/The Iranian airstrike on a US missile base may be the end of open hostilities between Tehran and Washington — but only if Trump is smart enough to get the message
The Iranian airstrike on a US missile base may be the end of open hostilities between Tehran and Washington — but only if Trump is smart enough to get the message

The Iranian airstrike on a US missile base may be the end of open hostilities between Tehran and Washington — but only if Trump is smart enough to get the message

  • Early Wednesday morning, Iran launched missile strikes against two military bases in Iraq where US troops were stationed. The strikes, launched in response to the US assassination of Iran’s top military commander, did not cause any deaths.
  • Iranian leaders say they will not escalate the conflict further unless the US retaliates.
  • On Twitter, President Donald Trump also struck a different tone from the bellicose rhetoric of recent messages. “All is well!” he said. “Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”
  • Still, experts warn that Iran could seek further revenge through its network of proxy militias or through other covert action.
  • Trump’s long-term strategy is unclear — so we can’t tell whether he is willing to close the book on this chapter.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After pledging to avenge the death of its top military commander, Iran acted early Wednesday morning.

The country launched more than a dozen missiles into Iraq where US troops were stationed, striking two bases just west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Mirroring a triumphalist message sent by President Donald Trump after the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani by a US drone strike last week, in which he tweeted out a picture of the US flag, top Iranian advisers tweeted out a picture of Iran’s flag on Wednesday.

Initial statements from Iran’s leadership indicate the country’s leaders consider the strikes a proportionate response to the assassination. They also suggest that if the US does not respond, Iran will not retaliate further.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted early Wednesday morning.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he added.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps also warned the US not to retaliate, or else “it will face a more painful and crushing response,” according to a statement carried by the state-run Fars news agency.

Though agreeing that Iran appears to have exacted its revenge for Soleimani’s death, experts warn that the country has cyberspies and proxy forces at its disposal that might seek to carry out more attacks on the US and its allies.

Will Trump wind down hostilities — or do something to further provoke Iran?

Farnaz Fassihi, an Iran expert and reporter at The New York Times, also tweeted: “Sources in Iran say if US doesn’t retaliate than Iran will also de-escalate. But if it does, then it’s war.”

Ilan Goldenberg, the Middle East security director at the Center for a New American Security, added: “Iran needed to respond publicly but it didn’t want to trigger a war. A highly visible and symbolic strike that did not kill Americans fits that bill.

“It can argue to its people that it fought back against the US and also send a signal to us that they will retaliate.”

Trump had reportedly considered making a televised address to the US after news of Iran’s attack broke but later decided against it.

In his first tweet after the missile strike, he struck a very different tone from the bellicosity of recent messages, hailing the fact that the strikes did not appear to have inflicted any US casualties.

—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020

Both sides have good reason to want to avoid open conflict.

Trump won the 2016 presidency while pledging to end US embroilment in protracted and costly foreign conflicts, and he is now campaigning for reelection.

Iran, analysts have pointed out, is a far more formidable and better-armed adversary than the demoralized and badly equipped Iraqi forces the US faced in its 2003 war.

At the same time, Iran’s leadership is said to be deeply wary of conflict with the US, whose military might dwarfs its own, with US sanctions already taking a deep toll on its economy.

‘I doubt they are done’

But amid the optimism that the missile strike offered both parties an exit ramp from the steady buildup to war, other experts have expressed caution.

Soleimani’s hero-like stature in Iran could mean that a largely symbolic missile strike is unlikely to satisfy its appetite for revenge. Iran could choose to take further revenge through its array of proxies and sleeper cells embedded in countries throughout the Middle East and further, something for which it could deny responsibility.

To illustrate this point, Colin Clarke, an expert at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy, pointed to terrorist attacks carried out on Israeli civilians by the Lebanese-based militia Hezbollah — an Iran proxy — in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994 and in Bulgaria in 2012.

Goldenberg from the Center for a New American Security added: “You can also bet on the fact that there will be an effort to exact more pain on the US through something less attributable — a terrorist attack, assassination, cyber. But that could take weeks, months, or even years. I doubt they are done.”

In a statement issued after the missile attacks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested that Iran’s campaign to damage the US was far from over.

“You cut off Gen. Soleimani’s hand and we will cut your legs off the region,” Rouhani said after a cabinet meeting Wednesday, according to Fars.