15 January 2020

IRAN-USA. The military riposte which maintains peace.

Sandu Valentin Mateiu

In a very well-directed choreography, Tehran launched a ballistic missile attack on two US bases in Iraq. The attack was meant to not cause victims, as Tehran left the possibility for the US to de-escalate. An argument for this hypothesis is the fact that, despite its rhetoric, Tehran warned Baghdad before the attack, therefore also warning the US, as well as the fact that Iran had way more performant missiles which it opted not to use. Tehran “saved face” before the public opinion both at home and abroad but, by not causing victims, declined to escalate, and maintained the possibility for things to remain in an unstable balance which will not lead to war. Washington accepted this “de-escalation choreography” since the first message sent by President Donald Trump, “all is well”, indicating that he agreed with this evolution which will avoid war. Later, President Trump sent a clear de-escalation message, stating that “Iran appears to be standing down”. It is, however, a timid beginning, because President Trump also expressed the conditions: Iran must change its behaviour and give up on constructing a nuclear bomb. Although both sides seem to stick to the “choreography”, until things will not be totally calm, there is no guarantee or returning to the prior status quo, and there is a danger of “wrong steps” in parading bellicosity by both leaders, Khamenei and Trump.

Image source: Mediafax

At the same time, the public pressure for revenge will oppose the calculated approach of pragmatics which are not lacking in Tehran and know that there is a solution to avoid a conflict with the US. In the same manner, the US have already seen this possibility, being prepared to leave the region, but not following Iranian pressure, rather with the guarantee that Iran will not threaten its interests and allies in the region, inclusively through its nuclear pursuit. This means, however, that the Ayatollah regime will have to give up the messianism of their revolution, just as how the US gave up the illusion of liberalism and human rights respected on a global level (only limiting it to the “free world).

This time, Iran showed that it is content, for the sake of its own survival, with saving face. But if it can do it at a tactical level, why wouldn’t it also do it a strategic level, in the long run? But this would mean giving up the revolutionary message, which legitimates power. After they will get rid of the current fear, of a US military attack, this will be the question that will torment the minds of decision-makers in Tehran.

Probably, the tendency will be to find a solution that ensures a modus vivendi, with some moments of tension, but without the intensity of these two recent events. As much as Tehran denies it, it learned its lesson, and it is not alone. Neither will the White House force the issue again, unless it is obligated to, because the problem is still not closed: the nuclear issue has been launched again, following Tehran’s decision, and the risk of attacks from Iraqi Shia militias, which Tehran will denounce if it makes American victims, remains just as high.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ballistic missile attack was launched from Iranian territory and targeted two US bases on the Iraqi territory (a reason for which the Iraqi government protested). Twenty-three missiles were launched, of which 17 hit the Ain al-Assad Air Base in Anbar (the place from the helicopter involved in the attack was launched), while five others hit the small base in Erbil. There was material damage (satellite images showed the image of a hangar and two other buildings which were hit, as well as a crater on the runway) but there were no victims, neither Iraqi nor American. This was due, in large part, to the fact that the attack was announced in advance to the Iraqi side (verbal official message), which very probably warned the US side (probably through the joint operational command centres). Essentially, this was the opposite of a hybrid attack, as instead of being not assumed and bloody, it was assumed and not bloody, up to the level where it lost its significance as a military attack, and was rather a symbolic one, with the purpose of saving face, by striking the US without causing victims (which would have provoked a reaction). However, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq continued to attack the area of the US Embassy in Baghdad with missiles, without hitting it, most probably intentionally (it was reported that Tehran requested Iraqi militias responsible for these attacks to be careful to not cause US victims).

The weapons of the attack – Iranian ballistic missiles

Iran used the most powerful weapons in its arsenal. The Iranian ballistic missile program is the main weapons program, as well as a reason for dispute with the US, as well as with Europe, taking into account the limitations Iran should have respected based on the UN resolution which ties the missile program to the denuclearization agreement, as the missiles are capable to transport nuclear loads. Among the states which do not have a nuclear weapon, Iran has the most developed ballistic missile, as well as cruise missile programs. This is another reason to concern those who suspected Iran of secretly developing a nuclear weapon. The program was started with the purchase of missiles from North Korea and China and, illegally, from Ukraine.

