Short of full-blown war, US and Iran have let sense prevail

As the world braced for countries picking sides in the escalating situation in the Middle East, the US and Iran have been able to prevent their altercation from expanding into a full-blown war. US and European government sources have revealed that Iran deliberately avoided casualties in its 8 January retaliatory missile attacks on US bases in Iraq. 

The attacks were in response to the US killing of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani who was targeted in a drone strike during his visit to Iraq. After the US’s tight-lipped response to the Iranian missiles hitting its bases in Iraq, speculations made rounds the entire day on the damages suffered by US forces. While the Iranian state-run television claimed the death of 80 US nationals, American officials maintain that there have been no casualties. 

The Deliberate Avoidance of Casualties by Iran

Three government sources who spoke to Reuters revealed that Iran deliberately avoided the US casualties so that the situation does not spiral out of control. But at the same time, Iran had to display resolve in the face of the killing of its top General.

A precisely calculated attack with more than a dozen missiles on the Al-Asad airbase and another establishment in Erbil was aimed at giving a message rather than inflicting damage. The missiles hit predetermined parts of the US facilities that were at the time not housing any personnel. 

Al-Asad base stations both American and Iraqi forces. Assessing the satellite pictures after the attack, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California said that the Iranian missiles targeted the American portion of the base. Reuters believes three of the structures that were damaged appear to be aircraft maintenance hangars. A day later, two Russian made Katyusha rockets fell inside Baghdad’s Green Zone – one merely 100 meters from the US Embassy – but there was no claim of responsibility. 

The revelation that Iran tried to avoid escalation corroborates with the remarks of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who stated that Iran took “proportionate measures” in self-defense but was not seeking a war with the US. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had termed the Iranian response a “slap on the face” of the US which was another carefully worded message revealing the intent behind the attack.

The attacks on Al-Asad Airbase and Erbil had the potential to escalate into a full-blown war
The attacks on Al-Asad Airbase and Erbil had the potential to escalate into a full-blown war

Trump’s Softening Rhetoric

In his much-awaited public appearance on the morning after the attack, US President Donald Trump seemed to have paid heed to the growing domestic criticism on the soundness of attacking the Iranian General. Moreover, the message Iran delivered by avoiding casualties had also done its part. 

Trump stated that the US does not necessarily have to respond to the attack on its military bases. He termed Iran’s avoidance of casualties as a sign that it was “standing down”. While he did some saber-rattling by speaking of the US’s military prowess, he overruled military action and announced additional economic sanctions without going into their details. 

Another highlight of his statement was a call to world powers to quit the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the US drew unilaterally in 2018. In an encouraging development, he instead demanded a new nuclear with Iran. Under the 2015 deal, Iran was offered relief from sanctions in response to limiting its nuclear deal. Since the US attacked General Soleimani, Iran has announced an end to all its nuclear restrictions

A Multinational Full-Blown War Averted

Immediately after the killing of General Soleimani, support blocs started delineating as world leaders contacted the US and Iran. Russia and China released statements in support of Iran whereas Britain and Israel came out in support of the US while attempting to cool down the temperature.

The conflict had the potential to embroil many more nations as Iran threatened to bomb the Israeli city of Haifa and the Emirati city of Dubai in case of any further US attacks. 

Had the conflict morphed into a full-blown war, it would have severely affected the oil supply chains with unstable prices and uncertain shipping routes. The effect on global industries and economies could have spiraled out of control as most countries are already battling slowing growth rates. With sense prevailing on both sides, however, the situation seems under control for the time being. 

Update: An earlier version of this article included a section quoting a Canadian source who ruled out foul play in the crash of Ukraine Flight 752. Iran has now admitted to accidentally shooting down the airliner.