In the latest phase of the US-Iran confrontation, who came out on top is not clear-cut; both countries made gains and losses from the crisis and some of its the results are still to come.
By ordering the assassination on 3 January of general Qassem Soleimani, the head of Quds Force, the external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, President Trump claims to have eliminated a terrorist mastermind and all-round anti-American monster. In practice, Soleimani had started making mistakes, notably in using extreme violence to quell protesters demanding reform in Iraq, thereby alienating much of the majority Shia community that was previously favourable to Iran.
Operationally, the Iranian state loses little from the elimination of its most famous general who has become a religious and nationalist martyr, enabling the Iranian leadership to rally popular support against the US and US-imposed sanctions. Vast crowds supportive of the government have replaced protesters on the streets of Tehran and other cities.
Trump does gain from his willingness to order the killing of Soleimani, the senior Iranian security official orchestrating the Iranian campaign of limited attacks on US allies that escalated dramatically last summer. While seeking to retain deniability, Iran was clearly behind the harassment of shipping in the Gulf and, above all, the drone and missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities in September. The US had been weakened in the Middle East by Trump’s lack of response to these attacks and unwillingness to defend allies. The conviction had grown that he would never risk a war. The killing of Soleimani shows that he is.
The Iranian ballistic missile strikes on two US bases in Iraq, Erbil in Kurdistan and al-Asad in the western desert, were clearly symbolic, pre-announced and geared not to hurt anybody. Significantly, the US did not, so far as it is known, try to shoot the missiles down or retaliate. Iran sent multiple messages through third parties that this was the beginning and end of their military retaliation for the death of Soleimani.
The US insisted that this assurance must include Iranian proxy forces, such as pro-Iranian paramilitary groups in Iraq, who have been ordered not to target American forces, according to the Pentagon. The rush of attacks by pro-Iran forces on US or US allies predicted by many commentators is unlikely to occur, at least in the short term.
This is a military gain for the US: devastating attacks on the US or US allies carried out by shadowy but Iranian-linked perpetrators have long been a feature of Iran’s way of making war. This supposedly gave Iran deniability, but the tactic has been used so often that Iranian culpability was glaringly obvious. Post-Soleimani, it is beginning to look outdated as a military method.
Iranian prestige was certainly dented by the ease with which the US killed its general. On the other hand, the willingness of the US to allow Iran to fire its missiles at its bases and not to retaliate shows that Trump takes Iran seriously and really does not want a war, if he can avoid it. The millions of Iranians in the streets to mourn Soleimani may help dent the credibility of hawks and neo-conservatives, who have claimed that the Iranian regime is about to founder.
Iraq will continue to be the main arena where the US-Iran confrontation is fought out. This has always been in Iran’s interest because it has far more power in Iraq than the US. This influence was being sapped by the increasingly anti-Iranian tone of the mass protests that began last October. If these ebb because of the changed political situation, this will be an important political gain for Iran.
Trump is increasing sanctions on Iran in response to its missile attack, however ineffective and ritualised it may have been. If these sanctions seriously affect Iraq, which buys many things such as gas and electricity from Iran, this is bad news for Iraqis, but it will take time for it to become clear whom they blame.
As for the 5,200 US troops in Iraq, Iran and its local allies say they want them out, but many Iraqi leaders would like to keep them as a guard against a revived Isis and a counterpoise to Iran. For all the Iranian rhetoric about cleansing the Middle East of US forces, the presence of isolated detachments of US soldiers in Iraq provides Iran with an easy target in any renewed crisis.
The outcome of the latest phase of the crisis is something of a dead heat. The elaborate diplomatic manoeuvres over the Iranian missile attack on Erbil and al-Asad shows how keen both sides are to avoid an all-out war. The chaos and turmoil engendered by the assassination shows how difficult it will be to do this.