Five days after Major General Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force chief, was killed in a U.S. air strike outside Baghdad airport , Iran on Wednesday launched ballistic missile attacks at American troops in two military bases in Iraq.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has said that the attacks on the Erbil and Al-Asad bases were a retaliation for the killing of the General, who was one of the top military leaders of the country and the main architect of Iran’s foreign security and intelligence operations. Initial reports suggest that there are no American casualties, though damage and military assessments are still under way. Whether there were American casualties or not, this is a pivotal moment in the U.S.-Iran tensions as this is the first time Iran is launching a direct attack at the U.S. troops and owning it up.
Practically, these are acts of war, though there’s no formal war declaration. First, the U.S. took out an Iranian military leader in a third country and now Iran has struck U.S. troops. Javad Zariff, the Iranian Foreign Minister, said, “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self defence under Article 51 of [the] UN Charter targeting base from which [the] cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched.”
The Article allows states take action in self-defence when they are under attack. Mr. Zariff has added that Iran doesn’t seek “escalation or war, but will defend ourself against any aggression”.
The Iranian response was expected. The call for revenge was reverberating throughout the procession rallies of Soleimani. A mosque in the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran had unfurled a red flag indicating that war was coming. Kataib Hezbollah, a unit in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the umbrella organisation of Iraqi Shia militias that Soleimani helped build, had asked Iraqi forces to stay away from the bases that house American soldiers, indicating that U.S. troops in Iraq could be targeted. Iran has launched a calculated, limited strike that doesn’t cause much damage to the Americans but yet makes good on its pledge for revenge. It is an escalating step, but not yet an all-out war.
By hitting the U.S. base in Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran may also be sending a message to Washington. Erbil houses not just American soldiers but also a large American consulate. The U.S. has deep ties with the Iraqi Kurdistan and it would like to keep some U.S. troops in the autonomous region even if its forces are forced to pull back from the rest of Iraq. It’s to be noted that most Kurdish lawmakers had boycotted Sunday’s Iraqi Parliament session in which lawmakers passed a resolution to expel American troops from the country. For the U.S., some troops in Iraq are necessary to retain its presence in Syria. So Iran’s message was that, ‘you’re not safe in Erbil’.
So what’s next? If there are no American casualties, a red line drawn by President Trump — the latest spell of crisis was triggered by the death of an American civilian contractor in a rocket attack by a pro-Iran militia in Iraq — he could shrug the Iranian response off and choose not to retaliate, which could be a de-escalating step. But there are several scenarios that could lead the conflict to an all-out war. First, if Mr. Trump orders air strikes inside Iran, it would trigger further military response from Iran and the conflict will immediately spiral out of control.
Second, even if Mr. Trump steps back from further retaliation, Iran could target U.S. troops inside Iraq through its proxies such as the Badr Brigade and Kataib Hezbollah. That will drag the U.S. into a deeper conflict. Third, the Shia militias operate with relative autonomy. Tehran may not be micromanaging them. Infuriated by the loss of their commander, they could act without authorisation from Tehran against U.S. troops in Iraq, which could trigger a harsher response from the U.S. against Iran, dragging both countries into war.
In the event of a war, the U.S. can carry out devastating air strikes inside Iran, while Iran could trigger multiple conflicts in the region through its proxies such as Hezbollah, the PMF and al-Houthis, besides launching ballistic missile attacks at the U.S. interests and allies. The Revolutionary Guard commander threatened on Wednesday before a mourning crowd in Kerman, Solaimani’s hometown, that Iran would set ablaze “the place the U.S. loves”, in a reference to Israel. West Asia remains on the brink.