With Trump’s tweet that “all is well” and Khameini’s triumphant “slap in the face” of America comments, the world waits to see if the Iranian airstrike means the end for this round of the rift.
Rabat – When news emerged last week of the US killing of Iranian General Qassam Suleimani, who was regarded in some circles as “the most powerful man in the Middle East,” in a drone strike, it was clear Iran would retaliate.
That much-anticipated response finally came in the early hours of January 8, shortly after midnight Iraqi time, with Tehran shooting dozens of short and medium range ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq.
Ali Khameini, Iran’s supreme leader, was quick to react, saying that Tehran had just “slapped” the US hard in the face in retaliation for the death of “martyr” Suleimani. Trump, however, has tweeted that “all is well,” downplaying the extent of the damage the US may have suffered after dozens of missiles shot from inside Iran hit US military bases in Baghdad.
Escalation or de-escalation will now depend on whether both Trump and Khameini genuinely think they have done enough to save their faces and appear strong to their support base home.
Iranian state news outlets called the retaliatory strikes a much-needed response against the “terrorist and invasive” America, and saying that the casualties from the two shots were as high as 80. And, in a highly symbolic gesture, the first reports from Iranian online outlets were littered with celebratory showings of Iranian flags. This was supposedly an echo to President Trump, whose first celebratory move after taking General Suleimani out was to tweet a caption-less US flag.
It’s hard to say at this point which of Trump’s “all is well” or Khomeini’s “slap in the face” of America is a more accurate assessment of the damage Tehran’s strikes may have caused at the two US bases.
Trump, meanwhile, has suggested—yet again—that the US may strike back if it turns out, after a full assessment of the damage that Tehran has incurred, that perhaps all is not as well he had first thought.
“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,” said his first tweet after Iran’s strikes. This also means that there will not be any further response from Washington if the Trump administration deems the damage not serious enough to merit a retaliation.
In an analysis that captured the paradox of the situation, the Guardian’s Michael Safi suggested that Tehran, while keeping its word by delivering on its promise to avenge General Suleimani’s death, may have shot at the US more for face-saving than for the “severe revenge” its supreme leader had promised. The paradox, Safi suggested, is that Iran’s strike may “satisfy” both parties, therefore paving a path towards de-escalation and negotiations in the coming days.
“If Trump’s assessment of the damage holds, Wednesday’s strikes might be an opportunity for both sides to de-escalate without losing face,” he wrote. “Iran will be able to say it took violent revenge for Suleimani’s death and pivot to a campaign of proxy warfare – with which it feels more comfortable, against a vastly more powerful adversary – and diplomatic pressure to eject American forces from Iraq.”
But that, as Safi himself conceded, is only “the best-case scenario.”
The worst-case scenario, while not totally out of the picture, can be avoided if cooler heads prevail in both Tehran and Washington.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has said that the Islamic Republic does not want escalation or war with the US, echoing Khomeini’s suggestion that there will be no further attacks from Tehran if the US does not respond to the strikes on its two military bases. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif tweeted.
The hope, in both US and Iranian dovish diplomatic and policy-making circles, is that this unprecedented rift between the two countries will end now.
While Iran and the US have been historical foes for decades in various Middle East conflicts, with Iran making it an essential part of its regional policy to drive the “American evil empire” out of the region, tensions between the two had not reached the current level.
In most cases in the past, Iran relied on its proxy militias or confrontations with US allies in the region to send its messages to Washington. But that the strikes that hit the two US bases were directly fired from Tehran suggested Khameini took Suleimani’s death very seriously and may strike accordingly in any future confrontation should the US retaliate, observers have pointed out.
US Republican hawks and Trump’s impulsive foreign policy
Seen from the eyes of hawkish US officials, however, direct strikes from Iran should invite a US response.
Liz Cheney, a Republican US congresswoman, has said that President Trump ought to retaliate, especially as he had been clear that any attack on American facilities would be met with a strong US response.
“What looks to have been a direct attack on American facilities from Iranian territory is a significant escalation, and the president has been very clear that an attack on our bases will be taken seriously. And there ought to be a retaliation,” she said, according to Politico.
As more uncertainty piles up in Washington and Tehran over how to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, as top Pentagon officials put it in the aftermath of Suleimani’s death, the next phase, where to go from here, all boils down to Trump and what his instincts tell him should be done.
High-level security decisions like the one now facing President Trump have usually been the culmination of hard-thought, expert evaluations and counter evaluations.
Typically, a US president would listen to assessments, complementary or diverging, of a crisis and what ought to be done in response. But Trump has a history of surprising even the people in his inner circle with whimsical last-minute decisions, regardless of whatever expert opinions he may have asked for before making his move.
He dramatically backed down against Iran at the very last minute this summer after Tehran downed a US surveillance drone and Trump promised to “hit them hard.”
“I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it. And here we are, sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it,” Trump later said in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.
Even for the drone strike that killed Suleimani, there are several reports that the primary target was not to kill a top Iranian official. Trump, reports say, was presented with a list of alternatives but no one on the expert team that prepared the list thought the president would pick the one that involved killing Suleimani.
Commenting on the uncertain path ahead after Iran’s missile strikes, Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek, a retired US general who served in Iraq, pointed to Trump’s impulsive and utterly unpredictable “persona” as a key factor in either escalating or cooling down what looks like the highest point of tensions between the US and Iran.
“The broader, strategic situation of all this is awful. While many of our diplomats are urging restraint, that is simply not Trump’s persona. I am very concerned about where all this is leading,” he said.