The world uttered a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday when Iranian missile attacks targeting US military personnel resulted in no casualties, and the US government decided against retaliation. While the launch of ballistic missiles against a US military target was nothing short of unprecedented, the fact that attacks did not result in either the death or injury of US citizens effectively diffused escalating tensions between the US and Iran. In strategic terms, the events on Wednesday provided both governments with a welcome alternative to war. Or did they? Given the shocking cause of the most recent crisis— the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani ordered by US President Trump— the tense and often violent relationship between the US and Iran, and the stunning capabilities of the Iranian military, Iran’s mild retaliatory response is nothing short of baffling. And, more importantly, the world still has great cause for concern over the future actions of two countries who remain on the brink of war.
The Assassination of a National Hero
To understand the chilling significance of both Iran’s launch of ballistic missiles against US military targets and Trump’s decision not to retaliate after the attack, one only needs to look back to January 3 when Trump gave the order to assassinate General Soleimani, and others, in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport. While the U.S. has a lamentable history of assassinating its enemies, this move was different. Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force at the time of his death, has been on a high-level U.S. hit list since the Iraq War for engineering what many US officials regarded as notable "terrorist attacks”. It is also worth noting that Soleimani inflicted serious and reprehensible pain and suffering throughout the Middle East during his extensive career. But, until January 3, no president had issued an order for his assassination—for good reason. Soleimani is widely lauded by Iranians as a selfless national hero, and while he does have many detractors domestically, the Iranian government used its considerable powers of suppression to silence those voices during three days of national mourning. Instead of voices of dissent, Iran showcased the hundreds of thousands of people who came out to grieve Iran’s most powerful and revered military leader. Rest assured, the display of Soleimani’s status as a martyred national hero was not meant to help Iranians work through their collective grief; it was a threat. The Iranian government was telling the world that US military actions’ would not pass without significant retaliation, an outcome no previous president was willing to risk.
66+ years of enmity
The threat of imminent retaliation— directly following both Soleimani’s assassination and Iran’s missile attack on Wednesday— was unsurprising given the history of tensions between the US and Iran. The decline of US-Iran relations began in 1953 when the US helped British intelligence agencies overthrow Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq— a move that had nothing to do with defending the rights of Iranians and everything to do with protecting British oil interests. After Mossadeq’s ouster, the US helped install a Shah who ruled with little support from Iranian citizens until his forced exile in 1979. This kicked off the Iranian Revolution and resulted in the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tensions between the US and Iran only escalated from there. From the US Embassy hostage crisis (1979-1981) to US sanctions against Iran (1979-present) to fears of Iran developing nuclear capabilities (2000’s) to increasing tensions in the Gulf (2019-present), the US and Iran have exchanged numerous strategic blows since severing diplomatic relations in 1980. The embattled history between the two countries led many political pundits to forecast the onset of World War 3 following the anticipated Iranian retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination.
Missiles Programmed to Miss
Instead, Iran launched approximately 15 ballistic missiles against two military facilities in Iraq housing US military personnel on January 8, less than one week after Soleimani’s shocking death. While this would typically be considered both a profoundly aggressive response and an act of war, Iran purposely designed the attacks to limit US casualties. Iran provided the US with a staggering 3 hours of warning of the impending attack through three backchannels, including Switzerland. As a result, when the US military intercepted communications of the launch of ballistic missiles against the Ain al-Assad airbase and a military facility near Erbil, military personnel were already sheltered inside bunkers. Moreover, the timing of the attack— in the middle of the night— virtually assured that no one would be walking around these or any other military facilities in Iraq when missiles were launched. All of this clearly signaled that Iran did not want US casualties. And, although Iran has officially stated that the attack was a “measured proportionate response” to Soleimani’s assassination and that they have no interest in further escalation with the US, there is good reason to doubt these conciliatory claims.
An Uncertain Future
Both Iran and their possible long-term plans of retaliation, and Trump and his reckless approach to US foreign policy will remain wildcards in this crisis for the foreseeable future. Many have predicted that Iran’s so-called proportionate response was merely a smokescreen designed to lull the US into a false sense of complacency. This explanation is convincing both because of the antipathy between Iran and the US and because the age of conventional warfare is long behind us. Cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, and election meddling are now the weapons of choice among political leaders intent on inflicting severe damage to the US, and Iran is likely to follow suit. In fact, Iranian cyberattacks were widely considered the most probable form of retaliation in the immediate days following Soleimani’s assassination, and they are still expected by the US intelligence community in the months ahead. Whatever happens, the odds of Iran actually “standing down” are slim to none. After all, Iran has never been a country to let go of grudges.
When it comes to Trump, whom I have largely left out of this post, the future is also uncertain. What we do know from Trump’s actions and track record is that he is only interested in one thing: himself. The assassination of General Soleimani was a well-timed distraction from Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate. It helped hide the release of documents providing new evidence of Trump’s involvement in Ukraine and obfuscated former national security adviser John Bolton’s pledge to testify before the Senate if subpoenaed. The assassination was also a savvy political play by a president who knows that US voters tend to re-elect the incumbent when the country is at war. While it may appear that Trump has shown restraint after Iran’s missile attack, he will not restrain himself if he decides war is the surest path victory in 2020.
In light of Trump’s extreme ego-centrism and Iran’s threat of severe retaliation, the real peril lies in underestimating the apocalyptic violence both the US and Iran are capable of inflicting upon each other and the world. So what do we do? We act. We hold Trump responsible for violating international law. We mourn the 176 people who died on Flight 752 as victims of an escalating global conflict because, even if there is no definitive proof that Iran accidentally shot down the Ukraine Airlines flight, the probability of this explanation warrants action. We protest armed conflict that only benefits those with their fingers on the trigger. We recognize that violence occurs in a spiral of escalation that will eventually affect us all. Most importantly, we take solace in the knowledge that our actions matter, and we are capable of effecting change.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student specializing in peace and development at SGS. She studied U.S. foreign policy at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1998-2002. She conducted fieldwork in the Middle East in 2010 and 2011.