Iran’s Attack on the American Bases Explained

War /

The operation was called “Soleimani Martyr” and the code that identified the attack was called “O Zahra”, in honour of the daughter of Mohammed and mother of Hussein, a key figure of Shia Islam and Iran in particular. The Iranian attack on the United States began around 1.20 a.m.on 8 January 2020, at the same time of day that Qassem Soleimani was struck by an American military drone that killed him near Baghdad, Iraq, on 3 January 2020. Another symbolic act in Tehran’s plan for revenge which, through the Supreme Leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, swore toavenge the death of the leader of the pasdaran and gave the nation’s seal of approval.It was a targeted and precise attack yetcontained and not excessive.

Tehran hit two Iraqi military bases which house American soldiers. According to the Italian newspaper Il Post, the main attack targeted the Ayn al Asad base that is about 230 km north-west of Baghdad where, according to the local army, around 22 missiles fell.

Iran’s raid on the US bases in Iraq (Alberto Bellotto)

The second attack, however, was launched against a base in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region in northern Iraq. It is important to reflect upon the distance of the two places from the Republic of Iran: the al Asad base is 370 kilometres from Iranian territory whilst the Erbil base is 105 kilometres away, distances that can be covered by many of the missiles in the hands of the Iranian military.

According to a reconstruction by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, since the 1980s the Islamic Republic has demonstrated that it has been able to develop the weapons used in the recent operation; weapons which were also used in the war with Iraq. In the following few years the weapons were also supplied to the allies of the Islamic Republic. Also the attack on the oil facilities last September, for example, were reportedly carried out by a combination of drones and missiles and some analysts argue that Qiam 1and Fateh missiles were deployed in the attack of 8 January.

The Iranian missile threat (Infographic by Alberto Bellotto)

The first official reprisal against the United States was launched by the Revolutionary Guards, also known simply as the Pasdaran, in which General Soleimani had held a leading role as he headed the Al Quds force for more than 20 years (the division that conducts operations abroad).

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was set up in 1979 after the foundation of the Islamic Republic by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Born as a militia forged by a deep religious faith, over the years they expanded their power over the state. Totally loyal to the Supreme Leader, it consists of around 120,000 men, divided into ground, air and naval forces. The group over time learned also to control the basiji, volunteer militiamen organised militarily in which the youngest enrol. Joining this group first and then the militia represents for many Iranians a good point of departure for a military career. According to a report by Associated Press, the offensive launched against the Iraqi military bases represents “the most direct attack by Iran against the United States since the seizing of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979” that gave rise to the notorious “hostage crisis”.

According to various reconstructions in the hours following the Iranian attack the Pasdaran reportedly announced that in the event of a further attack by the Americans, Dubai, Haifa and Tel Aviv might be the ideal targets to hit in a hypothetical third reprisal.

Subsequently, as reported also by Cnn, the Telegram channel of the Revolutionary Guards reportedly also broadcast a threat to hit the United States directly on its own territory. According to Corriere della Sera, the official declaration of the Pasdaran contained four warnings: “We warn the Great Satan, the vicious and arrogant American regime, that any new malicious act or movement of aggression will be met with even more painful and devastating responses. We warn the allied governments of the United States which have provided bases for the terrorist army of that country that any territory used in any way as a base for hostile and aggressive acts against the Islamic Republic of Iran will be targeted. We do not consider in any way that the Zionist regime is dissociated from the United States in (responsibility for) these crimes. We advise the American people to recall American troops in the region in order to avoid further losses and not to allow the lives of its soldiers to be further threatened”.

According to the New York Times, Iran did not strike these facilities by chance.The al Asad base, for example, was for a long time used by the American army in the west of Iraq. In 2017 it housed around 500 people, consisting of both military personnel and civilians. The facility is the most important US military base in Iraq because, amongst other things, it houses the AP agency and around 1,500 soldiers (both American and coalition). Trump paid a visit there on 26 December 2018, together with his wife Melania.

After the defeat of the Islamic State in the country, the US presence has been reduced considerably in the area but it represents in any case an important target because the presence is in any case still substantial. The Erbil base, which is situated near the city airport, was used above all by special forces in operations relating to the north of the country and eastern Syria. According to the initial information obtained immediately after the raid, in the attack on the latter the Iranian missiles all landed outside the building and the Italian contingent took cover in a bunker and all the members of the unit were saved.

The military action that at least initially had caused alarm all over the world did not lead to the death of any American citizen (information also confirmed by the Iraqi army) but dozens of Iraqis were killed. A different version was provided by Iranian state television which claimed that “80 American terrorists” had been killed in the attack without, however, providing any data or hard evidence.

It is obvious that if the facilities had contained the number of people normally present the outcome of the operation would have been different in terms of victims and potential casualties.

The American bases hit by the Iranian missiles (LaPresse)

In the hours after the announcement of the news, America did not have to wait long for a comment from President Donald Trump, which came from his Twitter account. The President, through his profile adopted a more reassuring tone and wrote: “So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world”.

Donald Trump before his speech about the Iranian crisis on January 8th (LaPresse)

In the meantime, on the morning of 8 January, the American authorities decided to impose“emergency restrictions” in the air space of Iraq, Iran and the Persian Gulf. In a much awaited speech on 9 January the former tycoon, surrounded by his general staff, decided to take(as many had predicted) a more conciliatory tone towards Tehran and held out his hand to the Islamic Republic, albeit remaining firm in his position: “The United States is ready to embrace peace”.

But in the hours following the military action, also the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a representative of the more moderate wing of the establishment, publicly analysedwhat had happened. According to Corriere della Sera, Zarif said that he immediately sent a message to the Americans, using the customary channels, to inform them about the operation. According to the minister, the attack (which looked more like a symbolic move) was carried out for reasons of “legitimate defence” in response to the killing of Soleimani, which he defined as fully-fledged “terrorist attack”.

Zarif, who defined the launch of the missile as “”proportionate response”, also stated: “What is certain that the Islamic Republic has targeted an American base from which they struck down commander Soleimani and which they had used, in the past, for attacks against the forces of the Resistance. A legitimate objective, according to international law”. In his message, however, the Minister of Foreign Affairs clarified that Tehran does not intend to provoke “an escalation of the violence or a war”. A sign that a conflict does not suit anyone.

The first action (and probably the last) to avenge the death of General Soleimani was significant but in terms of its dimension quite contained. Indeed, the Iranian authoritiesduring the hours prior to the strike reportedly informed Iraqi President, Adil Abdul Mahdi, of their intentions who, in his turn, warned the Americans and were thus able to keep their soldiers safe.

In this way, Tehran responded to the killing of its brilliant strategist and take a public stand but avoided escalating the conflict too much and triggering a real conflict with Trump’s America. The idea of a missile strike had in fact been taken into consideration (together with a drone attack) and the American facilities had already been warned. In particular, intelligence had already reported on Iranian units that have medium to long-range missiles in their arsenal. Although a response from Tehran was expected few thought that the attack would be so rapid.The strike therefore allowed the Islamic Republic to formally avenge Soleimani but at the same time not start a total war. According to some versions the missiles struck the more remote parts of the bases hit. Four of them even landed a long way away.


Translation by Dale Owens