Iran responded Tuesday night to the US government’s killing of one of its top military figures with missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases that house US troops. And although some are labelling that an escalation — and much could still change — it appears that Iran may be giving a politically palatable off-ramp from further clashes.
And it’s an off-ramp that President Trump, according to his comments, appears inclined to take.
Trump announced Wednesday morning in a White House speech that there were no American casualties on only “minimal” damage to the bases, and Iraq’s government says it didn’t suffer any either. Iran also followed up its attacks by giving conflicting signals about whether this could be the end of its military response to Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s death.
If this is the end of the retaliation — and that’s very much an open question, given Iran’s history of provocations and Khamenei’s comments — it would mean Iran’s response to the killing of its most powerful military figure will have been to inflict damage on Iraqi military bases
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran “took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Extend of retaliation
Zarif’s use of “concluded” suggests that this will be the extent of the retaliation, and his comment about not seeking “escalation” suggests that he’s willing to let this lie.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, though, offered a somewhat different signal, calling the attacks a “slap on the face” of the United States, and saying it was “not enough.” Whether Iranian leaders will be able to sell the success of the retaliation to their people is yet to be determined. If it’s widely viewed as a weak response, there may be pressure to do more. Of course, Iran heavily controls the media through which its citizens will learn about the strikes.
If this is the end of the retaliation — and that’s very much an open question, given Iran’s history of provocations and Khamenei’s comments — it would mean Iran’s response to the killing of its most powerful military figure will have been to inflict damage on Iraqi military bases. If you were given that trade at the start of the week, before Trump made the decision to take Soleimani out, it’s very difficult to say you wouldn’t take it in a heartbeat.
And Trump sounds as though he sees it accordingly. In a tweet, Trump began with “All is well!” — perhaps revealing his satisfaction with the lack of a more serious Iranian response.
In his White House remarks Wednesday morning, Trump also suggested Iran had backed off.
Good thing for all
“Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” Trump said. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
At the same time, Trump announced new sanctions will be brought against Iran, which could increase tensions.
It’s important to emphasise how much Trump views international affairs in terms of wins and losses. Not only could Trump say that he took out a man who is said to have killed hundreds of Americans without a more serious response from the Iranians, but the US president could also say that dire Democratic and pundit predictions of impending war with Iran — or even World War III — were overcooked. It’ll be perceived as a double win by a man who thrives on “owning the libs.” Combine that with Trump’s apparently rather sincere desire to get out of the Middle East, and there appears to be little incentive for Trump to respond with any force.
The situation is, of course, fluid. Even if Iran doesn’t retaliate further, the killing of Soleimani could weigh on any potential military provocations and on potential negotiations. Iran is still impacted by US sanctions, which is the reason for its provocations in the first place, and that friction won’t disappear overnight even if there is a momentary détente. Trump will continue to have to deal with Iran for the remainder of his presidency, whether one year or five years.
For now, though, we can perhaps be optimistic that this situation hasn’t escalated further. Trump seems to be.
Aaron Blake is senior American political columnist.