About 21 missiles landed in Baghdad's Green Zone compound targeting the American Embassy on 20 December, according to a US Central Command statement. Although the strike caused no US injuries or casualties it did damage buildings in the compound, the statement says, stressing the attack "was clearly not intended to avoid casualties" and pinning the blame on an "Iranian-backed rogue militia group".
Tensions continue to escalate in the region as roughly a month ago Iran's top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was shot dead by a remote-control weapon east of Tehran. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which Iran believes was conducted by Israel and an exiled opposition group. The killing evoked strong memories of a drone assassination of Quds Commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.
Why is Trump Stepping Up Rhetoric Against Iran?
"President Trump is apparently keen on punishing Iran to the extent that he can, prior to not having the power to do so in less than two months", suggests Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist, author, and commentator, outlining five possible reasons behind the president's toughened rhetoric:
· first, Trump would like to see a Biden administration struggle to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which he left in 2018;
· second, perhaps it's revenge for Iran not bowing to his demands and not agreeing to meet with him and negotiate a new deal;
· third, it's probably because Trump's "maximum pressure" policy on Iran has failed and he, nevertheless, wishes to pursue it to the bitter end;
· fourth, it's apparently the growing influence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an old Iran hawk, in crafting US foreign policy until 20 January;
· fifth, Israeli and Saudi concerns over Washington's projected rejoining the JCPOA could also be at play here.
Trump's apparent frustration over "his extreme pressure campaign failing to bring Iran to its knees" and his probable intent to "poison the relations so badly that it would make it excruciatingly difficult for Biden to return to the JCPOA" are the major causes behind the president's latest threats, believes Dr Gal Luft, co-director of the US-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.
"This fits a tradition of presidents trying to influence their successors from the other party. I see the Trump administration taking steps in its final days to impede a return by Biden to the JCPOA", echoes Daniel Pipes, an American historian, writer, and commentator.
In November, Trump slapped a new batch of sanctions on Iran's Mostazafan Foundation and about 160 of its subsidiaries allegedly linked to the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as on Iran's Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi and a number of other individuals. The US president was even said at the time to be considering a potential strike against an Iranian nuclear site, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Will Trump Resort to a Military Option Against Tehran?
Trump's response to the attack on the US Embassy by some unidentified groups is aimed at making "the Iranian regime and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias think twice if they intend to carry out attacks against US targets and deterring them from a revenge attack commemorating the 3 January anniversary of the US assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani", deems Dr. Michael Barak, a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
Soleimani's killing in a drone attack near the Baghdad Airport prompted Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to launch numerous ballistic missiles at Ayn al-Asad, an Iraqi Armed Forces and United States Armed Forces air base, as well as at another airbase in Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region on 8 January 2020. The strikes resulted in over 100 servicemen being injured, according to the Pentagon.
President Trump, however, refrained from kicking off a symmetrical military attack against Iran. As it turned out later, the IRGC accidentally downed a Ukrainian passenger plane while anticipating blowback from Washington. The strike killed all 176 passengers and crew of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on 8 January. After the tragedy, the Iranian government offered an apology to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for shooting down the plane.
It's unclear whether Trump will shy away from a military option this time in response to what the president believes to be an Iranian-backed missile attack, according to Barak.
There is a US military contingent deployed in the Persian Gulf so any possible attacks by Iran against America may provide "a legitimate excuse to the US to attack Iranian targets", according to the researcher.
President Trump might resort to "a massive response if the Iranian regime provokes him", echoes Itamar Rabinovich, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University. At the same time, if Tehran resorts to hardball diplomacy amid simmering US-Iranian tensions this could hurt Joe Biden's plans to return to the Iran nuclear deal, according to the academic.
"Biden would like to return to an improved version of the JCPOA", he says. "The Iranian regime is posturing by demanding an end to the sanctions first. They may end up out maneuvering themselves. Biden wants to improve the relationship but cannot afford to seem too soft".
Following the strike in Baghdad, top US national security officials agreed upon a range of options to present to President Donald Trump to deter any attack on US military or diplomatic personnel in Iraq, according to Reuters. Citing a senior administration official, the news agency suggested the agreed upon measures did not contain a military response over the strike. However, this calculus could change if there are future attacks and if they are harming Americans, the unnamed official told Reuters.
For its part, Iran is strengthening air defence systems located near its nuclear facilities as a precaution against possible US missile strikes, according to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas. The media outlet specifies these precautions are being taken in Isfahan Province, where the Natanz uranium enrichment plant is located.