The Washington Post:

Colin H. Kahl is co-director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011 and deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden from 2014 to 2017.

On Aug. 7, 2019, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, rushed out of an emergency session of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The meeting discussed how to respond to news that Iran’s oil sales — the lifeblood of the Islamic republic’s economy — had plummeted to only a few hundred thousand barrels a day, down more than 2 million barrels in just 18 months, because of U.S. sanctions.

Soleimani had a few important calls to make. The first two went to the commanders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, the most prominent Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. Since the defeat of the Islamic State’s territorial “caliphate,” these militants had been itching to turn their sights on the 5,000 U.S. troops who remained in Iraq, with the goal of driving them out. Soleimani had cautioned patience, but his guidance now took a decisive turn: “Brothers, you have my authorization. Follow the righteous path.”

Soleimani’s next call was to Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, the most capable Iranian proxy in the Middle East. Despite hundreds of Israeli strikes in recent years against Hezbollah arms shipments and Iranian bases in Syria, the organization and its backers in Tehran had not yet waged an all-out war across Israel’s northern frontier. Still, everyone knew that such a conflict was inevitable at some point, and Soleimani told Nasrallah that the time might be approaching. “The American-Zionist alliance is plotting and a storm is coming,” he said. “Be ready.”

One week after Soleimani’s calls, a U.S. diplomatic convoy traveling from the heavily fortified Green Zone to Baghdad International Airport was hit by several powerful roadside bombs. A high-level State Department political officer, three other diplomats and a U.S. Army colonel were instantly killed.

Within hours, other attacks followed, including a barrage of rocket and mortar fire on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that destroyed the main dining hall and killed five Iraqis cleaning the grounds. At the same time, a suicide attacker hit a U.S. military unit operating in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. Two American Special Operations troops were killed, and two more were taken hostage by a Syrian militia widely believed to be backed by Iran.

Under any circumstances, these incidents would spark a crisis. But they occurred against a backdrop of escalating tensions and provocations between Washington and Tehran that had begun after the Trump administration withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018. The subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign the administration applied to cut off Iran’s oil sales and connections to the international banking system deepened the siege mentality in Tehran. The U.S. decision to designate the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, overruling warnings from the Pentagon, made the situation even tenser. Iran responded by restarting some proscribed nuclear activities and carrying out calibrated provocations in May, hoping to reciprocate U.S. pressure and build leverage in the event that negotiations with the Great Satan ever resumed.

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