Besides the tactical missiles (with ranges of below 100 km, used by Iran’s proxies to attack Israel), Iran’s ballistic missiles can be split into short-range, SRBM, and medium-range, MRBM.

The SRBM have ranges of between 150 and 800 km, and can strike targets in the country’s entire neighbouring region, while MRBMs can strike targets from Israel up to Europe. SRBMs are Tondar 69 (a range of 150 km), Fateh-110 (300 km), Shahab-1 (330 km), Shahab 2 (a variant of SCUD C missiles, 500 km range), Zolfaghar (700 km) and Qiam-1 (700-800 km). Most probably, taking into account the distances, the attack used SRBM missiles, probably Fateh-110 or Shahab-1.

Iran’s MRBM missiles are Shahab 3 (range of 1,300 km), Emad (1,700 km, a Shahab 3 variant currently in development), Ghadr 1 (a Shahab 3 variant, 1,950 km), Sejjil (2,000 km) and Khorramshah (2,000 km, in development). While the Shahab 3 can strike any state in the Middle East (including Israel and the entire territory of Saudi Arabia), the other variants can hit Europe, including Romania (notably, most are currently in development). In any case, Iran has a new terrible weapon in the form of cruise missiles: short-range, such as Soumar (150 km) and the medium-range Ra’ad (3,000 km). Taking into account the fact that Iran used its cruise missiles in the very precise attack executed (through its Houthi proxy) on Saudi refineries, not using them in this case, when they could have also not assumed it (at least until the components were identified) is another reason pointing to the fact that Tehran did not want to cause victims in this latest attack.

Its numerous ballistic missiles ensures Tehran the possibility to execute “salvo” strikes (with the scope of over-soliciting anti-missile defence; Iranians saw the fact that, although the US detected its missiles, they did not intercept them) in the region and, with limitations (strategical relevance, long distance, reduced numbers) outside of it, including over European targets. Currently, the probability of executing such attacks is low, and in the case of Romania very low, as until now.

How the attack was presented by Iran

Tehran prepared the attack through a shaping operation, supporting it legislatively and sending two messages: 1. that it will answer Soleimani’s execution by the US with an attack and 2. that it is justified to do so.

Initially, Iran obtained an indirect victory in the Baghdad Parliament, which voted a resolution requesting the withdrawal of US troops, non-binding, with the decision remaining with the Iraqi government (in a probable case of an impulse of the president, the US sent a letter announcing its withdrawal, which was later “repaired” by the “grown-ups in the room”). The Parliament in Tehran also held a vote to designate those “responsible for Soleimani’s killing”, the Pentagon and the US Army, respectively, as a terrorist organization, in order to have the legal argument of an attack (as a retort to the US designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization).

Following the attack, the rhetoric was concentrated on two messages: 1) one which exaggerated the attack’s importance, going over the lack of a lethal effect, with a remarkable statement from Ali Khamenei (“a slap in the face” of the United States), with the mention that it was not considered sufficient and that other attacks will take place (very probably, there will not be any further assumed attacks by Iran on the US); 2) another one which invoked its legality, calling, more veiled or more clearly, to a de-escalation, as in the statement of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said that the number of attacks was “equalled” (exaggerating the amplitude of the attack). Zarif evoked Article 51 from the UN chart on the right to self-defence (questionable, especially as this attack, as the US’, took place on Iraqi territory).

In essence, the message was “let’s leave things where they are, without escalating further”. This message was correctly deciphered in Washington, especially as a channel of communication between the two states was available through Switzerland.

 The US response

The US understood very well the message sent by Tehran through this victimless attack. In any case, the White House waited for the “roll call” of its troops in order to be certain that there were no victims, as it would have been obliged to retaliate otherwise.

With the looming possibility of things getting out of control, as each side had the obligation to respond to the other’s previous actions, but also under internal pressures[1], President Trump held a remarkable speech, not only for announcing de-escalation, shaping a strategy for relations with Iran and the red lines, but also for the way in which he presented the justification of his actions.

