/Dialled down: Irans phoned-in attack just enough to ease tensions

Dialled down: Irans phoned-in attack just enough to ease tensions

The call had been expected any time since Friday. And when it finally came, the acting Iraqi prime minister knew what to expect. Just before 2am in Baghdad, Adel Abdul Mahdi listened to a message from Tehran informing him that Iranian rockets were airborne and heading his country’s way.

The targets were not specified, although there was little doubt they were aimed at US bases on Iraqi soil. More importantly; the intent of the incoming strike was clear; this was the retaliation that Iran had been threatening since the assassination of Gen Qassem Suleimani. It was either going to settle a score, or spark a war. Soon after came another call, this time from an American officer; missiles were thudding into the al-Asad airbase that the US shared with Iraq. Damage was being assessed.

As the sun rose over the plains of northern and western Iraq on Wednesday morning, there was little of the dread and panic that had followed the killing of Iran’s most venerated general. Twenty-two ballistic missiles had landed in fields outside two bases used by US forces. Some of them hadn’t exploded and lay crumpled in the desert sand like car wrecks. There was little damage and no deaths – and it seems Tehran’s war planners wanted it that way. It had the hallmarks of a counterpunch tailored primarily to save face.

Pieces of missiles near al-Asad airbase

Pieces of missiles are seen following the attack against al-Asad airbase in Iraq by Iranian forces. Photograph: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Iran’s foreign minister soon declared an end to his country’s first direct military action against the US in 40 years and said they were not seeking a war. Eyes turned to Washington, which had been monitoring Iran’s preparations for the missile launch throughout Tuesday.

The slow buildup gave US commanders ample chance to warn their personnel in the sprawling Saddam Hussein era Assad airbase near the Syrian border, and in a special forces base in Erbil, from which the operation to kill the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been launched in October.

Even as Donald Trump prepared his Oval Office response, the bellicose rhetoric of the weekend – in which all manner of consequences to Suleimani’s death, from regional war to Armageddon were touted – had given way to more soothing messages. Early reaction suggested the strikes were proportionate – and may have even been aimed at avoiding casualties – and therefore would not result in the escalation feared across a region still reeling from the Iranian general’s death.

Donald Trump addresses the nation after the Iranian attack on two US military bases in Iraq.

Donald Trump addresses the nation after the Iranian attack on two US military bases in Iraq. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The missile strike had followed a buildup indirectly gamed out by both sides. Iran and the US outwardly edged towards war, even as each was looking for ways to avoid it. Switzerland – which acts as interlocutor between Tehran and Washington – passed messages between the two arch foes and set the terms of a response.

When Iranian forces launched its missiles, leaders on both sides had a reasonable idea of their impact, both physically and politically.

American early-warning aircraft – which had been on 24-hour rotation since Suleimani’s death – tracked the launch sites and trajectory and gave warnings of between three and four minutes, which were passed directly to the US bases. There was no attempt to shoot the missiles down in flight, because there were no US assets in place to do so.

Just how meticulous Iran had been in crafting its response quickly became clear: the timing of the attack was nearly identical to the Suleimani strike. An advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, tweeted an image of an Iranian flag, trolling Trump who had tweeted a US flag after Suleimani’s death.

“We just gave [the US] a slap in the face last night,” Khamenei told an audience in the Iranian city of Qom on Wednesday. “But that is not equivalent to what they did. Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region.”

Ali Khamenei

Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that his country’s attack was ‘a slap in the face of the US’. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As Iraqi forces collected missile fragments from the fields outside the Al-Asad base, and Kurdish forces did the same in Erbil, a feeling grew across the region that the worst of the crisis might well be over. Beyond that though, new questions emerged over whether cohabitation between the US and Iraq may still be viable on Iraqi soil after such a seismic jolt.

Suleimani’s influence in Iraq had been well understood by successive US administrations – as had the Iraqi government’s unwillingness to oppose him on most issues. Nevertheless, Washington had coveted a strategic relationship with Baghdad that would give it some sway in the country’s affairs.

An early reading of Suleimani’s death is that US goals have been set back, not advanced. Iraq is more adamant than before about ousting Washington’s forces and under mounting pressure from Iran to do so.

In his first remarks following the Iranian response, Trump urged Nato to do more to contain Iran – a call that adds weight to a belief that the Trump administration now intends to do less. His remarks were an acknowledgement that the US did not intend to strike back at Iran.

Officials in the region are now preparing for a return to the cat and mouse games that have marked hostilities; a widespread use of proxies, plausible deniability – and a war driven largely from the shadows.

Iran’s network of surrogate forces say they are yet to avenge the death of a man who directed their activities over many years. One of the most powerful Iraqi militia leaders, Qais al-Khazali – who has led Asa’ib ahl al-Haq for more than a decade – said: “The first Iranian response to the assassination of the martyr leader happened. Now is the time for the initial Iraqi response. And because the Iraqis are brave and jealous, their response will not be less than the size of the Iranian response, and this is a promise.”

In Baghdad, where tensions remained high ahead of Trump’s address; aid worker Noof Assi, 30, said: “We’re going through the same motions we did back in 2003.

“Last night was very scary for us – we’ve experienced Iranian missiles before and they more often than not miss their target. If the US announces a war, we will not survive. The Iraqi government doesn’t care for us, they care more about the wellbeing of Iran. Our lives are not our own.”

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