De-escalation between Iran and the US

Sunday 12/01/2020
US President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, January 9. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, January 9. (AFP)

Tensions seem to have receded between Washington and Tehran after the rapid escalation following the killing of Iranian al-Quds commander Qassem Soleimani in an attack with a US military drone.

In retaliation, Iran fired 16 short-range ballistic missiles, some of which landed in a US base in Erbil. However, Tehran made sure the attack caused no casualties or major damage to avoid an all-out war it could not afford.

“With the attacks, Tehran signalled its capacity and readiness to respond to US attacks, thus saving face, and yet they have been well targeted to avoid fatalities and thus avoid provoking Trump’s reaction,” said Annalisa Perteghella of the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.

US President Donald Trump seized on the outcome of the raid to declare victory but stopped short of military action.

“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” he said while announcing new economic sanctions against Tehran.

De-escalation was welcomed by both sides of the political aisle in the United States. US Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and staunch critic of the US president, welcomed Trump’s attitude. “At the end of the day, the president’s speech, knowing him, is about as de-escalatory as it gets,” he said.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, said he was “pleased that President Trump has pulled back and taken the preferred path of no further military action.”

De-escalation was welcomed by Iran’s neighbours that have always cherished peace and stability as the right environment for them to pursue their development goals.

Facing mounting US pressures, Tehran has attempted endlessly to destabilise the region through endless provocations. The politics of brinkmanship allowed the rulers of Tehran to satisfy their “revolutionary” constituencies and divert the attention of an increasingly unhappy population from domestic woes to outside threats.

The Gulf region, although the main target of Iran’s attacks by proxy, seemed cautiously relieved that a wider deflagration was avoided. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said: “De-escalation is both wise and necessary. A political path towards stability must follow.”

Iraq, a country that has long suffered from war, was wary of being a battleground for Iran and the United States. De-escalation was hence welcomed. Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Iraqi factions “to be deliberate, patient and not to start military actions.”

Still, there are questions about the future. Iran’s policies, doctrines and power balances are unchanged. Its leaders and some proxies, such as Yemen’s Houthis, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and some of Iraq’s Shia militias, are making threats and engaging in bellicose rhetoric.

The killing of Soleimani after the suspected involvement of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi proxy militia of Iran, in the attack on a US military base in Iraq, deprived Iran the cover of plausible deniability.

Any attack on US interests would put Iran on a collision course with the United States using conventional weapons, a course Tehran seems intent on avoiding. Its military capabilities are no match to those of America and its Western allies.

Tehran’s military and security posture is based more on asymmetrical warfare and its terrorist derivatives rather than conventional confrontation. Most of its attempts at destabilisation against its neighbours have been carried out through missiles and drone attacks with the help of proxies while denying any direct involved.

Iran’s programmes for the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons remain a major worry for its regional neighbours and the international community.

It remains to be seen if Iran’s bluster is meant just to let off steam domestically or if it would be followed with violent actions against the United States. Abdollah Araghi, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, was quoted as saying Iran would take “harsher revenge soon.”

The United States, as well as Arab Gulf countries, are not letting down their guard.

Iran must worry about the simmering unhappiness of its population. Street protests have predictably subsided since the Soleimani killing but the downing of a civilian Ukrainian airliner could be another catalyst for unhappiness if Tehran’s responsibility in the crash, which has caused the loss of scores of Iranian lives, is proven.