Iran and Threats to U.S. Forces in Middle East

" U.S. forces now almost completely encircle the Persian state"

Jan 21, 2003


Iranian hardliners have called for suicide attacks against U.S. forces in the Middle East. Though the faction specifically has encouraged Palestinian suicide bombers to target U.S. troops, Iranian elements might seek to trigger attacks in places like Bahrain.


Iranian hardliners are encouraging suicide attacks against U.S. military forces stationed in the Middle East. In a Jan. 21 editorial in the well-known Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari argued that Palestinian suicide bombers should exploit the opportunity for attacks provided by the growing number of U.S. forces in the region.

Iran is deeply divided over how to handle the growing U.S. military presence in the region and the coming U.S. war with Iraq. Some government officials argue for working with Washington as a means of retaining influence among Iraq's Shia majority, while others point out that Iran could be Washington's next target. Tehran has been grouped with Baghdad as part of the so-called "Axis of Evil," and U.S. forces now almost completely encircle the Persian state.

From Iran's perspective, the U.S. military presence poses a threat that will only worsen once Washington has ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and stationed forces in that country. Iranian militant and hardline elements -- possibly backed by factions within the government and security forces -- might see suicide strikes against U.S. troops as a way of reducing U.S. military capabilities and discouraging further encroachment in the region.

By calling on Palestinian suicide bombers to target those troops, Iranian hardliners might be hoping to send a warning to the United States. However, Palestinian militants are not well-positioned to attack U.S. soldiers. In fact, there are few American troops in Israel and surrounding states. Instead, Iranian hardliners might be hoping to encourage militant strikes against U.S. forces in places where there are large Shia populations influenced by Iran, and where U.S. soldiers are concentrated.

Map of Middle East

Under those criteria, Bahrain would be a prime target. One thousand U.S. troops are stationed in that country; the capital city, Manama, is headquarters to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and the locale of several warships. The island nation has a population of approximately 650,000 people who are predominantly Shia, though the government is Sunni-led. Washington is well aware of the dangers to its assets and military personnel in the Gulf: Anti-American demonstrators swept through Manama in April 2002, U.S. soldiers have been attacked by mobs and forces stationed in Bahrain were placed on the highest threat level, Delta, in September 2002.

There is, however, a significant difference between mob attacks and premeditated suicide bombings -- which require planning and a reliable target setting, like an outdoor restaurant that U.S. military personnel are known to frequent. Given that American forces are on Delta threat level, finding targets for suicide bombers will be more difficult. But with Iran encouraging the highly politicized and impoverished Shia population, they are not out of the question.

Another possible trouble spot is southern Iraq, around Basra. The United States will need to be able to cooperate with local Shiites in that area -- and that, by extension, means cooperating with Tehran, which wields some influence over Iraqi Shiites. But the divide in Tehran between various factions over how to deal with Washington could complicate U.S. military plans to advance north from Kuwait.

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