attention from the country’s uprising and the killing by the authorities and the militia of hundreds of their coreligionist demonstrators. US commentators painted the militias who attacked the embassy as protesters in the same terms as those who torched Tehran’s diplomatic outpost in southern Iraq several times in recent months.
After the US raids, Iran’s allies in Iraq renewed their demands on the Baghdad government to eject US troops from the country, with Iraq officially having invited them back in 2014.
But without American troops, Iran would remain alone in Iraq and lose their main rallying cry.
Tehran would be left without an external actor to blame for Iraq’s descent into chaos and help recruit Shiite clients, whose ideological zeal was on display in front of the US embassy this week.
The US had said it would fully defend the embassy while stressing preference for de-escalation in the overall conflict, similar to past patterns since Mr Trump withdrew the US two years ago from the 2015 nuclear deal.
In Tehran on Thursday, the country’s hardliners kept up their virulent anti-US rhetoric but in some ways were circumvent.
Revolutionary Guards Commander Brig Gen Hossein Salami said: "We are not leading the country to war, but we are not afraid of any war and we tell America to speak correctly with the Iranian nation.”
The events in Baghdad could have veered sharply out of control, with militiamen in close proximity to the inner defences of the American compound.
The US military rushed hundreds of soldiers to the site in Baghdad’s Green Zone, an area it knows by heart, armed with “the most lethal military equipment in the world,” according to Mr Trump.
He aimed to show, and may have achieved, his goal of projecting US resolve and his self-declared strength as a leader intent on avoiding past debacles.
Chief among them is the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran and the 2012 death of John Christopher Stevens, one of America’s most seasoned diplomats, in the torching of the US mission in Benghazi
More hostilities involving US interests, and allies in the Middle East, could be on the way, before the US elections in November, with Iran possibly hoping that Mr Trump would be defeated.
Tehran’s actions have done little to dissuade, and may have encouraged, a desire by most of the current field of Democratic candidates to return to the status quo when Barack Obama was in the White House.
Iran’s clerical rulers might be playing for time. But no one is ruling out a second term for Mr Trump.
Updated: January 3, 2020 10:26 AM
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