US-Iran brinkmanship: is it still a charade?
Missiles launched from Iran struck various targets in Iraq Jan. 7—primarily al-Asad air-base west of Baghdad, which hosts US forces. A site near the Kurdish city of Irbil appears to have been a secondary target. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps quickly took credit for the strikes, and the Pentagon said it believed Iran fired with the "intent to kill." But the facts suggest otherwise. Media reports indicate Tehran gave Baghdad advance warning of the strikes, and the Baghdad regime in turn informed the US, which moved its forces out of harm's way. In spite of all the predictable misinformation and disinformation that quickly proliferated on the internet, there were apparently no casualties in strikes. (Reuters, CNN, ABC) Anonymous US and European sources even told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the Iranians were thought to have intentionally targeted the attacks to miss US forces.
If Tehran's objective was to save face while still preventing the crisis from escalating, it appears to have worked. Trump's tweet as the news broke was not another display of his trademark bellicosity—on the contrary, he sounded uncharacteristically chill: "All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning."
And when that statement came at a press conference the next morning, Trump was again waxing mellow: "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world." Flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Trump said nothing about military retaliation, but announced "additional punishing economic sanctions" that will "remain until Iran changes its behavior." (NBC, CNN, Al Jazeera)
The assassination of Qassem Soleimani was a reckless and dangerous move in the US-Iran geo-strategic game for control of Iraq and the greater region. But a game, no matter how high-stakes and dangerous, is still in the end a game. Even if it is too late to rebuild the (bloody enough) status quo ante, Washington and Tehran may yet come to some unspoken accommodation. In the endless predictions of an imminent US war with Iran, we have this time come closer than ever before. For the moment, however, both sides appear to have taken at least a tentative step back from the brink of the unthinkable...