The Iranian response to the assassination of Soleimani may have been for domestic consumption, but Trump's erratic decision-making may still force Iran's hand.

Regarding Iran, US foreign policy is breaking down. While the Trump administration has imposed “maximum pressure” on Tehran without an endgame following Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, we are witnessing the predictable consequences of Trump’s incoherent, contradictory, and aggressive policies vis-a-vis Iran.
The latest development in the US-Iran crisis in Iraq came on January 8 when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired over a dozen missiles at Iraqi bases housing US forces in Erbil and al Anbar province. These strikes were revenge for the assassination of Major-General Qasem Soleimani.

The firing of these Iranian missiles resulted in no US casualties, yet Tehran’s move was extremely bold. These strikes were direct Iranian action carried out from Iranian soil, not an asymmetric attack. Furthermore, the IRGC claimed credit, which is not so common as Iran often uses plausible deniability to prevent international backlash against actions against adversaries which Tehran often carries out via the Islamic Republic’s non-state actor clients in the region.

The strikes directed at Iraqi bases where American forces maintain a presence was, as Tehran’s chief diplomat said, a “proportionate” response to the brazen assassination of Soleimani. But given the Iranian leadership’s vested interests in avoiding an all-out war between the Islamic Republic and the world’s most powerful military, which Iran would clearly lose, these strikes were an incredibly bold move on Tehran’s part.

From Iran’s side, the leadership felt it had no choice but to respond. Virtually all analysts agreed that Tehran would seek revenge following Soleimani’s killing. The questions being debated were about the timing, magnitude, and location of the anticipated response.

To understand why Iran’s government decided to respond so soon after Soleimani’s death and Tehran’s reasons for being so direct about it, one must look at Iran’s internal scene this year.

Throughout Iran and across the country’s political spectrum, there is growing unity in hostility toward the US. With widespread sadness and rage in Iran following Soleimani’s assassination, the regime in Tehran came under significant internal pressure to show strength and decisiveness.

By firing these missiles, Iran’s leadership was able to communicate to a domestic audience that the Islamic Republic will not be humiliated and the country will stage attacks against the world’s most powerful military power if Tehran decides that such action advances Iran’s national defence interests.

Proven ineffective at this point are the Trump administration’s strategies of trying to deter the Islamic Republic by threatening Tehran with a brutally harsh response if the Iranians exact revenge. Now the world is nervous about how Trump will choose to respond to the January 8 missile attacks.

Too late for de-escalation?

With Trump tweeting that “all is well” following the Iranian strikes and Tehran’s foreign minister asserting that the Islamic Republic is not seeking “war or escalation”, there is indeed an opportunity for both sides to back down. It’s 2020, so considering Trump’s interest in catering to US voters in his base who (like the majority of Americans) want to see the US avoid entering new quagmires and seemingly endless wars in the Middle East, the President has strong incentive to prevent US-Iran brinkmanship from leading to a full-blown military conflict.

By the same token, Trump has surrounded himself with hawks such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who are constantly pushing the commander-in-chief toward continued escalation with Tehran.

To be sure, Trump finds himself in a difficult predicament. Acting against Iran risks bringing him into a war that he wants to avoid, yet not responding threatens to make him appear to have no credibility.

It is important to note, however, that this predicament is one of his own making. Trump pulling the US out of the JCPOA in 2018 and imposing economic sanctions on Iran without any cohesive game plan aimed at achieving a clear set of realistic objectives led to this unnecessary crisis in US-Iran relations.

While the US was abiding by the JCPOA, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were not targeting US forces or interests in Iraq and Tehran was complying with its responsibilities under the nuclear accord. Today Iran is launching missiles at Iraqi bases where US forces are present while reducing Tehran’s JCPOA commitments, highlighting the political failures of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

Currently, even Washington’s Middle East allies that have been mostly supportive of Trump’s earlier policies and strategies aimed at countering Iran are not on board with recent US actions, notably the Soleimani assassination. Although Saudi officials might be quietly thrilled about Soleimani’s death, Riyadh’s cautious response suggests that the Kingdom’s leadership is worried about Saudi Arabia’s vital economic and security interests being threatened by new dynamics in the region that have resulted from Soleimani’s killing.

It is increasingly apparent that officials in Saudi Arabia—and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states plus Israel—are deeply troubled by Trump’s erratic and unhinged style of foreign policy decision-making even if they have welcomed his anti-Iranian rhetoric.

Not only for Iraqis, whose country is suffering from US-Iran brinkmanship but also for people of many countries worldwide there are high levels of fear and anxiety as the world waits to see what moves Washington and Tehran make next.

It is clear that third parties such as Japan, Oman, Qatar, Russia, and Switzerland have a crucial role to play as diplomatic bridges between the US and Iran. Without these channels of communication helping to cool the Middle East’s soaring tensions, the volatile region will be more vulnerable to the grave risks of a new catastrophic war in 2020.

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