The White House:
Iran started it. The United States will finish it. The United States started it. Iran will finish it. It’s not a war. Not as we know it. Not yet, anyway.
Missiles fired by Iran Tuesday at two air bases in Iraq that house American troops represent perhaps the most aggressive assault on U.S. interests by Iran since it seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 American diplomats and officials hostage for 444 days.
Iran said the military action, which occurred early morning Wednesday in Iraq, was in response to the Pentagon’s killing in Iraq last week of its revered senior military commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The attack may prove to be the biggest test of President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House.
It has certainly dramatically raised the specter of direct military confrontation with a country that, while no match for U.S. military might or prowess, has an army of half a million strong, including 150,000 fighters who are part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite wing of Iran’s military that is fiercely loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran has ballistic missiles that can reach as far afield as Israel and Eastern Europe, although its nuclear capabilities remain a matter of dispute.
“We slapped them (Americans) on the face last night,” Khamenei said in an address to the Islamic Republic on Wednesday, adding: “But military action is not enough … the corrupt presence of the U.S. in the region should come to an end.”
Mohammad Farahani, editor-in-chief of a news agency linked to Iran’s judiciary, told USA TODAY in a text message that “Iranians were celebrating the #HardRevenge.”
The question now is: What happens next? And more specifically: What does Trump want to happen? The U.S. is already entangled in three protracted and complex conflicts in the Middle East, if Syria is included along with Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump has pledged over and over again to “bring the troops home,” to put an end to the U.S. spilling blood and spending treasure half a world away.
Does he continue the cycle of escalation? Trump’s response so far has been an uncharacteristically low-key, muted affair. He said in an initial tweet after the assault that “all is well.” He then followed that up with a statement to the nation that was long on priorities, but short on detail: Iran will never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. He wants tough, additional economic sanctions imposed. European signatories to the deal should now finally reconsider and leave the JCPOA, the acronym for the nuclear deal.
All this he has said before in some form.
Trump confirmed that no Americans or Iraqis were killed in the attack.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said, striking a conciliatory tone.
“The U.S. is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
Still, if Trump eventually chooses an all-out military response he would do well to note that Iranians are proud, shrewd and would make for crafty adversaries, as the galvanizing figure of Soleimani, even in his death, illustrates. The 62-year-old general was killed in Baghdad doing what Iran-the-military-underdog has been doing for decades: cultivating its vast network of non-state armed groups that stretches from Lebanon to Yemen.
In any outright war, these groups would likely come to Tehran’s aid on a battlefield that may not resemble a battlefield but, rather, according to military experts such as Fabian Hinz of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, an asymmetric conflict played out online. That means outside American consulates and embassies, with clandestine bombs and raids targeting troops and civilians, and maybe even tourists far from the region’s traditionally fraught stomping grounds. Guerrilla warfare, it used to be called.
“The messages coming from Iran read that they believe they’ve responded proportionally and that this should be the end of it. No more attacks from the U.S. or Iran,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank. “Whether Trump perceives it as such is a different matter. Too many hawks in his circle itch for another endless war,” he wrote in a tweet.
“Make no mistake about it: This is the beginning of a very prolonged confrontation between Iran and its proxies and the United States and its allies,” Fawaz Gerges, a professor of International relations at the London School of Economics, told British TV.
In fact, the seeds of this confrontation were planted in May 2018, when, against the advice of a majority of voices within the U.S. government’s own diplomatic, security and intelligence communities, Trump pulled the U.S. out of a nuclear accord with Iran and world powers. Though flawed because it ultimately kicked the issue of Iran’s proxies and ballistic missile program down the road, and didn’t comprehensively address what to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions once the agreement ran its course, the pact was largely keeping Tehran in check.
Since then, there have been multiple signs that Iran’s patience with onerous sanctions reimposed on it by the Trump administration was running out. Tehran announced its own steady, incremental withdrawal from the nuclear deal and return to enriching uranium.
For months it has needled commercial oil tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf by sabotaging and detaining vessels. It shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. Iran may have been behind an attack on energy fields in Saudi Arabia that disrupted global oil supplies.
‘This was an act of war’: Lawmakers react to Iran’s missile strike on US military bases
Soleimani’s killing prompted several days of speculation about how Iran would respond. It appears that Iran chose not to deliberately hit American service personnel in Iraq.
Iran’s strikes could be the end of it. Or the start.
Also: Trump could change his mind.
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