Despite Iran’s missile attacks, a military counterattack was not announced by President Trump during his address at the White House. However, the conflict between Iran and the US will continue to exist, as Washington plans to continue to impose its policy of maximum pressure and coercive diplomacy. Iran, on the other hand, has its very own agenda. However, one is reasonably cognizant by now that neither Washington nor Teheran are inclined to start a war, though for different reasons.
For Iran, a war would have obliterated the regime in Teheran. For the US and Trump, in particular, a war in the election year would be inappropriate at best and downright detrimental at worst. The majority of the population opposes war, and any mission, regardless of the US’s superiority, begs severe risks. Moreover, and contrary to the general belief, Trump himself has proven ad nauseam that his alleged proclivity to engage in conflicts, remains a thorough falsehood.
Sure, he often engages in Reagan-esque strength rhetoric while appearing to embody Nixon’s madman doctrine. Nonetheless, military actions will only be ordered by Trump if his imposed redline of killing Americans is being crossed. Iran, after countless provocations (e.g., the oil tanker incident, the US drone incident, and the attack on Saudi oil facilities), did cross this line when an American contractor was killed the previous week.
It is the red line that Iran did not seek to cross yesterday, not after the previous violation resulted in Soleimani’s killing. Nonetheless, in order to maintain control in the country and the region, Teheran needed to save face as the call for vengeance by the regime was omnipresent. In the end, the boisterous rhetoric culminated in nothing more than a scripted propaganda stunt. A pseudo-attack that was never supposed to cause any severe damage and, above all, should not cause American casualties.
While not the White House nor the Pentagon has confirmed this notion and is unlikely to do so with respect to Iran, various points speak for it.
First, and as previously expected, the selection of the attacked airbases Al-Assad and Erbil was a message. If Iran had wanted to cause severe damage, it would very likely have attacked the Balad base, which not only is in closer proximity to Iran but also home to significantly more US soldiers than the targeted bases.
Second, the short-range missiles launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards hit the Al-Asad base in areas were not US soldiers were present. Whether this is due to the base’s early warning system, or the fact that, as reports have indicated, Iran warned Iraq, is up for debate. However, one should grant the Iranians the capabilities to cause casualties if wanted, in a compound, that is host to almost 30.000 soldiers.
Third, despite the overt action, Tehran conducted excessive propaganda during the development, including the claim that “80 American terrorists” were killed in the attacks, while the number of missiles had also been exaggerated. Meanwhile, US reports continued to suggest that no casualties had been suffered.
Fourth, Trump’s reaction during his address fits the narrative. While he referred to minor damage and a reluctance of Iran to retaliate on a big scale, he did not ridicule the attacks, that, by all accounts, could have been presented as a total failure by Iran, as an attack that fired missiles into the dirt.
No, Iran intended this stunt. It understood that it was its only way to sustain its political survival at this stage. Washington understood the message, too.
Despite it, Trump made his demands on Iran clear yesterday. It must immediately cease its nuclear program, be ready to start negotiations on a new nuclear deal, and stop sponsoring terrorist groups in the region. Until the regime adheres to these demands, the prevailing economic sanctions would be further tightened, Trump said, though details were not communicated. The question now is: How will Iran react?
The options at this stage are limited. Especially after Teheran showed that it is not interested in a direct military confrontation, it simply cannot succeed in.
The past forty years have indicated that Tehran will not merely succumb and concede its ambitions in the region (i.e., regional hegemony) nor turn away from sponsoring terrorism of its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. Now, however, Teheran is almost forced to return to the negotiating table. Otherwise, new sanctions could make the country permanently ungovernable, and the protests in the country would probably continue to expand. Thus, the message to the mullahs is clear: act accordingly, or an eventual regime change due to Iran’s own, deprived population will be inevitable.
For now, however, Tehran’s pseudo-attacks provided President Trump with an opportunity to escape an intense situation. Trump has utilized it and suddenly does not only look like the big winner domestically due to a strong economy and record employment but, most importantly, as the big winner on the international stage and concerning his foreign policy.
And here is why: unlike his predecessor Obama, Trump has drawn a red line in the sand and enforced it. This result and the deterrence it has created will travel far beyond Iran’s borders and was the perfect strategic answer to Tehran’s hostile behavior.