The Slatest

Iran’s Missile Attack on U.S. Forces: What Happened

A group of men raise their fists and cheer. An Iranian flag flies in the background.
Celebration on the streets of Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday after Iran launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Nazanin Tabatabaee/West Asia News Agency via Reuters

Iran fired missiles overnight Tuesday at military targets in Iraq used by American troops in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Details are still emerging about the attack, but here’s what we know so far.

What Exactly Happened

“More than a dozen” ballistic missiles were launched from inside Iran and struck two military bases in Iraq: Al Asad Air Base, which sits just over 100 miles outside Baghdad, and another base in Erbil in northern Iraq. The Asad base is significant because it serves as an operational center for American military operations in western Iraq and was visited by U.S. President Donald Trump just a year ago during his first visit to a combat zone in December 2018. The base in Erbil is a staging site for special operations, including operations in northern Iraq and Syria.

So far there are no reported U.S. or Iraqi casualties from the strikes that the Iranian government says Iraq was notified of before the launch. The mouthpiece of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Fars News Agency, is reporting “heavy casualties” resulting from the strikes saying “at least 80 U.S. troops” were killed, though with zero corroborating reporting that seems very, very unlikely at this point. For a frame of reference, the U.S. still has some 5,000 troops based in Iraq as part of a force aimed at preventing the resurgence of ISIS. Along with the American troops, Australia, Great Britain*, Denmark, Poland, and Sweden all have soldiers stationed in the country.

What Iran Is Saying

Iranian assessment of the attack—and what, if anything, comes next—has varied widely, depending on the audience. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, struck a strident and incendiary tone, saying the attack had been a “slap in the face” to the U.S. and declaring during a national address Wednesday that incremental attacks on the U.S. were “not sufficient.” “What matters is that the presence of America, which is a source of corruption in this region, should come to an end,” he said.

Does that mean more attacks are on the way? Not necessarily. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted a much more restrained statement Wednesday, emphasizing that the strikes constituted “proportionate measures in self-defense” under the U.N. charter. It appears the missile strikes were timed to minimize the potential for casualties, which would buttress the argument that Iran could be looking to move on. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif said. Those comments appear to offer an offramp to the escalation, at least from an Iranian perspective, that would allow the Iranian government to say to the millions of angry citizens who took to the streets during Soleimani’s funeral procession that it had struck back against the U.S. for the assassination, while also signaling to Washington it did not intend to initiate a wider conflict.

What the U.S. Is Saying

Trump, ahem, tweeted out this statement Tuesday night: “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”

What exactly does that mean? Who knows! U.S. officials have not had as much to say (yet) about the missile strike and potential next steps, but Trump will surely add some incomprehensible verbal fuel to the fire Wednesday.

Correction, Jan. 8, 2020: This post originally misspelled Britain.