Iran was going to have to respond. That, we knew for sure. But their response could have been a lot more severe than it was.
What if they gave a war and nobody came? That saying from the 1960s is particularly applicable to the Iran crisis. But in this case, the no-shows were the leaders of the potentially warring parties.
President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that there would be increased sanctions but no retaliatory strikes for Iran’s ballistic missile assault on U.S. bases in Iraq. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “For the time being, the Americans have been given a slap,” but no other attacks were coming soon. Both sides have relaxed tensions, and the threat of war has receded.
The tone has shifted significantly from recent days. Public fury followed last week’s drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Iran vowed revenge and hoisted its red flag of doom. Threats were exchanged. Iran said it had a list of 35 targets; President Trump raised that to 52, one for each of the U.S. Embassy hostages four decades ago; Iran countered with 290 for the people killed on Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. Mourners flooded Iranian streets shouting the national slogan, “Death to America.” In the United States, the partisan divide exacerbated the crisis, and politicians and pundits became agitated over issues like assassination, war crimes, World War III and the return of conscription.
All of this ado obscured the basic strategic calculus: Neither side actually wanted war. President Trump ordered the Soleimani operation to disrupt further planned Iranian attacks after the death of an American contractor and the attack on the U.S. Embassy by Iranian-backed militia. But he did not contemplate further action and indeed had long hesitated to use force in the first place until American lives were at stake. Iran also did not seek direct military confrontation with the United States, which would impose devastating consequences.
Iran had to act
However, Iran’s leaders could not simply do nothing. They had built a personality cult around Soleimani, who was both loved and feared by the Iranian people. He was too important for there not to be a response. The legitimacy of the regime was at stake. Iranians needed to act to save face, and the United States needed to let them.
This scenario was laid out last Sunday by Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader. In an interview with CNN, he said that the response to the Soleimani takedown had to come from Iran, not through proxies; that it had to be against military targets, not civilians; and that America’s leaders must “receive a blow that is equal to the blow they have inflicted.” He added that “afterward, they should not seek a new cycle.”
This signal was clear: Iran was not contemplating opening general hostilities and would not do something that would force the United States to escalate the conflict.
Iran also did not want its proxies to engage in ad hoc attacks that would prompt a wider war, such as random attacks on civilian American targets of opportunity. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese Hezbollah, gave orders with extreme clarity to his followers that there would be no attacks on any U.S. citizens in the region. “They cannot be touched,” he declared, because this would “only serve Trump’s agenda.”
And ruin Iran’s plan.
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But what to do? President Trump had established a red line that he would respond forcefully to any actions that took American lives. And Tehran knew that unlike his predecessor, President Trump backed up his red lines with a credible threat of force. Whatever the Iranians did had to appear to be a robust response to American aggression, but not cross the line that meant certain escalation.
Iran’s limited engagement was what was required
The solution was the missile attacks. Iran used weapons the United States has demanded it limit or get rid of completely, which was a symbolic slap. The attack was given a full public relations push. Ayatollah Khamenei was pictured personally in the control room. The missiles were filmed being launched. Iranian TV showed crowds praying and celebrating at Soleimani’s tomb. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proudly announced it had launched an attack on Al Assad military base “in the name of martyr Gen. Qasem Soleimani.” Iran’s semiofficial Fars News reported that this was the promised “severe revenge.” The regime portrayed the attack as an important moment of reclaiming national honor.
And then after a few salvos, it was over.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif tweeted that “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of United Nations Charter targeting (the) base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched.” He added that Iran “does not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Miraculously — and probably purposefully — there were no reported American casualties. Whether this was due to excellent force protection measures, early warning being given to U.S. commanders or being tipped off in advance, as rumor had it, remains to be seen.
Iranian media are claiming 80 Americans killed and 200 wounded. But President Trump responded with what Iran wanted to hear: “All is well.” No signal of escalation, no bellicosity, no rage. Everything went as planned.
Perhaps now the United States and Iran can begin diplomatic engagement over their outstanding differences. The White House has been calling for this from the beginning of the “maximum pressure” campaign. And Iran now knows both the limits of the president’s strategic patience, as well as his willingness to limit the scope of a conflict that is in no country’s interest.
This was a textbook case of diplomatic signaling and crisis resolution. The outcome: War averted.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins