Measured responses in the US, Iran conflict

Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq, as seen on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. Iran fired a series of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases, including Ain al-Asad air base, housing U.S. troops, on Jan. 8 in a major escalation that brought the two longtime foes closer to war. Photo: Associated Press

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq, as seen on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. Iran fired a series of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases, including Ain al-Asad air base, housing U.S. troops, on Jan. 8 in a major escalation that brought the two longtime foes closer to war. Photo: Associated Press

Measured responses in the US, Iran conflict

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
University of Miami Middle East experts share their insights on the latest developments with Iran.

In an address to the nation Wednesday, President Donald J. Trump said he will impose severe economic sanctions on Iran in response to a ballistic missile attack the previous night on two military bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops.

The missile attack comes on the heels of the U.S. killing Iran’s military leader in a drone strike outside Baghdad’s main airport. 

While the back and forth appears to have abated, University of Miami Middle East faculty experts said, Iran’s ballistic missile response was a very calculated one, done as a show of its strength, but not quite hostile enough to provoke another military reaction from the U.S.

“At this stage at least, Iran sought to deliver a calibrated message, one that may have as its goal a measure of escalation control,” said Bradford McGuinn, a senior lecturer of political science who has studied and written about the Middle East for 30 years. “It demonstrated that Iran is capable of hitting U.S. targets, that they are willing to do it, and secondly, the nature of the attack suggests that Iran was also interested in conveying the message that there could be a containment to the action-reaction dynamic of these last couple of days.”

This aggressive volley between the U.S. and Iran has been intensifying for the past few years, but hit a climax Friday, when General Qasem Suleimani, Iran’s top military leader, was killed in a targeted drone attack carried out by the U.S. military and ordered by Trump.

In Trump’s address Wednesday, the first since Suleimani was killed, he explained his decision to the American public.

“At my direction, the United States military eliminated the world’s top terrorist,” Trump said. “In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets. But we stopped him.”

Despite the pause in military action, Trump’s vow to impose harsh sanctions on Iran, which has been struggling economically for many years, may prompt further discontent among Iranians with the current government, which just last month faced widespread protests, said Brian Blankenship, assistant professor of political science who specializes in international relations. Four years ago, President Obama signed a deal with Iran that would roll back some of the U.S. sanctions in exchange for restrictions placed on Iran’s nuclear development program, but that deal was upended in 2018 by Trump.

“It’s still unclear whether or not this is designed to bring Iran to its knees [financially] so the regime is overthrown, or to get them back to the negotiating table to get a deal that’s more favorable than the one Obama made in 2015,” Blankenship said.

Trump’s decision to throw out the nuclear deal was a low point for U.S. diplomacy with Iran and that extreme shift also sparked ire between the nations, said Costantino Pischedda, an assistant professor who teaches international relations and has spent time researching insurgent groups in Iraq.

“In 2015 an agreement had been reached, and then when Trump said the U.S. was not going to abide by it, which was followed in 2018 by a formal decision to abandon the agreement and re-impose crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy,” said Pischedda. "This turnabout in the U.S. position likely made America appear even more untrustworthy in the minds of Iranian leaders.”

Yet, tension between the United States and Iran has a lengthy history.

The fractious relationship can be traced back to 1979, when a popular movement led by Shiite clerics (Shiites represent the majority of people practicing Islam in Iraq and Iran) overthrew the U.S.-backed secular government and formed the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who imposed religious law. Shortly after, protesters seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and 52 American hostages were held for 444 days inside.

In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khameini succeeded Khomeini, and his entire reign has been characterized by a resentment of American influence in the Middle East.

“Iran’s concept of itself, born of the 1979 revolution, contains a mandate more expansive than the defense of Iran: to protect the region as a whole from what it considers the predations of American imperialism,” McGuinn said. “In the last few days there have been several references to that preoccupation by Iranian leaders.”

Toward that goal, Iran readily supports the Shiite and associated communities beyond its borders, often visiting its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, McGuinn added. At the heart of that regional strategy was Suleimani, who rose to power as a young follower of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and later, as a soldier in the war with Iraq. In recent years, Suleimani became a more public figure as leader of the Quds Force within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is the country's special paramilitary forces, said McGuinn. Suleimani was also responsible for building relationships with militias throughout the Middle East, which ironically, proved helpful in the United States-led coalition to weaken ISIS in Iraq.

“Suleimani was a figure of extraordinary importance to Iran’s regional agenda,” McGuinn said. “His task was to extend Iran’s influence, but also to counterbalance or to resist what he might have interpreted as the menace of American imperialism to the Middle East. His passing is a blow to Iran and its allies because of the structure and system of influence that existed around him.”

However, the United States’ attack on Iran’s second most powerful leader did not come unprovoked. Experts say there were several key incidents that led to recent clashes between Iran and the United States:

  • Dec. 31, 2019: The American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq is stormed by hundreds of pro-Iranian protesters who break through an outer barrier, set fires and throw rocks over the walls. They continue to swarm the embassy for two days.
  • Dec. 27, 2019: A U.S. contractor was killed, and several U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were injured in a rocket attack on a base in northern Iraq. American intelligence said the attack was orchestrated by Iran-backed militia Kateab Hezbollah, one of many militias that Suleimani may have coordinated.
  • September 2019: Saudi Arabian oil facilities are attacked by drones, cutting off oil supplies at the plant and prompting an increase in prices. The U.S. blames Iran, and while the country says it was not involved, a Houthi rebel group from Yemen—one of Iran’s allies—takes responsibility for the attack.
  • June 2019: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (led by General Suleimani) shoots down a U.S. military surveillance drone, which they said was flying in Iranian airspace. The U.S. asserts its drone was operating in international airspace.
  • November 2018: The United States tightens sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, as part of President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.
  • 2018: Iran nuclear deal upended by Trump. Signed in 2015 by Obama, the deal gave agents the ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear weapon program in exchange for America’s agreement to lift trade sanctions that were harmful to the Iranian economy.

Further complicating matters is the fallout for Iraq, the nation caught in the crossfire of this growing conflict. Iraq has played host to a major U.S. military presence since troops invaded the country in 2003 to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but since then, Iraq’s economy has struggled to recover as well.

U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011, but three years later they returned to help Iraq fight the Islamic State, which still has a small presence in the country. Yet now Iraq has become a battleground for the conflict between Iran and the United States, and they are in a difficult position because Iran is their neighbor and Shiite ally, but America has helped them get rid of ISIS.

“On the one hand, Iraq has relied on the U.S. since 2004 for a lot of support to rebuild their country after the fall of Saddam and to repel ISIS, but because Iraq is located next to Iran and shares a religion with them, it’s hard for them to openly side with the United States,” Blankenship said.