Managing Iran’s Proxies: A Path to De-escalation (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Geoff LaMear, Fall 2020 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States faces the threat of rocket and IED attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq. Rather than double down on failed deterrence strategies, the United States should withdraw all military forces from Iraq. With fewer potential targets, there are fewer chances for attacks targeting American personnel. Current U.S. strategy has proven counterproductive at protecting American lives and has increased the belligerence of Iran’s proxy network, with attacks continuing long after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The risk of war is not worth the limited U.S. interests in Iraq.

In responding to proxy attacks, confronting Iran with either military strikes or sanctions is likely to increase malign behavior without furthering U.S. interests. It also misunderstands the extent of Iran’s control over its proxies and increases the potential for a regional war. Likewise, confronting proxies with military force and sanctions have not proven effective in deterring further attacks. Instead, the United States should publicly announce a timetable for a full military withdrawal from Iraq and follow through on this plan.

In the transition period until withdrawal, the United States should define clear redlines which Iran’s proxies are not to cross. The United States should explicitly state that the killing of U.S. personnel will result in military retaliation. Likewise, the United States should explicitly state that attacks on the U.S. embassy will result in significant retaliation. In the short term, the United States should leverage the current pro-American government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to crack down on any attacks by Iranian proxies until the withdrawal is complete. During this period, the United States should also engage Iran diplomatically to incentivize restraint by its proxy network. Future U.S. policy towards Iraq should emphasize diplomacy and economic engagement.