President Trump’s speech, which was coherent and exactly read, without additions or answers to questions (in the presence of his main collaborators; remarkable in the context was the attitude of Gen. Mark Milley, certainly one of the “grown-ups in the room”), stated the following:

1) the red line, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon: “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon”;

2) the Iranian message was understood and US de-escalation stated: Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world”;

3) the relevance of the actions he ordered, in the context of Iran’s previous behaviour: “For far too long, all the way back to 1979, to be exact, nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behaviour in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over. Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world. We will never let that happen”;

4) he justified, again, the killing of Soleimani, by stating that he was “the world’s top terrorist”, who was “planning new attacks on American targets”;

5) promised new sanctions related to Tehran restarting its nuclear program, eventually followed by other aggressive actions: “These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behaviour”;

6) justified the US withdrawal from the denuclearization agreement, requesting Iran to give up its nuclear ambition and support for terrorism, requesting the involvement of the international community: “The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China to recognize this reality. They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA. And we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”

7) requested NATO to become more involved with the Middle East process (he later talked with the NATO secretary general, who agreed for the problem to be discussed inside NATO);

8) reminded of ISIS’ defeat and justified his policy in the Middle East, among others, through the fact that the US are not dependent on the oil in this region anymore.

Some conclusions for Tehran, but also for Moscow.

Both Tehran and the Kremlin[2] made the mistake of assuming that Donald Trump will conform to tradition, and therefore the US would have been blocked in respecting international rules, while they had the right to do what they wanted, under the guise of speculating international law up to denial[3]. Trump acted according to “their rules”, without the West’s traditional scruples and responsible prudency, putting Iran in its place like no one managed to until now. Iranian threats have not materialized; they were strikes which aimed to miss, because otherwise they would have started a war which Iran would have lost! This will be a major concern in Tehran, the fear of not appearing to be ridiculous, a “paper tiger” in front of both opponents and their proxies.

It appears that the time of “hybrid aggressors” is beginning to pass as quickly as it set in. In truth, there is a long way to go until the aggressors give up this efficient policy, but Donald Trump showed that he has the capacity to react adequately. This will probably be the history of the following years. Even if he is disliked, for good reason, by many, Donald Trump has the merit of finding a way to “contain hybrid aggressions”. Trump solved the problem of the “Gordian knot” by cutting it with brute force, executing an important leader and suffocating Iran economically, with this being the only language Iran seems to understand.

In the end, after peace faced a serious threat, the situation reached a de-escalation which could bring many good things. This is a great beginning. At the same time, the Swiss diplomatic tie proved to be more than that, a real communication channel between the two capitals.

With this image on recent events, let’s go over their possible strategical effects.[4] We have two contrary approaches, in the medium and long term.

First, the negative one: the Ayatollah regime is known for not assuming its bloody actions, and not for such attacks designed to not cause victims, but only to be shown on the TV as a tough response to the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, even if it isn’t. That is why another Iranian strike against the US is to be expected, this time not assumed, for Tehran to not fall prey to an American military response. Therefore, there needs to be necessary attention given to the message sent by the Iraqi Shia militia, whose leader was killed at the same time with the Iranian general: “Iran gave its response. We will give ours to avenge the death of our leader”. It should be remarked that they have dissociated themselves from Tehran, which is the most dangerous element in this message, as it grows the possibility of it being carried out. So, for the moment, everyone seems content, the ayatollahs are not concerned for their power, and President Trump is not forced to begin a war he does not want. In fact, Donald Trump will wait for Iran to go bankrupt, and Tehran for him to get out of power (although it might wait another five years, not only one year). The biggest danger comes from the true retaliation prepared by Tehran, in the short term, a non-assumed deadly strike through proxies, and on the long term obtaining a nuclear weapon, even through a simple purchase and not as a result of a research program well monitored by its adversaries.

But, especially in the long term, there is also a positive side: there is a balanced solution which the two states could reach if they temper their ambitions, and this temperance would not be a surprise from either Trump or Khamenei. The US aim to withdraw their military from the Middle East, if they have the guarantee that their allies are not in danger to be attacked by Iran, and if Iran gives up producing the nuclear weapon. On the other hand, the power in Tehran found out that its foreign actions bring risks which are too high, namely a war with the US and losing power, so on the long term it could recalculate the political options and consider that the “Shia renaissance”, or sponsoring Shia groups in four directions (terrorist, military, political and economic/social assistance) has its limits, if it wants to ensure its future. Especially as the ideological step, the export of the Shia revolution, has shifted into the stage where the regime needs to survive by any means necessary. As for the nuclear bomb, considered necessary for the regime to be certain that when it is faced with an internal danger and is forced to suppress the revolted population, it will not be attacked by a foreign power which condemns its actions, its production has become more of a danger than a guarantee (especially as the US, under Donald Trump, do not have such a policy anymore, as proved by the recent “execution” of approximately 1,000 Iranians with no type of international reaction, neither American nor from the European moralists).

Although this compromise is far from being reached, it will be interesting to follow, especially as some signals have already appeared: Tehran, through Zarif suggested European mediation, and the US, through the secretary of defence, announced that they will not withdraw from the region, but only because they are forced to continue the fight against ISIS. The letter sent by the US to the Iraqi prime minister which announced the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq (probably the result of a momentary impulse from President Trump, although not assumed after the fact; we have also reached this type of diplomatic acts of “correction) is an even more eloquent example.

Tehran will hesitate between the two extremes, real retaliation or finding a convenient solution for both sides, carefully moving in the chess game with an impulsive President Trump, but who also proved in the end to be just as calculated as Khamenei, all while waiting for an end: the near collapse of Iranian economy or the end of President Trump’s term.

In fact, this will be the great de-escalation, which will surpass the current one in magnitude. It will probably happen after both President Trump, but especially Ayatollah Khamenei will leave power (and if the latter will be followed by someone who is a little more moderate, who will better balance celestial faith with real-world politics). But there is still some way to go and many dangers for the two enemies. And they will not be in the years to come, but in the current situation, after this attack that was calculated to have a maximum of effect for Tehran policy without causing any victims. An attack that will cause victims will result in a powerfully negative reaction from the US and will block the entire process.

Even if they were caught in an exaggerated clash until the level of an imminent conflict, the two sides cannot fail to observe, rationally and without the ardour of a clash, that the entire strategic framework has changed. The US do not want to be the “world’s gendarme” anymore and has stopped projecting its values worldwide, limiting only to those who believe in them, in the free world. At the same time, the US do not have an urgent need for a military presence in the Gulf, as they are not dependent on the oil in the region anymore, not even on the oil price game (which is also dictated by insecurity in the Gulf). At the same time, Iran, which passed the phase of ideologic zeal and went into the phase of a pragmatic ruling class, formed out of the opportunists of the revolution, the “revolutionaries who were more equal than others”, and limiting the export of the Shia revolution abroad, where it already obtained everything that could have been obtained, could also discover that there is such a way. But for this, many conflictual interests must be reconciled in Tehran, but also in Washington. There remains some validity to the saying (also valid in current political reality, way more banal than the wisdom it contains): “the whole world is a stage, and all the men and women are merely actors”.

Translated by Ionut Preda

[1] The hypothesis that the US people will support President Trump in his Iranian policy has not been yet confirmed: 53% are against.

[2] After the two sides backed down, Russia lost twice: first of all politically, the moderating role of a balanced and serious power evaporated. Then, the price of oil, which had surged, fell back to where it initially was, where Russia’s budget “does not add up”, forcing the Kremlin to shut its “aggressive intentions”. Even more seriously, the “anti-hybrid lesson” applied by the US to Iran could also be applied to Moscow, with according limitations due to the fact that Russia has the bomb, especially to Russians involved in various subversive and hybrid actions against the US. Russia will learn its lesson and will be careful not to end up in a situation where it could confront the US, be it in third parties or by proxy. Russia already has the lesson of the “mercenary brigade” annihilated by the US in Syria, but also the lesson given by a smaller NATO member, now in closer ties with it, Turkey, which shot down a Su 24 plane without the slightest problem when it wanted to.

[3] As they did in Syria, where they non-discriminately butchered the Sunni majority, regardless of whether they were terrorists or not, speculating international law up to the point of denial; they acted legally, in support of legal power.

[4] Strategic tendencies, born from fundamental interests, are the ones which dictate the main evolutions, even if they are mediated by the subjective approaches of leaders or other centres of power, instead of different-coloured swans, although they do not have a negligible role