After Washington accused Iran of being responsible for the attacks against the US Embassy in Baghdad that followed US air strikes, Tehran is risking a direct military confrontation with the US if it persists with the underhand tactic of employing proxies to carry out attacks on its behalf. Pictured: Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi militia try to break into the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq on December 31, 2019. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)
The intense pressure Iran is facing over its continued meddling in Iraq is the key factor behind the recent upsurge of violence in the Middle East that has resulted in American warplanes carrying out their biggest attack in a decade on Iran-backed militias.
Ever since the ayatollahs came to power more than 40 years ago, they have sought to distract attention away from their domestic unpopularity by getting Iran-backed Shia militias to carry out high profile attacks.
From the devastating car bomb attacks the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia carried out against American bases in Beirut in the 1980s to the more recent attacks on Saudi Arabia's Aramco oil facilities in October 2019, the Iranian regime has repeatedly used its proxy Shia militias to great effect to distract attention away from its domestic travails.
The beauty of this arrangement, so far as the ayatollahs are concerned, is that, by relying on Shia militias to do their dirty work, whether it is firing missiles at Israel or carrying out assassinations in Europe, Tehran is able to deny any involvement in wrongdoing.
No longer. By launching a series of air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria on Sunday night, the Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that it will no longer tolerate Tehran's denials of its involvement in attacks against the US and its allies.
Moreover, after Washington accused Iran of being responsible for the subsequent attacks against the US Embassy in Baghdad that followed the air strikes, Tehran is risking a direct military confrontation with the US if it persists with the underhand tactic of employing proxies to carry out attacks on its behalf.
US officials believe the recent upsurge in Iranian-sponsored violence in Iraq has been caused by Iran's desire to distract attention from the wave of anti-Iran protests that have taken place recently in the country over its continued meddling in the Iraqi government's affairs.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump certainly left no one in any doubt that he held Tehran directly responsible for the American Embassy attack earlier this week, when hundreds of protesters breached the outer wall of the embassy compound in the heavily fortified green zone.
In a chilling echo of the attack on the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 that resulted in the long-running American hostage crisis, protesters chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel", set fire to a sentry box, pulled security cameras away from walls and hurled projectiles, including Molotov cocktails.
Writing on Twitter shortly after the attack, Mr Trump declared that Iran was responsible for carrying out the attack:
"....Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat..."
Nor has the President been taken in by Iran's claims that it had nothing to do with last week's rocket attack against a military base used by American and Iraqi troops on the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in which one American contractor was killed.
The actual attacks were carried out by the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah, which operates in both Iraq and Syria, and the Pentagon's military response was directed at destroying a number of the militia's bases.
Mr Trump, however, has blamed Iran directly for carrying out the Kirkuk attacks, writing, "Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will..."
The President's robust response to the recent upsurge in Iranian-sponsored violence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East certainly appears at odds with the perception that he has no interest in conducting military operations in the Middle East, and that his main objective is to reduce Washington's military presence in the region ahead of this year's presidential election contest.
It should also send a clear signal to Tehran that its reliance on Shia militias to carry out attacks on its behalf will no longer be tolerated.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph's Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.