What to make of the standoff with Iran
What to make of the standoff with Iran after Iranian ballistic missiles hit two bases in Iraq without casualties and Trump did not return fire? Best way to think of it is by considering short, medium and long term goals of Iran and the United States in the region. Then we can see where this recent standoff leaves things.
For Iran, the short term goal after the killing of General Soleimani was to carry out some kind of retaliation to save face at home. It was also important for Soleimani’s replacement, General Ismail Ghaani, to show that he is capable of leading the Quds force. At the same time Iran needed to be careful not to expose itself to massive counter-attack. The missile attacks were calibrated to accomplish these short-term objectives.
In the medium term, Iran’s goal is to force US troops out of Iraq. Iran’s proxy militias known collectively as the PMU (Popular Mobilization Forces) have been hitting US targets for that purpose. The Iraqi parliament’s decision to evict US troops from the country and the confused letter (later described as a “draft”) from the US ordering the withdrawal of troops suggests that Iran may be well on its way toward achieving this goal too. That Trump himself does not desire a longterm presence in Iraq makes US withdrawal all the more likely, though the terms of that withdrawal are very much up in the air.
The long term goal for Iran is to establish itself as the dominant regional opposition to (if not outright destruction/removal of) the US and Israel. The nuclear project is geared toward this end, as are the networks of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.
How has Iran fared according to these goals? The two biggest setbacks for Iran are ongoing sanctions and the loss of Soleimani. It remains a question how Iran’s economy will persist (including if China or Russia violate sanctions in trading with Iran), how well Ghaani will manage Quds Force, and how far along Iran’s nuclear ambitions will progress now that it has abandoned most of JCPOA. It is most likely to attain success in its medium term objectives: removing the US from Iraq and giving Iran largely unfettered dominance in Iraqi affairs. The economic and nuclear question are still in the air. Iran’s strength is asymmetric warfare.
For the US, the short term goal was to deter further Iranian attacks. Whatever the talk is re: “imminent threats”, the reason for taking out Soleimani was to deter (either by threat of future action or simply by removal of a capable general from the battlefield) Iran. That Iran’s response was limited to an attack without casualties shows Iran’s unwillingness immediately to risk widespread war. But it also showed Iran’s missile capabilities, which may be harder to defend against if Iran chooses more lethal targets.
The bigger problem for the US is the medium term question. What IS the US medium term objective there? Is it to remain in Iraq to deter Iran and fight ISIS? Is it to “bring our troops home” and out of harm’s way there? Is it to aid Saudi Arabia and Israel (and oil interests), perhaps via training, equipment and air power? This is uncertain, and that uncertainty gives Iran and its proxies the power to press ahead politically and militarily to push for US withdrawal from Iraq.
Long term US dominance in the region is also in question, especially as our relationship with allies is in flux. Much will depend on how aggressive and successful Iran is in achieving its own objectives.
With all that said, the situation in Iran looks a lot like it did before the recent wave of actions, which have included Iranian attacks on tankers, Saudi oil facilities, US drones, a US contractor in Iraq, and storming the US embassy inside Baghdad; and US pulling out of JCPOA, US strike on PMU militiamen, killing Soleimani and Muhandis of PMU, and increasing troop presence. If the US objective was to change Iran’s behavior – to abandon nuclear ambitions and proxy wars – I doubt it has succeeded at all. But Iran also knows it must tread carefully. A wrong move by either side can still risk a much greater war that would bring horrible destruction to millions of people.