LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The United States may have backed off on a military strike against Iran, but today, National Security Adviser John Bolton cautioned the Iranians not to, quote, "mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness." And it's being widely reported that the U.S. has carried out a cyberattack against Iran. A commander there in Iran has warned that his country would set the region on fire in the event of U.S. military action.
There's worry throughout the Middle East about all of this. NPR's Jane Arraf is in Iraq, one of the countries that would be most affected, and she joins us now from Baghdad.
Good morning, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we know Iraq is one of the few countries that's friendly with both the U.S. and with Iran. How do they juggle that?
ARRAF: Yeah. That's - it's a really tough balancing act, and particularly since, to the Iraqis, the U.S. has had a diminishing presence here. So for security reasons, it evacuated most of the embassy and the consulate in the Kurdistan region in May. It closed another consulate in Basra last year. And American oil workers were recently evacuated from the southern oil fields.
In contrast, Iran tends to dig in. So most Iraqi leaders, and most Iraqis in general, don't want to have to make a choice. They want to be on good terms with everyone. But if they had to make a choice, the feeling is that they would have more to lose by choosing the U.S. over Iran.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That U.S. Embassy evacuation was linked to threats from Iranian proxies on Americans and American interests. So what is the specific fear if things escalate?
ARRAF: So there are quite a few things because Iran has quite a big and varied toolbox when it comes to this. There are fears that there could be kidnappings of Americans, and you'll recall we haven't seen that in years. And if you look at the effect of just a single rocket that hit those southern fields, it sent out Exxon Mobil workers out of the country. So there's that economic impact.
But to get that wider sense, I talked to Hezbollah Brigades. They're considered the biggest Iran-backed militia here. So in his office, under a photo of past and present Iranian supreme leaders, I talked to the spokesman Mohammad Mohey. And he says those rockets that hit U.S. interests - those are small groups and small attacks, and they are nothing compared to what Hezbollah and others would do, he says, if the U.S. attacked Iran.
MOHAMMAD MOHEY: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: So he says the U.S. knows two things - that Iran is a strong country and that Hezbollah and other groups he calls resistance forces have grown stronger, and they're capable of harming U.S. interests if they choose to.
And it's true because Iran backed militias that are now only nominally under control of the Iraqi government. They're a lot stronger and better equipped since they moved in to fight ISIS than they were when the U.S. had a much bigger troop presence here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I imagine that other countries in the region are worried, too.
ARRAF: They are because pretty much every country has a reason to worry. First, there's that effect on the oil industries, and oil is important to so many of these countries. If a conflict - if the conflict chokes off that tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, that would be disastrous. And then Iraq isn't the only country with Iranian proxies and U.S. interests. There could be repercussions in Syria, Lebanon and even beyond those borders into Israel.
And it could also stoke sectarian tension, which has been dying down. Hezbollah spokesmen, for instance, mentioned Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based and where there's an ongoing crackdown on the Shia population. And he says that's just one place that could be destabilized. So a lot of worries here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Baghdad.
Thank you so much.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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