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Washington’s initial reaction to the Iranian missile attack on military bases in Iraq which contain US troops has been muted; as long as American troops are not being hurt, the US administration clearly does not have an interest in ratcheting up its confrontation with Iran, and hopes that Tehran privately shares this objective.
Still, the regional impact of the US strike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani will take some time to be felt. For the first time since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been caught off guard and will need time to respond. The sheer brazenness of the Soleimani assassination, and its shredding of established norms means that Tehran will have to come up with new tactics to strike at US interests that do not incur enormous costs in response.
Iran’s Regional Ascendancy
Throughout 2019 Soleimani’s IRGC Quds Force got away with a number of operations designed to cause headaches for Western policymakers and their allies in the Gulf. IRGC attacks on oil tankers, processing facilities and continued support for Houthi militiamen firing missiles into Saudi Arabia were all successful, and went largely unanswered. Costs for Iran were minimal, and Tehran appeared to be able to act in the face of US interests with impunity.
The reasons for Western passivity were many. Much stemmed from President Trump’s unpredictability, leading to policy positions that were often contradictory and supported by tweets that exposed the President’s rudimentary understanding of regional affairs. The US maximum pressure strategy, designed to roll back Iranian influence across the region was selectively applied, and caused confusion among European actors who tried to carve out a position away from Washington’s hawkish anti-nuclear deal stance and Trump’s twitter account. A wider subtext of frustration with Saudi Arabia for prosecuting a poorly managed war in Yemen that has caused far more problems than it solved precluded a sense of urgency in responding to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the region. Following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 Riyadh was not in the good books of Western capitals, who felt less inclined to get on board with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s impulsive approach to international affairs, and tried to use Khashoggi’s death as a pretext to end the disastrous Yemen adventure.
Iran took full advantage of the Saudi Crown Prince’s blundering, and President Trump’s empty threats, to fashion a set of responses that paralysed its Western opponents and exposed its regional rivals as weak and ineffective. Despite billions of dollars’ worth of investments in military hardware and modernisation programmes over the past decade, and five years of combat experience in Yemen, the Gulf states and particularly Saudi Arabia have been out-thought, out-manoeuvred and forced into a policy of rapprochement with Iran. As tensions across the Middle East have sky-rocketed, Emirati delegations headed to Tehran, while Saudi back-channelling with the Iranians quietly gained pace. All this was quite a climb down from the days of Abu Dhabi being referred to as “Little Sparta”.
Iran Has Choices
The question for Iran’s leaders is whether a response to the Soleimani assassination in the Gulf is even necessary at this juncture. The Gulf Cooperation Council remains riven by internal divisions and insecurities, the Yemen war continues to simmer away, and Riyadh appears to be unable to formulate its own response to wider regional escalation. Iran has thrived off implanting and sponsoring non-state actors in weak states, and capitalising on the squabbles between stronger ones. In the Gulf, there is little that can be achieved through military means that hasn’t already been achieved diplomatically with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman all maintaining diplomatic links to Tehran, although this is complicated by the fact that Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, Iran’s closest interlocutor in the region, is either permanently incapacitated or already dead.
Iran is highly unlikely to mount an aggressive response to the US in the territory of any of these three states, where it risks losing diplomatic leverage. Closing the Strait of Hormuz would choke off the supply routes of its newly found friends in Doha, and run the risk of inviting a massive response from the United States. Furthermore a US-led international naval deployment in response to Iran’s penchant for maritime disruption appears to have deterred more IRGC naval activity for the time being.
This does not leave a lot of options for Tehran to respond inside the Gulf, especially given that its main proxy, Hezbollah, has already indicated that US civilians living across the region will not be targeted. US bases inside Saudi Arabia could well be the target of Houthi missile strikes, but that was always a risk. Two deployments of US troops into the region in the past six months (totalling 14,750 persons) have increased the number of Americans in the area and may serve as further deterrent for Tehran but, in truth this remains unknowable. Either way, one conclusion is clear: although Tehran can continue hitting at US assets, it knows that any missile strike which results in the loss of American lives could be met with a ten-fold response against Iranian bases in the region, and this is unlikely to be a price any Iranian commander would be prepared to pay.
Tehran has received a bloody nose, and Solemani’s death is an enormously important moment for the region and its security. But strategic facts tend to outlast individuals. Iran already had the Gulf states exactly where it wanted them, divided, weak and seeking détente. Acting recklessly in the Gulf against US interests would only force a partially-interested Trump into doing more to enforce deterrence in a region where Iran has managed to successfully upset the apple cart. The future of Gulf security is clear, increased levels of militarisation will become a fact of life and tensions will remain high for the medium term.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of khamenei.ir/Wikimedia Commons
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.