Iran-US Row: Will Trump Pay Heed to Advice & Not Escalate Further?

Trump, in the past, has threatened countries, but has gone back on his threats. Will he do this with Iran as well?

Updated08 Jan 2020, 12:54 PM IST
Opinion
5 min read
Snapshot
  • The anger in Iran against the US is unsurprising; Soleimani inspired respect because for the past two decades he had given a sense of security to a country that felt vulnerable.
  • It is significant that the Revolutionary Guard has threatened action on the US mainland, and threatened to target Dubai, and Haifa in Israel, if the US attacks Iranian territory. And the Revolutionary Guard’s threats can never be overlooked.
  • Iran’s foreign minister Javed Zarif emphasised that Iran’s was a ‘proportionate’ response in keeping with the right to self-defence, and that, Iran does not ‘seek escalation or war’.
  • Clearly, Iran is signalling that for now, the Soleimani killing chapter can be closed.

Within hours of Qassem Soleimani’s burial in his native town of Kerman, Iran launched ballistic missile strikes against the Ain al-Asad and Erbil military bases in Iraq in the early hours of 8 January. As US military personnel are stationed in both, the Iranian action was an obvious and direct response to President Trump’s order to kill Soleimani in a drone attack on 3 January within the premises of the Baghdad airport.

As I write these lines, the US has not disclosed the extent of damage caused to US forces in these attacks. Trump’s tweet that “all is well” and “so far so good” seems to indicate that there have been no American fatalities. This is in contrast to claims being made on Iranian state television, that eighty US service personnel — or as Iran is now calling them, ‘terrorists’ — were killed in the attacks. Trump is due to address the American people and is likely to inform them of the details of the Iranian attack, as well as give some indication of the steps that he is presently considering.

Further, on Wednesday, 8 January, hours after a Ukrainian airliner crashed near an airport in Iran’s capital city Tehran — which led to much ‘speculation’ — the head of Tehran’s civil aviation organisation officially stated that Iran would not return the black box of the aircraft.

How Should the Iranian Missile Strike be Viewed?

The anger in Iran against the US is palpable and not surprising; Soleimani inspired respect because for the past two decades he had given a sense of security to a country that felt vulnerable and surrounded in a hostile world. Hence, amidst the outpouring of grief, there has been a demand for revenge. Both the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — who was particularly close to Soleimani and the elected government led by President Hassan Rouhani — could hardly ignore the emotions sweeping the land.

Thus, they had to decide on an action which would be taken by Iran’s security forces directly, but one which would give enough space to a belligerent Trump — whose overriding priority is to get re-elected — to refrain from precipitating a war.

There are reports on US television channels that the Iranian missiles did not hit those parts of the two bases where US troops were present. As Iran has deeply penetrated the Iraqi system it is likely that its intelligence agencies would have details of the bases. Hence, they would have been in a position to deliberately avoid harming US personnel. This would fit in with the intent to send a clear signal of Iranian capability, satisfy public emotion for it, and enable reports on Iranian state television of ‘damage’ to the ‘Great Satan’, and yet not provoke a US response that would inevitably set in motion spiralling action, which would inevitably lead to war.

Iran Missile Strike: A ‘Proportionate’ Response With No Intent Towards War?

It is significant that the Revolutionary Guard has threatened action on the US mainland, and threatened to target Dubai, and Haifa in Israel, if the US attacks Iranian territory. There is no doubt that Iranian action against Dubai, for example, against desalination plants which supply water can lead to, at least temporarily, the most adverse conditions will be for those who live and work there, and cause international panic.

This would also cause an upheaval in the global energy market.

In view of the dichotomies of Iran’s polity, the Revolutionary Guard’s threats can never be overlooked, but greater reliance has to be placed on the measured tweet of Iran’s experienced foreign minister Javed Zarif who emphasised, after the missile attack, that it was a ‘proportionate’ response in keeping with the right to self-defence, and had targeted the bases from where the attack against ‘our citizens and senior officials were (sic) launched’. Zarif stressed that Iran does not ‘seek escalation or war’. Clearly, Iran is signalling that for the present, the Soleimani killing chapter can be closed.

Iran-US Row: Will Trump Regard International Opinion in an Election Year?

The ball is now in Trump’s court. Should there have been no American fatalities, he has the opportunity to declare ‘victory’. He can point to the failure of an effective Iranian response to Soleimani’s elimination and attribute it to Iran realising that it is dealing with a strong US President instead of his weak Democrat party predecessors. He can also reserve the right of the US striking Iran hard in the future. Should Trump act in this manner, the immediate crisis would pass.

Trump had warned Iran — in his usual intemperate language — of massive retaliation, if it responded to the Soleimani killing.

Now that it has, would Trump feel obliged to go after it? In the past, Trump has had no reluctance in being inconsistent.

He has threatened countries but has gone back on his threats. This has been seen in his relations both with Pakistan and North Korea. It is therefore unlikely that he would feel bound by his warnings and threats to Iran if he now wishes to cool down matters.

The international community wants the crisis to be diffused, though all countries are taking precautions such as advising their nationals to avoid travelling to Iraq and their airlines not to fly over the region. Trump has hardly ever paid attention to international opinion but in this instance he is likely to, for the US would also be impacted if West Asia becomes completely de-stabilised. That would harm him in an election year. For now, despite the missile attack, he is ahead in this episode that, of course, he precipitated.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 08 Jan 2020, 12:34 PM IST
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