After a night of mostly ineffective Iranian missile attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq, there is now a possibility that the crisis could pass without a full-scale war, analysts say.
Political leaders on all sides seemed unwilling to ramp up the tension after the volley of missiles at Iraqi military bases where U.S. and coalition troops are based. So far, no deaths have been reported from the 22 missiles.
U.S. President Donald Trump opted against a televised address to the nation after the missile attacks. Instead he contented himself with a tweet. “All is well!” he said. “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”
The White House announced Mr. trump will make a statement on the situation in Iran at 11 a.m. in Washington.
There was no sign of an immediate U.S. military response to the missile attacks. Iranian leaders hinted that their own retaliatory attacks might be finished for now. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a tweet, said the missile attacks were “proportionate measures in self-defense” and he insisted that the Iranians “do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
al-Asad Air Base
john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP
al-Asad Air Base
john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP
al-Asad Air Base
john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressed his nation on Wednesday morning and said the attacks on U.S. targets were now “concluded.” He repeated Iran’s demand that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East “should come to an end.”
In a show of further aggression, Iran-backed Iraqi militia commander Qais al-Khazali said on Wednesday that Iran had made its initial response for the United States killing its top general, and it was now time for Iraq to do so as well.
Iraq’s response will not be lesser than that of Iran’s, tweeted Khazaili, who leads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.
“The initial Iranian response to the assassination of the martyred commander Soleimani has happened. Now it is time for the initial response to the assassination of the martyred commander Muhandis. And because Iraqis are brave and zealous, their response will not be any less than that or Iran’s. That is a promise,” he said.
After the wave of missile attacks on two military bases in Iraq between 1:45 and 2:45 a.m. local time on Tuesday night, Iran threatened to unleash its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon if the United States retaliated against the missile strikes. Hezbollah would fire rockets at Israel if there is any U.S. retaliation, according to Iranian news agencies, quoting leaders of Iran’s military, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Whoever tries to attack us will suffer a very overwhelming blow,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech on Wednesday morning at a policy forum.
But there was no sign of any Hezbollah attack on Israel on Wednesday, and analysts predicted that it was unlikely.
The Iranian missile attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq were “a well-calibrated cautious retaliation,” said Amos Yadlin, executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
“War is not the target of either side in the conflict. Iran knows the real balance of power, and the United States in an election year doesn’t want a war either. Both sides are trying to avoid an escalation.”
He said Iran will probably now focus on political goals, including pressure to force the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. An attack on Israel is unlikely, he said. “I think Israel is at the bottom of the target list.”
The first reports of the attack sent oil prices soaring and stock markets slumping, but prices quickly stabilized after investors took the view that the attack will not lead to war between the two countries.
Oil shot up 6 per cent in the pre-dawn hours, European time, and trading in major currencies was volatile. But by mid-morning, the price for benchmark Brent crude had reversed course, settling at just under US$69 a barrel, up less than 1 per cent over Tuesday’s level.
Investors initially sought safe havens, such as gold, when the missile launch was reported. Gold climbed to a near seven-year high, rising 2.2 per cent to US$1,600 an ounce. A few hours later, the price was up only about 1 per cent. Futures on the S&P 500 Index and Japanese stocks fell sharply at first, then staged a reversal and stabilized.
In a note, Adam Cole of RBC Capital Markets in London said “a growing sense that this will be the full extent of Iranian retaliation has seen both moves [oil and currencies] fully reverse.”
In Kuwait, the small nation of the Gulf Coast that borders Iraq, people were feeling some nervousness, but there was no sense of disruption. Kuwait houses US and some Canadians troops in bases in its soil.
The local stock market dipped -- but not nearly as much as on Sunday, when it first reopened after the U.S. drone attack that killed Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“I think there is some tension,” said Alia Mandani, a 30-year-old Kuwaiti civil servant. But she said people in the nation have heard Iran and the United States exchange rhetoric for years, without it leading to war.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the attacks were revenge for the death of General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. air strike at Baghdad’s airport last week. It dubbed the bombing “Operation Martyr Soleimani.”
In a statement, the Guard Corps threatened “a more painful and cruel response” if the U.S. hits back and vowed to attack any country in the region that helps the Americans.
“We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted,” the Guards said.
Iranian officials said that if the U.S. bombed Iran, it would have its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon fire rockets at the Israeli port city of Haifa and also attack Dubai.
Other countries potentially in the line of fire include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, each of which plays host to thousands of U.S. troops. The drone that fired the missiles that killed Gen. Soleimani was reportedly launched from the al-Udeid air base in Qatar.
Qatar plays host to about 11,000 U.S. troops, including the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command. Nearby Bahrain is the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Canada has roughly 500 soldiers in Iraq, including 30 members of JTF-I Detachment Erbil, a helicopter unit.
