Iran’s missile strikes aim to draw a line under Suleimani killing
The US should take seriously Tehran’s efforts to put an end to the cycle of violence
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif looks on during a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow in December. File photograph: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters
Iran’s ballistic missile strikes on two Iraqi bases hosting US and Nato troops are intended to convey messages to adversaries, Iraq, and allies and to draw a line under the assassination of Iran’s charismatic elite force commander Qassem Suleimani by the US.
Even the US confirms that these messages involved no bloodshed at the targeted bases.
As the operation was planned by Iran’s military council in consultation with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s determination to put an end to this cycle of violence should be taken seriously by outside powers. Khamenei has reiterated Iran’s long-term goal of expelling the US from the region.
Tehran has warned the US and the international community that Iran can strike US troops and interests in the region and is prepared to risk retaliation. This amounts to a qualitative escalation in the confrontation between the US and Iran, which is now being conducted by principals rather than surrogates.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also called on Europe to exert pressure on US president Donald Trump to end his punitive policy of “maximum pressure” through the imposition of sanctions, which have crippled Iran’s economy and impoverished its citizenry.
By targeting the al-Asad and Irbil bases – which have hosted US and Nato forces involved in the campaign against the Islamic State terror group – the Iranians have prompted European militaries to relocate troops and halt operations to mop up fugitive jihadis in Iraq and Syria.
This increases pressure on Washington not to retaliate, as such a move would prolong the suspension of anti-Islamic State operations.
And, by demonstrating the al-Asad base is not safe, Tehran has sent personal messages to Trump and hawkish vice-president Mike Pence, whose visits to Iraq skipped Baghdad and were confined to al-Asad for security reasons.
Tehran has told millions of Iranians mourning the death of Suleimani that he has been avenged on the day of his burial in his hometown of Kerman. For many, Suleimani was the sole regime figure worthy of respect because he was not tainted by corruption and mismanagement.
His assassination has, for the time being, united Iranians who had grown increasingly critical and hostile toward the cleric-dominated regime due to its failure to deliver goods, services and jobs and to resolve the conflict with the US.
By mounting a measured response to Suleimani’s killing, the authorities demonstrated they want to avoid risky escalation. Older Iranians do not want a return to the dangers and deprivation they suffered during the 1980-88 war with Iraq and earlier rounds of sanctions.
Tehran has demanded Baghdad end the US military presence in Iraq. The Iranians made the strategic and political decision to target al-Asad base in Anbar, a Sunni province, and the Irbil base in the Kurdish region. As legislators from these areas were absent from Iraq’s parliament when the Shia majority adopted a resolution calling for foreign forces to leave Iraq, the strikes were meant to warn absentees to form a united front with Shia counterparts.
Finally, by responding promptly to Suleimani’s assassination, Iran told proxies and backers they should not mount unauthorised strikes against the US, which could elicit devastating US strikes on Iran itself. Iraq’s Shia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia has, however, said that while Iran has given its response to Suleimani’s killing, Iraqis must avenge the death of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in the US drone attack on Suleimani.