Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war.

However, none of this should be seen as evidence that Iranian leaders have decided against the option of escalating their conflict with America. As Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution noted on Monday, the Iranians are known to make strategic use of patience, which means that the White House should “not expect immediate retaliation” of any magnitude. When the administration of US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran waited a full year before responding by launching “precise attack on the world’s largest oil processing facility”, wrote Maloney. There is no reason to believe that Iran will act rashly, thus denying its military planners the crucial element of surprise.

In a statement issued in the early hours of Wednesday, the IRGC stated that more responses were imminent, and that the missiles fired against military bases in Iraq marked only the beginning of Operation MARTYR SOLEIMANI, which would “bring about more painful and crushing responses” against the US and its allies in the region. What does all this mean? The most likely scenario is that Iran and the US will continue to confront each other with violent tit-for-tat actions in Iraq, while making sure not to cross the line that would lead to an all-out regional war. However, the brazen assassination of Soleimani, a media celebrity and the most popular public figure in Iran, has changed the rules of the game. It is now difficult to see how the hostile forces that have been unleashed in Iraq, Iran and the United States can be restrained.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 January 2020 | Permalink

One Response to Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

  1. Joe Hagler says:

    I see things differently. Iran gambled, and for now the regime remains in power. Just one US Navy cruiser has the ability to knock Iran into the stone age, if the order is ever given. If and when that order should come, it won’t be just one cruiser… With everything happening with Washington, and our bias media, I can see why Iran took the gamble… Hopefully, the American people can see how the politicians in Washington is effecting our foreign policy, and vote the obstructionist out of office…

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