Early Wednesday morning local time, Iran delivered on its threats to retaliate for the killing of Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani with a missile strike on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops. According to a Pentagon statement, more than a dozen ballistic missiles were fired from Iran toward at least two bases, at al-Asad and Erbil. It’s not clear yet how much damage the missiles caused or if there were any casualties.
Iranian state TV said the operation was called “Martyr Soleimani” and was a direct response to the general’s killing in a U.S. drone strike last week. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned against further retaliation for these strikes, saying it would prompt further attacks against U.S. bases and U.S. allies.
While it’s still early, here are a few quick observations.
First, this attack is unusual in that it was directly claimed by Iran. Usually, the country attacks its enemies via its proxies in the region. The New York Times reported on Monday that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had told senior officials that the response to Soleimani’s death should be a direct attack by Iranian forces themselves. The fact that Iran is taking full credit this shows just how seriously they took the killing of Soleimani.
Second, al-Asad is an Iraqi base that hosts Iraqi personnel as well as Americans. (It’s the same one Trump threatened to make Iraq pay for if U.S. troops were forced out.) Early reports suggest there were Iraqi casualties. As such, this could also be viewed as an attack by Iran on the Iraqi state. Iraq’s government reacted furiously to the U.S. drone strike last week, casting it as a direct attack on the country’s sovereignty and demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Will it react similarly to an attack from Iran? Either way, as the U.S.-Iran showdown gets more dangerous, Iraqis are sadly going to be in the middle of it.
Finally, though this strike could be interpreted as an escalation, several experts and journalists are suggesting that the limited attack on facilities (which, under the circumstances, were already on high alert and well fortified) could actually be a means to de-escalate the ongoing showdown between the U.S. and Iran. The Iranian government felt obligated to retaliate in some way for the killing of its most important military commander. Particularly if there are no casualties, this move allows them to declare Soleimani avenged without provoking massive American retaliation.
If that really is the strategy, it’s a hell of a risk, not least because it requires Trump—who just days ago threated to attack 52 sites in Iran including cultural sites if there was any retaliation for the Soleimani strike—to interpret this as an invitation to deescalate and to take the invitation.
We’re currently seeing the results of the Trump administration’s decision to exit the 2015 nuclear deal and launch its ill-conceived pressure campaign against Iran. It’s worth recalling that the purpose of the Soleimani strike, according to the administration, was to prevent an “imminent attack” by Iran on U.S. forces. It appears to have provoked one. And so much for the idea that the strike would “reestablish deterrence” and prevent Iran from taking further action.
While the situation is far more dangerous now than it ever needed to be, catastrophic all-out war can still be avoided. Unfortunately, stopping this conflict from escalating even further is going to require cooler heads to prevail in both Tehran and Washington. Those are in short supply right now.