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8 January 2020

Iran’s retaliation for Qasem Soleimani’s killing does not spell war

For now, Tehran seems to be containing its revenge.     

By Jeremy Cliffe

Last night Iran fired over a dozen missiles on two sites housing US forces in Iraq, the al-Asad base in the country’s west and another near Erbil in the north. At the time of writing their precise impact is uncertain; there are reportedly no American casualties but reports of Iraqi casualties vary. According to a statement on the Telegram channel of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards: “The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun.” Revenge, in other words, for America’s killing of Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force, the Guards’ foreign division, in Baghdad on 3 January. 

Is this, then, the slide to war that many fear? It is easy to imagine how it might be: with, say, further missile attacks by Iran, perhaps American retaliation on Quds-backed forces in Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon, then an oil tanker sunk in the Strait of Hormuz and American air strikes on Iranian soil. 

Yet as alarming as the situation is, that looks unlikely. Both the American and the Iranian leaderships have volatile elements. But neither is completely nihilistic. For all the hysteria at Soleimani’s death (at least 56 people were killed in a stampede at his funeral yesterday), Iran’s government realises that war with America would be catastrophic. It calibrated its past provocations, including its backing for previous strikes on American forces in Iraq, carefully so as not to push Washington too far and seems to have been surprised that  Donald Trump authorised the killing of Soleimani. With November’s presidential election looming, Trump knows that his electoral base has little appetite for the loss of more blood and treasure in further “endless wars”, as he has put it, in the Middle East. 

Beyond the bluster on both sides – in the state media and from the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, from Trump and cable news in America – there are signs that they are preparing to de-escalate. Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’s White House correspondent, reports that some around the president believe he is looking for an “off ramp”; a chance, in other words, to claim victory in the skirmish and back away from further hostilities. Even America’s Saudi allies, locked in a cold war with Iran, have urged restraint. 

Likewise, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has tweeted a statement that differs markedly from the bombast of the Revolutionary Guards, describing last night’s missiles as “proportionate measures in self-defence” and stating that the attack has been “concluded” (hinting that Iran’s retaliation is now complete). If it is confirmed that there were few or no casualties, that will suggest that Iran – familiar with bases housing American troops – deliberately sought to limit the attack’s escalatory potential. In other words, though the definitive facts on the ground are still emerging, this currently looks more like a juncture for diplomacy than for further direct hostilities. 

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None of which is to say that the world can breath a sigh of relief. Trump is in many ways less predictable than the Iranian regime. It and those around the president may not want escalation, but the president may always be one provocative Fox News commentary away from acting rashly in the Middle East once more. And even if this does mark the end of direct hostilities in the current retaliatory cycle, proxy conflict between Iran and its allies, and America, Saudi Arabia and their allies, will most likely endure. Those who will suffer most will, as ever, be the ordinary civilians of the Middle East. 

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