It looked pretty scary for a couple of minutes there. As a fusillade of ballistic missiles arced out of Iran towards unknown targets, it was one of those this could be it moments – were they headed for the Green Zone? Al Udeid air base in Qatar? Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain? God help us – Haifa, or Tel Aviv? I all but held my breath and put my fingers in my ears, waiting for the BDA, and the almost inevitable big retaliatory strike – shit, I forgot to check, had the B-2s sortied out of Whiteman in Missouri? – when the news came that the missiles had hit nothing much. A couple of not terribly strategic airfields in Iraq. Maybe some hangars and infrastructure took a beating. Nobody hurt. Zero casualties.** A non-event, all things considered.
The Iranians had launched a proportionate, largely symbolic attack, calculated to satisfy domestic pressure for a forceful response to the assassination of Qassam Soleimani, while doing next to nothing to push Trump into a corner. Say what you will about the bastards, but that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do that. They played it like pros, and yes, it’s come to this: if we’re going to come out the other end in one piece, we’ve got to count on the Islamic totalitarian state to be the moderating force.
Donald, who’d perhaps scared himself as shitless as the rest of us, marched to the microphones this morning, looking unsteady, his orange toner slathered unevenly across his sweaty, pasty mug, and gave a slurred, halting teleprompter speech full of mispronunciations (the best: “tolerided”) and punctuated by long, deep sniffs that had the word “Adderall” trending all over the internet. He spent most of his time blaming his mess on Barack Obama, while calling on the other parties to Obama’s nuclear deal to help him negotiate a new pact, perhaps hoping to pull another NAFTA maneuver in which he junks one treaty so he can replace it with another of his own that isn’t materially different, then do his little victory dance (a move I recommended myself in this space a while back; hey, whatever works, right?). We’ll see how keen the Chinese and Europeans are to hop to it at Donald’s behest, but the upshot was that he was standing down the US military, and holding out the prospect of diplomacy.
Is it over then? Maybe, in a way; the signs are certainly hopeful that a truly catastrophic shooting war that sets the whole region ablaze is off the table, at least for now. Still, it’s hard to feel safe, or confident that there aren’t any more shoes to drop. Iran’s many proxies may yet have another go at some of America’s many facilities in the area. Iran might itself launch a cyber attack of some sort. They could do something stupid in the Strait of Hormuz, or pull off an ill-considered assassination of their own. A lot may depend upon how well their very limited missile strike has satisfied the hawks in the IRGC, and a public galvanized by the murder of a local hero who to them was more Erwin Rommel than Osama bin Laden. Lots can still go sideways.
Never mind though, let’s be optimistic, just this once, and conclude that Donald has, with that luck that keeps on breaking his way, escaped the worst consequences of his impulsivity. That’s great. It doesn’t mean, however, that we now emerge on to the broad, sunlit uplands of Middle Eastern peace and stability. It’s still not clear what the long term fallout of Trump’s risk-taking will be. The campaign against ISIS, still very much necessary, has now been suspended as US forces hunker down in a defensive posture, for how long is uncertain. Iran’s population, which prior to the assassination had grown increasingly restive and dissatisfied with its rulers, is now solidly behind its government, at least for the moment. Iraq’s Parliament has called for US forces to leave the country, a resolution which appears to be non-binding on the interim Prime Minister, but which may yet lead to the expulsion of the Americans, handing Iran a tremendous geopolitical win. Iranian leadership is making noises like it means to re-start it’s nuclear program, which could definitely provoke major hostilities down the road – Trump has vowed he won’t let it happen, and while Trump, of course, vows lots of things, he made this pledge via tweet rendered in ALL CAPS, so you know he’s serious this time, and if he isn’t, the Israelis probably will be. Overall, while we don’t know how much worse things will get following the air strike on Soleimani, it sure seems clear that not a whole hell of a lot has improved. Even the Quds Force is substantially as dangerous as ever, with Soleimani being immediately replaced by Maj. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, by all accounts a thoroughly competent officer who was at Soleimani’s right arm for decades, going all the way back to the Iran-Iraq war.
Now, brace for it: we’re still waiting on that “Christmas surprise” that Kim Jong Un promised, but never delivered.
**Update: in the weeks following the writing of this post it came to light that perhaps more than 50 American personnel suffered various degrees of traumatic brain injury during the attacks, perhaps concussions resulting from blast overpressure. Denying the existence of casualties may have been a way to avoid the escalatory response Trump had promised if Americans were hurt.