By RFE RL
By Golnaz Esfandiari
(RFE/RL) — Iran’s direct retaliation for the January 3 U.S. assassination of Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani raises the stakes in the escalating conflict between Tehran and Washington but puts the ball back in the Unites States’ court, analysts say.
Iranian forces launched an overnight missile strike on two Iraqi facilities housing U.S. troops in Iraq, which was described by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “slap in the face” for Washington.
Khamenei did not call for more military retaliatory actions, instead saying that “What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region.”
Analysts say the next move in the affair lies with Washington.
“I believe the comment that a war has already started may not necessarily be true, the U.S. response can be limited,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.
He added that the U.S. move will depend on whether the Iranian strikes resulted in fatalities among American troops.
In his initial reaction, U.S. President Donald Trump, who ordered Soleimani’s assassination, tweeted “All is well” and “So far, so good.”
Trump added that casualties and damage from the missile attacks were being assessed and that he would make a statement on January 8.
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said on January 8 that the U.S. had “certainly” taken measures to prevent casualties.
“They knew that revenge would happen,” he said. “They had made some preparations, although their preparations did not prevent the missiles from hitting [their bases] — they had definitely taken measures to prevent casualties.”
Hatami added that Tehran’s next move “will depend on what [the Americans] will do.”
“When it comes to us, we took harsh revenge,” he said.
Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), suggested that Tehran may have given Washington advance warning in order to limit or avoid any casualties.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we later learn that either through visible movement of missile launchers or messaging through intermediaries, Tehran had tried to give advanced warning to the U.S. so as to limit casualties,” he tweeted on January 8.
“The ball is now back in Trump’s court,” he added.
Despite the strikes, Iranian officials made it clear in their statements that they have no appetite for a full-scale war.
“We do not seek an escalation or war, but we will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter, adding that the Iranian move “was legitimate self-defense.”
Creating An ‘Unfavorable Atmosphere’
Raz Zimmt, an Iran analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, told RFE/RL that Iran was making a distinction between immediate revenge for Soleimani’s assassination — namely its missile attack — and more important long-term strategic revenge, which is the removal of the United States from the region.
“Therefore, unless the U.S. retaliates to the Iranian attack, the Iranians, in my opinion, will prefer to execute a ‘road map’ or a working plan, ultimately aimed at ending the U.S. presence in Iraq, over continuing to hit American targets, which could further escalate the situation and even lead to a military confrontation which doesn’t serve Iranian interests,” he said.
Clement Therme, a postdoctoral research fellow for the Nuclear Knowledge team at CERI-Sciences Po in Paris, told RFE/RL that Iran’s objective was “to create a psychological atmosphere unfavorable to the maintenance of the American military and economic presence, and to break what it calls ‘encirclement’ by the American bases.”
Therme said that, in the short term, Soleimani’s death has allowed the Islamic republic to capitalize on “anti-American sentiments in Iraq.”
“His death thus diverted attention from Iranian interference to American interference.”
Zimmt said Iran’s plan could include “both military actions, especially through the use of proxies, and political pressure on Iraqi political factions and government to encourage a U.S. withdrawal.”
Speaking to journalists in Tehran, Hatami suggested that Tehran’s proxies could retaliate over Soleimani’s killing.
“Martyr Soleimani was an international figure of the ‘resistance’ [an alliance between Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese Hizballah]; he was an asset that belonged to all the soldiers of the resistance,” he said. “They will pursue some policies [in his name].”
- Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL.