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A 'least worst' and 'carefully calculated' tactic: Why Iran chose to carry out this morning's strikes on bases housing US troops

Trump has said that new economic sanctions will be imposed on Iran after the strike this morning.

A protester in Iraq waves the national flag during a demonstration against the Iranian missile strike.
A protester in Iraq waves the national flag during a demonstration against the Iranian missile strike.
Image: Khalid Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images

THE IRANIAN ATTACK on Iraqi bases housing US troops was predictable – since the US killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last week some kind of retaliation was predicted. 

Trump’s response this morning was to tweet that “all is well”, with no reports of any casualties at either the Al Asad or the Erbil base. 

The attack was condemned by western powers throughout today. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement: “The priority is more than ever for a de-escalation.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also told MPs today that “Iran should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks but should instead pursue urgent de-escalation”. 

Today, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter that his country “do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression”.

Middle East and US security experts, who spoke to TheJournal.ie, took a different view of the attacks from Johnson. The very nature of the attacks, they said, suggested that Iran was seeking to reduce the simmering tension between the US and Iran.

The latest tensions, which are far from new, became heightened after Qasem Soleimani was killed last week in a US drone attack outside a Baghdad airport.

In the last few days, the world has been waiting to see how Iran would respond to the attack.

What the response meant – and whether more attacks would come – has preoccupied Middle East watchers all day. 

“It was carefully calculated,” says Rosemary Hollis, Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City, University of London, speaking this morning. 

“It was executed outside Iran and the Iranians had announced whatever retaliation there would be, would be conducted by Iranian forces so they carried through on that threat,” she said.

If the country wants to show it isn’t going to be “pushed around,” she said, “to try and push back against US involvement in the whole region but not get into an all round shooting war, it achieves that”. 

“I think they have indicated that unless the Americans want to escalate, they won’t.”

There is a sense that the lack of casualties – either military or civilian – was a deliberate de-escalation strategy on the part of Iran. 

Donald Trump, in his own words, seemed to imply something similar this afternoon. 

“Iran seems to be standing down,” he said, as he announced that he would impose new economic sanctions on the country. 

trump-us-iran President Trump responds to the Iranian strike this afternoon. Source: Alex Brandon/AP/Press Association Images

What next?

Yet even if Iran is standing down, there are other groups the US might need to worry about. 

Without Soleimani, who was leading behind-the-scenes influence in various militia groups across the Middle East, the next steps of forces such as Hezbollah in Lebanon have become much harder to predict. 

Catherine Connolly, an expert in US security policy at Dublin City University, sees the Iran strike this morning as the latest reflection of the US-Iran relationship over the last several decades – the Americans “baiting” the country, with Iran forced to eventually show restraint.

“It was essentially a saving face exercise for Iran – the least worst thing they could do,” said Connolly earlier today. 

And with Trump threatening to target Iranian cultural sites, Connolly says that it has been the Iranians who have been more vocal about the role international law should play in the conflict.

“The attack, she said “was essentially a piece of necessary theatre”. 

“It’s always the Iranians who have to hold back,” she said.  “We always see the US lose control and no restraint on the US side.”

The death of Soleimani prompted angry calls for vengeance and drew massive crowds of Iranians to the streets to mourn him in recent days. 

Ayatollah Khamenei himself wept at the funeral in a sign of his bond with the commander.

“Last night they received a slap,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech after the missile strikes.

“These military actions are not sufficient. What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end.”

The new sanctions indicate that Trump will not take further military action, but it appears to be seen whether this latest crisis in US-Iranian relations is over. 

With reporting from Press Association

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