Following two well-calculated reciprocal retaliatory attacks, the tension between the United States and Iran seems to be under control. A regional conflict may have been averted, but there is still plenty of room for miscalculation.
During a televised statement made only a day after Iran carried out missile strikes against the US bases in Iraq, President Donald Trump expressed his eagerness to de-escalate the tension. The way Trump delivered this message was a mistake from the standpoint of US diplomacy, and will only encourage Iran to raise the stakes. Sensing political weakness from the US, Iranian officials, who had proved to be very cautious until now, vowed to inflict “harsher revenge” on the US following the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force, a mighty branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Earlier, despite the rhetoric and symbolism, the Iranian response had been calculating and proportional. The direct targeting of the US was probably designed in such a way to prevent a strong US response. The fact that there were no casualties in the attacks gave the US a chance to break the retaliation cycle.
Following the US’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, Tehran started gradually increasing its attacks, first by targeting oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz as well as a US drone. These were followed by attacks against Saudi oil facilities, and most lately against US targets directly, though the use of proxies. Washington, on the other hand, initially showed restraint but then started targeting the Iranian proxies in Iraq before finally targeting the Iranian mastermind behind those proxies. Iran’s game plan was to increase pressure and carry out the attacks covertly and incrementally. The US’ targeting of Soleimani called off this game.
Tehran is well aware of the massive imbalance between US and Iranian military power. It is this imbalance that has dictated the modus operandi of Iran. However, Iran senses two essential weaknesses on the US side. First, US domestic politics, which prescribes a weaker political will for engaging in conflicts in the Middle East. And second is the US lack of powerful allies in the region who are ready and willing to take on Iran. President Trump’s call for NATO members to step up their efforts in the Middle East is an indication of the US’ need for allies. The US also lacks a concrete strategy to break Iran’s resolve. Washington doesn’t have assets and allies in the region, or inside Iran.
US’ NATO ally Turkey has no willingness to support an anti-Iran campaign. Ankara, however, is very keen to exploit the tension for its own political interests. It is not yet clear how they would go about it though. Two clear advantages stand out. Ankara hopes that the tension with Iran will distract the West away from Turkish activities in Libya and Ankara’s controversial drilling efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey also expects that the crisis will weaken Iran’s hands in Syria and the Northern Iraqi landscape, both regarding Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government and also Mosul and Sinjar. That might allow Ankara to cement its influence across its southern border. It is, however, a fine line that Ankara has to thread though because alienating Iran could be very costly for Turkey as, feeling cornered, Iran could switch sides regarding the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish militants.
The immediate priority for Russia, on the other hand, is to keep Syria out of the crisis. Visiting Syria amid the US-Iran tension, President Vladimir Putin signalled Moscow’s opposition to potential plans by Iran and its allies such as Lebanese Hezbollah to use Syria as a platform for targeting US forces. Although continuing tensions between Iran and US allies in the region, coupled with the US’ lack of commitment to its partners benefit Russia’s position in the region, Moscow is concerned that the tension could escalate into a regional war.
Tehran has been preparing for a confrontation with the US by establishing networks across the region in a bid to keep the conflict outside its borders. Unlike the US, Iran also has a concrete strategy in the Middle East, which involves, as one of its primary aims, pushing the US out of the region. Iran will continue targeting the US interests in the Middle East, albeit more covertly. By pursuing a contradictory dual strategy of disengagement from the Middle East as well as demanding to have a strong say in Iraq and the region, the US is sowing the seeds of its eventual withdrawal from, and loss of influence in, the Middle East. This disengagement process is one of Washington’s own making, but Iran can speed up the process if it continues to maintain pressure on the US without underestimating its arch enemy’s power.