Iran’s Tuesday night missile attacks on multiple US military targets in Iraq are the country’s first tangible retaliation for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. A White House source told Vox there were no American casualties, but it is still possible that Iraqis may have been killed in the strike.
The big question now — the really, really, really scary question — is how President Donald Trump will respond.
The Iranians have sent clear signals, both through the missile strikes themselves and through semi-official and official channels that this is their big response. If Trump chooses a relatively limited and restrained form of retaliation, or even a non-military response like just sending out a tweet declaring victory, it’s entirely possible that Iran wouldn’t choose to escalate things any further.
This crisis set off by Soleimani’s killing would turn out to be a short-lived military skirmish rather than a full-scale war. Indeed, Trump’s first tweet after the attacks suggests this is the route he’s going down:
All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020
But this is not necessarily the last word (after all, he said he plans to make a statement tomorrow morning). If Trump changes his mind and goes in the other direction — ordering some kind of aggressive retaliation like air strikes on targets inside Iranian territory, for example — the Islamic Republic will likely feel a need to respond yet again. Fox News’s Sean Hannity, one of the media personalities the US president watches religiously, is calling for attacks on Iran’s oil and nuclear facilities.
If that happens, we could very well be on the road to a much bigger war; Iran has threa The kind of war that, if comes to it, could dwarf even the Iraq War in scope and horror. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has vowed to respond to another strike by the US with an attack on the American homeland.
Congress has largely abandoned its oversight role when it comes to war and peace. That means that, in the American political system actually operates, one person gets the final say on this. Currently, that person is Donald Trump. Whether or not this crisis escalates depends a great deal on his deeply questionable judgement.
Why almost everything hangs on America’s — that is, Trump’s — response now
It’s possible that this isn’t the end of the Iranian military response. However, strong signals from Tehran sent out tonight through various channels are all framed as contingent on an another American response. If you attack us again, we’ll hit you again — but not otherwise.
Iran saying it will escalate if attacked by US, or per our @aliarouzi , will stop if no US response.
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) January 8, 2020
This suggests that the Iranians don’t want a wider war. That makes sense: It’s not in their interest to fight a major war against a vastly superior military power like the United States.
But it’s also not in American interests to fight that war, either. As my colleague Alex Ward explains, a US-Iran war would would be incredibly ugly and bloody. Iran’s capabilities to fight back, both in the region and via terrorist attacks around the world, far outstrip Iraq’s in 2003. An untold number of soldiers and innocents would die for very little strategic gain.
The hope here is that President Trump recognizes this: That his oft-stated desire to avoid US involvement in Middle East wars kicks in, and he backs down from the brink in the same way that he pulled away from the threats to attack North Korea in 2017 (and Iran back in June). Maybe just send out some tweets declaring his policy a success, and call it a day.
His first tweet certainly indicates that this is the likely outcome. But it’s not necessarily what this mercurial president will settle on.
The administration’s thinking behind the hit on Soleimani was, as far as we can tell, that hitting Iran hard would deter them from further attacks on American interests — “deterrence by escalation,” essentially.
Yet tonight, Iran openly struck directly at American bases for the first time in recent memory (typically, they have proxy forces conduct such risky operations to add in a layer of plausible deniability). According to the administration’s stated logic and that of its validators on Capitol Hill and in the media, then, this could require yet another and bigger US response.
This would likely have the opposite of the intended effect, of course — pushing Iran to retaliate, thus locking the two countries in a cycle of escalation that could make a full-scale war that nobody wants a reality.
And more fundamentally, Trump is an erratic and impulsive man. He’s demonstrated little capability to think strategically about conflict, going with whatever seems persuasive in the moment rather than some kind of well-thought out strategy. The strike on Soleimani itself was something he decided on personally, an extreme policy option the Pentagon was reportedly fairly confident he wouldn’t take.
So we’re at a fork in the road between deescalation and a wider war. All of the strategic logic in the world suggests the smart move would be to travel down the first path. TBut the White House’s unstable occupant is at the wheel, and there is no real way to predict which way he’ll go. The first signs are encouraging — but we’re still not out of the woods yet.