Iran avoids full-blown war with US but is caught in new crisis

“The coming weeks and months will likely see additional moves from Iran to inflict pain on the United States and its partners,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East analyst at the Centre for a New American Security.
Sunday 12/01/2020
In the cross hairs. A 2017 file picture shows US Marines stationed in al-Asad Airbase in Iraq.             (AP)
In the cross hairs. A 2017 file picture shows US Marines stationed in al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. (AP)

ISTANBUL - The Iranian leadership, rattled by the death of a top general in an US drone attack, hit at US forces in Iraq with missile strikes designed to save face at home but not sparking a full-blown war that would threaten the very existence of the Islamic Republic.

Analysts said the danger of a new escalation remained as commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seemed to be clamouring for more revenge attacks but Tehran was on the defensive after being forced to admit that Iran’s air defence shot down a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran on January 8, killing all 176 people on board. Iran rejected the accusations and said they were “psychological warfare.”

Tehran initially rejected the accusations and said they were “psychological warfare” but Iranian President Hassan Rohani, speaking January 11,  said “human error caused the horrific crash” and that “Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”

Iranian state television said Iran on January 8 fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at US targets in its neighbour Iraq. The bases targeted were al-Asad Airbase and a facility in Erbil, the Pentagon said. US President Donald Trump said no Americans were hurt in the attacks and that Iran appeared to be “standing down.”

The United States, which is militarily much stronger than Iran, did not hit back in Iran but Trump announced new sanctions against Tehran and called for a “new deal” to replace the Iranian nuclear agreement of 2015, which Trump says is too weak to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear weapon.

The Iranian missile strikes were just hours after funeral ceremonies for Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s al-Quds Forces, who was killed January 3 in Iraq. Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s aggressive policies in the Middle East, was considered the country’s second most powerful man behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“The assassination of Iran’s top general was a big loss for Iran,” Seyed Ali Alavi, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said by e-mail. Soleimani had been “an iconic charismatic figure and was seen by many as the knight of the military apparatuses.”

Analysts said the missile strikes by Iran were an effort to prevent a full-blown war against the United States, whose military power is vastly superior to Tehran’s.

“This to me looks like the symbolic aspect of Iran’s revenge,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Programme at the International Crisis group, said by e-mail  in reference to the missile strikes. Strategically, Iran was trying to push the United States out of Iraq and Syria at the minimum, he added.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we later learn that either through visible movement of missile launchers or messaging through intermediaries, Tehran had tried to give advanced warning to the US as to limit casualties but there might still be a staggered response as well in the form of assassinating US military or diplomatic personnel down the road.”

Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East analyst at the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank, said: “The intentionally well-calibrated attack by Iran on US forces in Iraq is not an effort to escalate conflict with the United States but delivers an immediate, highly visible response to the killing of Soleimani.”

Like Vaez, Thomas said more Iranian actions were possible. “The coming weeks and months will likely see additional moves from Iran to inflict pain on the United States and its partners,” she said.

The IRGC issued new threats against Washington after the January 8 attacks. One senior commander warned of “harsher revenge soon” and another said the missile strikes had been only the start of attacks across the region.

More than 5,000 US troops are in Iraq, along with the other foreign forces in a coalition that has trained and backed Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State.

While Khamenei called the missile strikes a “slap in the face” of the United States, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif took a softer line, stressing that, as far as Iran was concerned, the attacks had “concluded” the revenge for Soleimani’s death.

Tehran rejected Trump’s call for a “new deal” and said it could not trust any idea of dialogue when Trump was threatening to intensify the “economic terrorism” of sanctions.

The Iranian government is trying to use the attack on Soleimani to improve its standing at home, where hundreds of thousands of people protested against fuel price rises last year, as well as in Iraq, where demonstrators criticised Iran’s influence.

“The brazen and escalatory strike on Soleimani fits into an anti-American narrative that the Iranian regime is now leveraging both within its own territory and in Iraq,” Thomas said. Alavi agreed that Soleimani’s death could “solidify the position of Iran in the Shia parts of Iraq.”

The Iranian public seemed to rally around the leadership after Soleimani’s death, with hundreds of thousands joining the general’s funeral processions in several cities but the crash of the Ukrainian passenger jet could put the regime in a tough spot.

Iran’s acknowledgement of responsibility for the crash was likely to inflame public sentiment against authorities after Iranians had rallied around their leaders following the death of Soleimani, who was seen as a national icon.

Most of the plane crash victims were Iranians or Iranian-Canadians. Iranian officials repeatedly ruled out a missile strike, dismissing allegations as Western propaganda that officials said was offensive to the victims.

The crash came just weeks after authorities quashed nationwide protests ignited by a hike in petrol prices.