Canada’s top military commander Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, said the missile strikes did not injure any of the several hundred Canadian troops in Iraq. “I can assure you that all deployed CAF personnel are safe & accounted,” he said in a tweet. “We remain vigilant.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan met with “senior leadership in the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of Defence” to monitor the situation his spokesman, Todd Lane, wrote in an e-mail.
NATO officials said there were no casualties among those serving in the NATO mission in Iraq.
Iraq said Iran warned it of the attacks around the time they started.
“We received an official verbal message from the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Iranian response to the assassination of the martyr Qassem Soleimani had begun or would start in a little while, and that the strike will be limited to the whereabouts of the American army in Iraq without specifying its location,” the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement.
The Prime Minister’s Office said there were no reports of Iraqi casualties so far, and urged everyone involved to “exercise restraint” and “adhere to international covenants.”
“I think the Americans prepared themselves and dispersed themselves,” Mr. Yadlin said. “They have early-warning systems for missile attacks.”
The key question now is whether the U.S. will retaliate for the Iranian missile attack on the bases in Iraq -- and whether Iran will be satisfied with its retaliatory attack after hearing the Pentagon’s statements that the attack failed to cause any casualties among the U.S. troops.
Another question is whether Iran could now shift away from conventional military tactics and authorize terrorist attacks by its radical militia allies in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Luciano Zaccara, an expert on Iranian politics at the University of Qatar, said he couldn't see the US-Iran conflict coming to an end even if Mr. Trump decided not to reply militarily to Wednesday morning's strikes.
"I don't think this is over. This is not proportionate [for the killing of Gen. Suleimani] -- proportionate would be to kill someone significant or to really harm the United States," Prof. Zaccara said. "If this is it, this is a victory for Trump, but I don't think Iranians will accept this."
Prof. Zaccara said claims in Iranian state media that 80 Americans were killed in Wednesday's attacks may signal an effort to tell Iranians that revenge had already been achieved. "But this [casualty figure] is not credible. I don't know how long they can keep up the lie. It's a battle of narratives."
Mr. Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said the greatest risk now is a miscalculation by Iran or the United States, leading to higher casualties than expected.
In the past, Iranian intentions were difficult to decipher. But today, with the unpredictable and volatile Mr. Trump at the helm, it is more difficult to forecast U.S. actions than Iranian actions, Mr. Yadlin said.
Iran’s missile launches confirmed the fears of critics of Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Gen. Soleimani. The slaying was an abrupt about-face from the President’s previous policies of non-interventionism, and his 2016 campaign promise to pull the U.S. back from foreign wars.
“We must ensure the safety of our service members, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war,” Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, tweeted.
Mr. Trump has said killing Gen. Soleimani was necessary to stop an imminent Iranian attack on Americans, but has provided no details or evidence. “He was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people,” Mr. Trump told reporters Tuesday, hours before the missile attacks. “And we stopped him.”
But Mr. Pompeo said Gen. Soleimani was actually targeted as punishment for previous attacks and the “potential” he could carry out more.
This confusion was emblematic of the turmoil in the days after Mr. Trump’s surprise decision to take out Gen. Soleimani. Congressional Democrats have vowed to try to rein in the President’s war-making powers, while Mr. Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites before backing off.+
On Tuesday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Brigadier-General William Seely, drafted a letter informing Baghdad that American troops would leave the country after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel them. But Mr. Esper contradicted him hours later, saying the U.S. would stay.
Gordon Adams, a former national security official in the Clinton administration, said the process Mr. Trump used to decide to kill Mr. Soleimani does not sound consistent with an effort to prevent an imminent attack. Rather than presenting the President with a plan to counter a specific enemy operation, officials gave him several options for dealing with Iran and he chose to order a strike on the country’s top general. He contended that the Trump administration then tried to find a “post-hoc rationale” to justify the strike.
“It’s an effort to airbrush the President’s impulsiveness, to make him look like a statesman as opposed to an impulse shopper,” said Prof. Adams, who teaches foreign policy at American University in Washington.
The question of whether Gen. Soleimani had to be killed to stop an immediate threat to American lives has political ramifications in a country still smarting from ex-president George W. Bush’s false claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction as rationale for invading that country in 2003. It also has legal implications, as the War Powers Resolution allows a president to order military operations without congressional approval only to defend the U.S.
Mr. Esper, Mr. Pompeo and other administration officials are scheduled to brief legislators Wednesday behind closed doors on the intelligence leading up to the killing of Gen. Soleimani. Ms. Pelosi has said that the classified notification provided to Congress under the War Powers Resolution last week left many questions unanswered.
At Gen. Soleimani’s funeral on Tuesday in his hometown of Kerman, 56 people died and more than 200 were injured in a stampede as one of the dead commander’s comrades delivered a stark warning to the U.S.
“We tell our enemies that we will retaliate,” Hossein Salami, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, told mourners. “If they take another action we will set ablaze the places that they like and are passionate about.”
With a report from Reuters