Summary: Iran’s aim of driving US troops out of Iraq has come more clearly into focus in the aftermath of Gen Soleimani’s killing. While Tehran’s missile attack on US targets in Iraq on Wednesday night appears to have been more about saving face and avoiding an escalation in the conflict, it did show Iran’s capabilities to inflict damage. Both Iran and the US appear to be pulling back from all-out war, but Iran will continue to pursue US troop withdrawal.
REGION MIRED IN CONFUSION AS TEHRAN RETALIATES
Wednesday night’s barrage of missiles fired at US targets in Iraq directly from Iran by Revolutionary Guard forces constitutes Tehran’s retaliation so far against the US assassination of prominent general Qassem Soleimani. Iran’s action in striking the Al Assad base and a base in Erbil proved the Islamic Republic has the capability to strike American military installations in Iraq and across the region, and that any further escalation would be costly for both sides.
President Trump’s tweets and threats that “if Iran hits US bases” they would really suffer did not deter Iran’s leaders from making the strikes, though it looks as if the Iranians deliberately avoided inflicting casualties on the US. It seems that Trump intended to “scare” the Iranian regime from responding militarily to Soleimani’s killing, but that he is unwilling to get into a major war with Iran, considering Tehran’s regional reach and proxy allies.
The Iranian regime feels it has domestic public support following Soleimani’s killing. Iranian officials started making statements that Soleimani’s death will result in the complete withdrawal of American forces from West Asia. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on 4 January that the “end of US presence in West Asia has begun”. The Supreme Leader said in a televised speech that “the corrupt” US presence in the region must end following the missile barrage on American bases in Iraq. As tensions rise, Iran’s rulers seem to be openly embracing the policy of driving the US forces out of the region. For the first time, Tehran has taken responsibility for its military action and has not used a proxy force to attack the US troops. This was also a matter of prestige for Supreme Leader Khamenei and the regime. Interestingly, according to Iranian officials, the retaliatory strike does not constitute all-out war, rather a response to an “imminent” threat. While the Islamic Republic is unwilling to face direct US attacks against itself, the statements from the regime officials clearly illustrate that further action will be taken if the US hits Iran directly. According to the IRGC’s Telegram channel, they would attack Haifa in Israel and Dubai in the UAE, if the US targets Iranian soil.
In the meantime, the situation in the region is confused. Reuters and other media outlets reported a letter from the US military to Iraqi officials regarding the repositioning of troops for immediate withdrawal. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied the reports, saying the US intends to keep its 5,000 troops in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament voted to demand full US withdrawal from the country, following the deaths of Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi citizen Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, deputy head of the Iraqi paramilitary Personal Mobilisation Units (PMU or Hashd al Shaabi). Kuwait’s state run news agency Kuna added to the confusion when they tweeted that an immediate US pullout is expected. Kuwaiti officials subsequently said that the Kuna Twitter account had been hacked and the news was fake.
Tehran’s long-term objective is, nevertheless, becoming clearer: to create uncertainty and fear among US allies in the region and ultimately to force an American pullout. Vulnerable regional states such as Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are in a state of shock as Iran might inflict huge destruction on their economies and disrupt domestic stability. Last year’s attack on the Saudi Aramco oil refinery was a big blow to Saudi Arabia’s leaders and the GCC states, and a warning of the risks of escalating tensions with Iran. Therefore, the GCC countries have been urging restraint since the Soleimani killing.
Mounting pressure from the US Congress on President Trump over his decision to kill Soleimani, calls to avoid a major war in the Middle East, and the upcoming elections in November make it difficult to believe that the Trump administration is willing to go to war with Iran. Iran’s IRGC has, moreover, proved its capability to inflict major damage on the global economy via the Persian Gulf. A slowing economy and war scenario would create additional troubles for the Trump administration in an election year. However, it looks like President Trump has been able to reestablish deterrence vis-a-vis Iran, as Wednesday’s strike was carefully calculated to avoid major casualties. Foreign Minister Zarif’s tweet that his government is unwilling to enter direct confrontation with the US is further illustration of Tehran’s pullback from outright war.