The missile attack on an Iraqi base on Tuesday was not a mere gesture of retaliation. Further aggression is likely, with no guarantee the US won’t respond in kind, writes Bobby Ghosh.
There's a temptation to characterise the Iranian missile attacks on an Iraqi base on Tuesday night as the Islamic Republic letting off steam; a shot across the American bow, after which the two sides can begin to parley.
It’s being suggested that if US president Donald Trump restrains himself from tit-for-tat action, the tensions raised by the killing of Qassem Soleimani might begin to ease.
Colour me sceptical. The regime in Tehran, having whipped itself into a hysteria over the assassination, is unlikely to satisfy itself with a mere volley of missiles; and the fact that no Americans were killed will do little to slake Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s blood lust.
More likely, the missiles mark the first salvo of what Khamenei has promised will be “severe retaliation” against the US for taking out Soleimani, his favourite killing machine. Having encouraged millions of Iranians to come out into the streets to mourn Soleimani and demand vengeance, the Supreme Leader has painted himself into a corner.
His description of Tuesday night’s strikes as “a slap in the face” of the US will not fool his countrymen, and certainly not the families of the 56 killed in the stampede at Soleimani’s funeral.
Nor will it suffice for Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, which have lost several leaders to American attacks in recent days, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The missile strikes were unambiguously of Iranian provenance; unlike, say, the attacks on Saudi oil installations last September, there was no obfuscation of the origins of the missiles, nor pretence that they were shot off by proxy militias acting on their own initiative. Khamenei had already signalled that he wanted the response to Soleimani’s death to bear an Iranian signature, and he has been as good as his word.
This doesn’t mean the next salvos will come from Iranian soil. Although Iranian militias were clearly under instruction to hold their fire, while Tehran took the first shot, they’ve been itching to demonstrate their own fealty to Soleimani, and will now feel freer to act. This is especially true of the militias farther from the range of American counter-strikes: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hamas in Gaza.
Nor has Khamenei forsworn the Islamic Republic’s traditional tactics: Unclaimed attacks on international shipping; rocket strikes on US allies, such as Saudi Arabia; the kidnapping of Westerners; cyber-warfare; and assassinations in Europe. The chances that Iran will use any of these measures are unchanged.
Some early reports suggest the absence of casualties from Tuesday night’s barrage was no accident — that the Iranians warned the Iraqis of the incoming missiles, and the latter in turn warned the Americans.
But this was, more than likely, a courtesy extended to what Tehran regards as a friendly government in Baghdad. If the next strikes on US nationals or US interests occur in countries hostile to Iran, such warnings may not be forthcoming.
Nor is it safe to assume that Trump will leave the Iranian attack unanswered. He tweeted that “all is well” after the missile strikes, but that was a reference to the absence of American casualties, and shouldn’t be read as a signal that he’s prepared to wind down hostilities.
In ordering the killing of Soleimani, Trump indicated that he is willing to punish Iran directly, and disproportionately, for the actions of its proxies, so any attacks against Americans by an Iraqi militia could lead to blowback against Iranian targets.
Separately, the US may not have ended its campaign of decapitating the leadership of Iranian proxies. Even if these kill no more high-value Iranians, Khamenei may feel obliged to respond.
In Tuesday night’s missile barrage, the Iranians showed not even a pretence of concern for Iraqi sovereignty. It suggests the Islamic Republic will no longer hold to its practice of using Arab proxies to kill Arabs, a risky change of tactics at a time when many Iraqis, Lebanese, and other Arabs are already outraged by Iranian meddling in their countries.
Khamenei may be calculating that the Iraqi government will make no more than a token protest at the attacks. It’s a safe bet that the large contingent of Iraqi politicians beholden to Tehran won’t be as offended by Iranian military action on their soil as they professed to be by Soleimani’s killing.
But the Iraqi civilians whose recent protests have been overshadowed by the events of the past week will be outraged by Tehran’s temerity — especially if it emerges that some of their fellow citizens were killed or hurt by the missile attacks. Their protests will grow more determined, and Khamenei will respond the only way he knows how: brute force.
Rather than putting a lid on tensions in Iraq and the Middle East, Iran’s missile attacks will almost certainly turn the dial up a notch.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.