16 January 2020

The US-Iran conflict

While the Iranian missile attacks in Iraq were preceded by an advance warning, the very act of firing them at all meant accepting the possibility of US casualties: had that happened, the US would have likely retaliated. Where is the region heading?

By Paul Mutter

Since the United States's (US) withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has sought relief from the deal's other signatories to make up for the US's reimposition of sanctions. This is accomplished through covert and overt actions aimed at pressuring the US's allies into granting that relief rather than risk regional destabilisation. Between Christmas and the New Year, this campaign escalated in ways few had anticipated. Both sides have now proven they are willing to go much further in their rivalry than before, even at the risk of a wider conflict, in order to restore deterrence against the other. Iran will continue to test US redlines regardless, and this translates into a crisis environment for both sides where escalation can take place with little warning.

On 27 December 2019, an Iran-allied militia in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah (KH), killed and wounded US contractors and soldiers near Kirkuk. The US responded by bombing KH bases in Syria and Iraq, while KH members brazenly rioted at the US Embassy in Baghdad on New Year's Eve. The US, citing these incidents and the risk of impending attacks, responded by killing the leaders of KH and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike outside Baghdad Airport on 3 January 2020. This sent Iran into days of outraged public mourning and, on 8 January, an unprecedented response of their own: ballistic missiles launched from bases in western Iran that hit US bases in Iraq's Anbar and Erbil governorates. As the attacks did not cause any casualties, both the US and Iran declared themselves "satisfied" with their actions and have not further retaliated against one another directly.

While the ballistic missile attacks in Iraq were preceded by an advance warning, the very act of firing the missiles at all meant accepting the possibility of US casualties. If that had happened, the US would likely have carried out strikes against targets inside Iran despite Iran's threats to fire ballistic missiles at Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Iran would then have had to either stand down or fire the opening salvos of a wider conflict without any guarantee of "victory." This did not happen, but instead, 176 innocent people were killed when Iranian air defence operators shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS 752 outside Tehran early on 8 January after misidentifying it as an incoming US cruise missile. Ironically, the shootdown evaporated much of the domestic unity felt over Soleimani's death and triggered widespread anti-government protests, something no US action to date has been able to achieve. Escalating tensions were a direct cause for this shootdown, the second such instance in the past decade of a civilian passenger jet downed due to misidentification during an interstate conflict. While both sides claim to have restored deterrence and set the other on notice, this tragic accident shows the high risk of events tumbling out of control in the region.

In the long term, the disruptions caused by these targeted killings will be mitigated by the institutional strength of the networks that the IRGC has worked to establish in the region since the 1980s. In the short term, however, the absence of important personalities like al-Muhandis and Soleimani will be felt not just in Iraq, but also Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It is too early to tell if the US's newfound hardline approach will deter revenge operations and further escalation, especially through proxy forces or cyber-attacks outside the Middle East, to any degree. These revenge operations will be pursued for years to come, with varying success.

Iran has had greater success in signalling to the Gulf States their vulnerability in the event of a wider war. Iran-sponsored attacks in 2019 on tankers and energy infrastructure demonstrated that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia are vulnerable. As Iran is unable to inflict significant damage on US military forces without suffering far worse in return, threats against the Gulf States are aimed at compelling them to restrain the US, whose troops they host on their soil. Iran's conventional long-range arsenal alone may prove a sufficient deterrent for the Gulf States at this time.

The main battleground for the US-Iran conflict to unfold upon remains Iraq, as has been the case since 2003. If Iran is successful in forcing a US withdrawal, it will "own" whatever worst-case scenarios may come next, including economic collapse, electoral deadlock or a revival of the Islamic State (IS). Because Iran's influence is increasingly felt in terms of political violence and corruption, it has become a more visible target for nationalist protesters. Despite anti-US protests, it is Iran's consulates in Karbala and Najaf that have been burned by protesters, along with offices operated by pro-Iran political parties and militias. A US withdrawal is unlikely in the near-term, especially given US President Donald Trump's threats to extend sanctions on Iraq if US troops are compelled to withdraw, meaning that the country will continue to serve as an arena for the US-Iran conflict.

The most difficult question to answer is if further Iranian proxy attacks will be met by the US and its allies with the same force that a direct attack by Iran would be, or if retaliation against Iran will be limited to further sanctions and diplomatic isolation. News that the US attempted, but failed, to assassinate a high-ranking IRGC official in Yemen at the same time it killed Soleimani in Iraq suggests the former is the case. Unlike the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), which have killed far more IRGC personnel in recent years than the US through a semi-clandestine air war over Syria and Iraq, the US government is expected to publicly claim such targeted attacks, making an Iranian response more likely.

Iran has accepted the risk of a war between it and the US as part of its campaign, as a conflict begun on Iran's terms - i.e., one that the US would be blamed for initiating - may prove preferable to slow economic strangulation or attempting domestic reforms. Israel in particular is girding itself for the real possibility of a new war in Lebanon between it and Hezbollah. Neither, though, is likely to initiate such a conflict unless Iran and the US first go to war. This is also true for the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and pro-Iran Houthis in Yemen, who possess the capability to devastate the Kingdom's infrastructure but have limited themselves in the hopes of a negotiated political outcome.

Paul Mutter is a US-based political and security risk analyst covering Middle East and North Africa.