Tensions between the United States and Iran have been on the rise since Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. In Iraq, militias supported by Iran carried out 11 rocket attacks over two months late last year on sites with Americans, United States officials say. One such attack on Dec. 27 resulted in the death of an American interpreter, Nawres Hamid. That then prompted the Americans to carry out airstrikes on Dec. 29 on five sites in Iraq and Syria that killed at least 25 members of the Kataib Hezbollah militia and injured 50 others, American officials said.
Two days later, members of the militia carried out a violent protest at the American Embassy in Baghdad. The US blamed Iran’s Quds Force for orchestrating this protest and machinating further attacks on American Embassies in the Middle East.
Early on Friday, January 3, Iran’s top security and intelligence commander was killed in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport that was authorized by President Trump, American officials said. The commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed along with several officials from Iraqi militias backed by Tehran when an American MQ-9 Reaper drone fired missiles into a convoy that was leaving the airport.
According to the statement issued by the Pentagon, Soleimani was planning attacks on Americans across the region which led the US forces to target him in Baghdad. “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
Early on Wednesday, January 8, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against the U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq, retaliating to the assassination of Iran’s Quds Forces commander Qasem Soleimani. The missiles targeted Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Erbil in the northern part of the country. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, announced after the attacks that the nation had “concluded proportionate measures” in its retaliation for the killing of the country’s most revered military general in an American drone strike last week.
Iran’s Foreign Minister claimed that the missiles targeted the base from which the drone attacks were launched. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, deemed the attacks as “a slap in the face” to the US while claiming that tens of US personnel were killed. Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Haji Zadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Force, according to Iranian state media, said that “We did not intend to kill, we intended to hit the enemy’s military machinery.” However, he repeated the government’s claim that “tens of people were killed or wounded.”
On the other hand, the US and Iraqi officials rejected Iranian claims regarding causalities while admitting that the attacks did take place. According the official assessments made by the US authorities 16 short-range ballistic missiles were fired by Iran at two air bases U.S. and coalition troops occupy in Iraq: al-Assad in the western part of the country and Erbil in the north. Eleven missiles struck at al-Assad, and one fell near Erbil. The rest failed to reach their targets. The strikes caused no causalities or injuries and minimal damage was incurred.
The Americans also claim that they had the intel regarding Iran’s retaliatory actions. According to a report published by TIME, an American news site , three U.S. officials said, “The Iranians prepared for the strikes in ways that American spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping were sure to detect them — which U.S. intelligence did in time to give the White House and American forces some three hours warning of possible attacks and their probable targets”. Furthermore, A Defense Department official issued a written statement Wednesday afternoon saying, “U.S. early warning systems detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, providing U.S. and Coalition forces adequate time to take appropriate force protection measures”.
Besides the US’s pre-attack intel, the Iranian authorities sent a warning to Iraq’s military shortly after midnight local time that the missile attack was starting or would soon begin. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s office said that at the same time the Iranian warning came in, Iraq also received an alert from the U.S., saying that at least two bases were being attacked.
Considering the above-mentioned information and Iran’s choice of location for the attack, it seems that Iran’s response was designed to serve a twofold purpose of sending a signal to the enemy as well as satisfying the sentiments of domestic audience. Actual harm to US personnel was not intended as it would have resulted in an all-out military confrontation with the US forces, which Iran would definitely avoid.
According to the reports of The New York Times, American Security experts and many prominent US lawmakers suggested that if Iran’s aim was to kill U.S. troops, it would have launched more missiles and probably picked different targets such as the U.S. embassy in Baghdad or other parts of the Green Zone where there could have been hundreds of casualties, if not more.
However, it is well known that Iran’s core strength lies in its proxies rather than conventional warfare, so the actual revenge would be inflicted through these militias that Iran organizes throughout the Middle East. “We see this big public attack carried out by Iran, but that was a show of strength to send a signal and it also plays to their own domestic audience,” says Phillip Smyth, a Shi’ite Islamist militarism expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iran’s preferred method of operation is to pick a time and place of their choosing, using the proxies that they want, in order to have the most effective response.”
So, apparently it seems that Trump administration has gotten away with its aggression without incurring any significant damage and without escalating the matter to the extent of a war. Trump and his crew are bent upon portraying Soleimani as an international terrorist and his assassination as a great victory; in his post-assassination press conference, Trump called Soleimani “number one terrorist anywhere in the world”. It can be speculated that Trump might use this incident to his advantage in the upcoming 2020 US presidential elections, especially to lure the rightist groups.
While Iran has suffered a great loss, it has managed to sustain its image as resilient and courageous nation by retaliating in a direct manner. Recently, Iran has been crippled by the violent anti-government protests taking place all across the country in which more than a thousand people have been killed since November. Masses have been protesting against dire economic conditions and the policies of Iran’s religious leadership. This incident might redirect the antagonism of the masses towards the US and help Iran gain some internal unity, as millions of mourners chanting “death to America” and “death to Trump”, gathered on the streets during the funeral rites of Gen. Soleimani.
Although the situation has de-escalated for the time being, but this is temporary because none of the basic factors that led these two countries to the brink of war have changed. Iran’s strategic goals remain the same and the US is doubling down on its withdrawal from the nuclear deal by imposing more sanctions. Hence, what appears to be the situation now is that the conflict would return to the shadows until any other similar incident occurs.