Analysis: Iran's Impotent Retaliatory Strikes Signal an Initial Victory for American Deterrence

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Posted: Jan 08, 2020 1:30 PM
Analysis: Iran's Impotent Retaliatory Strikes Signal an Initial Victory for American Deterrence

Source: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Last night, the Iranian regime launched multiple missiles at US-coalition bases in Iraq.  In some respects -- given the number of missiles deployed, and the fact that the attack originated from Iranian soil -- this action initially looked and felt like a major, frightening escalation.  But when the dust settled, the US government announced zero American casualties, as did the Iraqis, on their end.  A few thoughts on what this means:

(1) If this is the extent of Iran's official response (more on that below) to the strike that took out terrorist mastermind, General Qassem Soleimani, this is a clear victory for the United States and President Trump.  We eliminated an extremely dangerous and ruthless terrorist from the battlefield.  They fired off missiles and beat their chests, but accomplished next to nothing.  Likely by design...

(2) Many people are interpreting the lack of lethality of Iran's reprisals as a face-saving off-ramp.  Doing nothing was not an option for them.  But it appears to be an encouraging sign that they opted to do something that looked big, and could be spun domestically as big (they're propaganda experts), yet did not cross Trump's red line of killing any Americans.  This looks like -- with all sorts of caveats and cautious words in place -- an early win for deterrence.  The US responded to Iran's increasingly bellicose escalations and provocations with an unexpectedly harsh and stinging blow.  The regime was stunned.  A few days later, they responded with a faux-escalatory de-escalation.

(3) Even if this is a momentary win that is good news for America and realigned Iran's assessment of the Trump administration (and will make them think twice about killing our people, thanks to an abrupt end to the regime's sense of virtual impunity), I'd be shocked if this were Iran's final reprisal.  This thread helps explain why.  There will be more, eventually.  They've been engaging in acts of war and terrorism against the United States and other allies for four decades, after all.  One tough brushback pitch isn't going to fundamentally change that dynamic, even if it alters the calculus a bit.

(4) Let's wait and see how events play out moving forward, but after roughly one week, some of the loudest voices in our politics freaking out about World War III and harshly criticizing the president's decision are looking reckless and unserious.  Iran's seemingly carefully-calibrated climbdown, and Trump's wise decision to take the W, underscores that neither nation desires to enter a full-blown war.  Allies are backing us up.  Things could blow up again, no doubt, but for the moment, it looks like the United States asserted itself, sent a powerful message, and liquidated a blood-drenched enemy plotter in one fell swoop -- and that decision has paid initial dividends.  

(5) It was a very, very strange night in Iran: