Analysis: There are signs that the Iranian response to Soleimani’s killing may present an opportunity for pause in Middle East tensions.
WASHINGTON — There was little doubt when President Donald Trump ordered a fatal strike last week on Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani that Tehran would feel compelled to retaliate. The question was how hard — and what would Trump do next?
By limiting its initial response to airstrikes on an Iraqi base used by U.S. forces, Iran appears to have sought to leave Trump an off-ramp: score settled, no need to escalate.
There were multiple signs that Iran had tailored its action to be arguably commensurate with that of Trump. The Iranians hit a U.S. military target rather than American civilians, just like the U.S. drone strike had taken out an Iranian military asset. Soleimani, perhaps the most powerful military official in Iran, was the long-serving head of its elite Quds Force.
ran’s strike hit on Iraqi soil, just like the U.S. strike that took out Soleimani. In symbolic signs of tit-for-tat retribution, the missiles came at about the same time of the night that the U.S. had killed Soleimani. An adviser to Iran’s supreme leader even tweeted a photo of the Iranian flag, just as Trump had tweeted the American flag in his first comment on the Soleimani strike.
Iran’s military carried out the strike itself, using ballistic missiles launched from Iranian territory and acknowledged on the record by Iran’s government. That was a sharp contrast from Tehran’s usual modus operandi of using allied proxy groups in other countries to attack its targets while allowing the Iranian government plausible deniability.
And most importantly, initial reports indicated that Iran had avoided inflicting American deaths, which would almost surely trigger enough U.S. outrage that Trump would be compelled to respond even more forcefully.
Several hours after the first wave of missile strikes, there were no reports of U.S. casualties. In its place, there was a growing sense that Iran had deliberately missed hitting sites head-on that would likely inflict serious U.S. casualties, so as to make its point without overly inflaming the situation.
Indeed, in Iran’s first English-language comment on the strikes on Ain al-Asad air base, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said his nation did “not seek escalation or war,” but merely to “defend ourselves against any aggression.”
“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Zarif, Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West, wrote on Twitter.