Details are still coming in as I write and the facts have not been confirmed, but it seems that ballistic missiles have been fired from inside Iran at US military targets in Iraq. A statement on Iran’s official news media said: ‘The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun.’ It went on to say that ‘tens’ of ground-to-ground missiles were fired in what the Iranian military is calling ‘Operation Martyr Soleimani’. That is of course a reference to the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force and the country’s most popular general. ABC News quoted a US official as saying that the facilities hit included a base in Erbil in northern Iraq and Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq. Al Asad is a big, relatively empty facility with comparatively few American troops; Iran’s missiles are thought to be quite inaccurate. It is possible that no US troops were hurt and no equipment damaged — whether that is the case will be important for what happens next. The Iranian foreign minister told ABC that whether there was all out war depended on President Trump. How will he respond now? Earlier in the day, he told reporters at the White House: ‘We’re prepared to attack if we have to. We’re prepared for retribution.’
In Iran over the past few days, amid all the red flags of revenge and ritual chants of ‘Death to America’, officials said that honor demanded that the country’s own military acted, not some shadowy militia or proxy — and deniable — terrorist group. So it has proved. If these strikes do not draw blood, will the Iranians think that honor has been satisfied or will they press on? From their point of view, their action needs be carefully calibrated, enough to inflict pain and if possible humiliation on the US, but not enough to invite a devastating response; Iran cannot win a proper war against the United States and a proper war would probably mean the end of the regime. So far, Iranian actions have crippled the US train and assist mission in Iraq — American soldiers are staying in their bases, no doubt under ‘hard cover’. It would be an immense bonus for Tehran — and might even satisfy the expectations raised by the mullahs’ rhetoric — if the Americans could actually be driven from Iraq. The Iraqi Parliament — dominated by Shia parties — has already told them to go. An American commander accidentally demonstrated that this outcome is more than possible by sending out the draft of a letter saying that they would respect Iraqi sovereignty and leave. Trump campaigned on getting out of Iraq, but eventually, and not like this.
If the US is forced out of Iraq, Iraqi loyalists clinging to the helicopters’ landing gear, it would certainly be a humiliating blow. Until last week, and Soleimani’s killing, America’s main strategic objective was the destruction of Isis, something very nearly achieved with a combination of American bombing and Shia militias (answering to Iran). Now, Isis just has to bide its time. Until last week, too, American’s strategic objective was to force Iran to renegotiate the deal restricting its nuclear weapons program. That is still, ostensibly, the objective but there is no chance whatsoever that Iran will do this. Instead, they will rush ahead to obtain a working bomb — Tehran lost no time in announcing that it will ignore the limits on how much uranium it enriches. The Saudis will think that they, too, must get a nuclear weapon, and then the Middle East will become even more dangerous than it is today.
If Trump hits back hard, what then is Iran’s next move? More missiles, perhaps, but they might not quench the thirst for revenge on display in Iran since the weekend. Shia militias storming the US embassy in Baghdad and taking Americans hostage — as in 1979 — would certainly fit the bill. It is a good question how long the embassy could remain open if Iran chooses to use the Iraqi forces at its disposal. I have a nasty feeling, too, that if things get worse we may even see a return to the kidnapping of Westerners in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. This would be easy for the Iranians to organize through their proxy Hezbollah and — as in the 1980s — would consume, and maybe paralyze, the US government. There is also the possibility that Hezbollah will attack Israel — with Israeli retaliation on a massive scale, now that Hezbollah is not just a militia but a part of the Lebanese government.