There’s a temptation to characterize the Iranian missile attacks on an Iraqi base on Tuesday night as a letting off of steam by the Islamic Republic — a shot across the American bow, after which the two sides can begin to parley. It’s being suggested that, if President Donald Trump restrains himself from tit-for-tat action, the tensions raised by the killing of Qassem Soleimani might begin to ease.
Color me skeptical. The regime in Tehran, having whipped itself into a hysteria over the assassination, is unlikely to satisfy itself with a mere volley of missiles. And the fact that no Americans were killed will do little to slake Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s bloodlust.
More likely, the missiles mark the first salvo of what Khamenei has promised will be “severe retaliation” against the U.S. for taking out his favorite killing machine. Having encouraged millions of Iranians to come out into the streets to mourn Soleimani and demand vengeance, the Supreme Leader has painted himself into a corner. His description of the strikes as “a slap in the face” of the U.S. will not fool his countrymen, and certainly not the families of the 56 killed in the stampede at Soleimani’s funeral.
Nor will it suffice for Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, which have lost several leaders to American attacks in recent days, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.
The most noteworthy aspect to the missile strikes is that they were unambiguously of Iranian provenance. Unlike, say, the attacks on Saudi oil installations last September, there was no effort to obfuscate the origins of the missiles, nor to pretend they were shot off by proxy militias acting on their own initiative. Khamenei had already signaled that he wanted the response to Soleimani’s death to bear an Iranian signature, and he has been as good as his word.
This doesn’t mean the next salvos will come from Iranian soil. Although Iranian militias were clearly under instruction to hold their fire while Tehran took the first shot, they’ve been itching to demonstrate their own fealty to Soleimani, and will now feel freer to act. This is especially true of the militias farther from the range of American counter-strikes: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza.
Nor has Khamenei forsworn the Islamic Republic’s traditional tactics: unclaimed attacks on international shipping; rocket strikes on U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia; the kidnapping of Westerners; cyber-warfare; and assassinations in Europe. The chances that Iran will use any of these measures is unchanged.
Some early reports suggest that the absence of casualties from the Tuesday night barrage was no accident — that the Iranians warned the Iraqis of the incoming missiles, and the latter in turn warned the Americans. But this was, more than likely, a courtesy extended to what Tehran regards as a friendly government in Baghdad. If the next strikes on U.S. nationals or interests occur in countries hostile to Iran, such warnings may not be forthcoming.
Another interesting feature of Tuesday night’s missile barrage is that the Iranians showed not even a pretense of concern for Iraqi sovereignty. It suggests the Islamic Republic will no longer hold to its practice of using Arab proxies to kill Arabs — a risky change of tactics at a time when many Iraqis, Lebanese and other Arabs are already outraged by Iranian meddling in their countries.