While American sources did not mention any casualties, Iranian state TV said that nearly 80 “American terrorists” were killed in these attacks
THE January 8 Iranian ballistic missile hits on US targets, defying President Donald Trump’s ‘red line’ against hitting American facilities, would either de-escalate US-Iranian tensions or slide both countries into a full-blown war. Security observers however found two good signs: first, that the US President decided against making an ‘Oval Office’ speech to the nation immediately after the Iranian bombing to order immediate retaliation; second, his statement that he would speak only on Wednesday morning (US time). They interpreted this as “signs of respite with Iran” and a “best case scenario for de-escalation”.
A news report appeared in ‘The New York Times’ on January 7 said that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had made a rare appearance at the Iranian National Security Council to “lay down the parameters for retaliation”. He is reported to have said that it should be “direct and proportional”, openly carried out by the Iranian forces themselves and not by its proxies like Hezbollah or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
As a result, Iran fired 22 ballistic missiles to US bases in Iraq on Wednesday at 1.30 am (local time). Reports said the missiles hit Ain al-Asad in Anbar province hosting US troops and a facility in Erbil in Kurdish region.
While American sources did not mention any casualties, Iranian state TV said that nearly 80 “American terrorists” were killed in these attacks. It claimed that the Americans could not intercept any of these missiles. US helicopters and military equipment were damaged. Khamenei said in a broadcast that “a slap in the face” was delivered. Iranian television also said that 100 other targets which were “in sight” would be hit if US escalated the retaliation.
US-Iran tensions had increased after Trump took over as President in 2017. In May 2018, he unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal which was concluded in July 2015 after a great deal of negotiation since 2013. This was not merely an Iran-US deal but between Iran and P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany together with the European Union.
Under this agreement, which was also called the joint comprehensive plan of action, Iran would permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nuclear facilities in return for the relaxation of the US, EU and Security Council sanctions. The catalyst was US president Barack Obama who permitted secret bilateral talks with Iran resulting in the drawing up of a joint action plan in November 2013. Through this agreement the entire Middle East security scenario had cooled.
On May 8, 2018, Trump announced US withdrawal from the JCPOA. As a result, US sanctions against Iran were re-imposed in November 2018. Ironically the IAEA certified in May 2019 that Iran was abiding by the main provisions of the JCPOA, although some doubts remained on centrifuges. Since then bilateral tensions between Iran and US nose-dived.
In May 2019, Iran was blamed by the US for damaging four oil tankers off the UAE coast, which Iran denied. In June 2019, Iran shot down a US military surveillance drone which the country said was in their airspace. The US countered it saying that it was in international waters. Media reports said that Trump was about to order missile strikes on three sites in Iran but cancelled the plan when told that it would kill 150 Iranians which he felt was “not proportionate” to shooting down an unmanned drone.
On September 15, 2019, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in Abqaiq and Khurais were hit by drones causing great damage. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there was no evidence that the attack came from Yemen and accused Iran of launching an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.
Abqaiq is reportedly the world’s most important processing centre and the attacks reduced global oil production by 5 per cent. Lack of military response from the US was interpreted as American weakness or lack of interest in fighting Saudi Arabia’s war.
However, the US was waiting for an opportunity to strike Iran in a ‘proportionate’ to Iranian aggression. The opportunity came on December 27, 2019 when Iran-backed Iraqi Katab’ib Hezbollah fired 30 rockets on an Iraqi airbase in Kirkuk province killing an American civil contractor and injuring four US service members along with two Iraqi security personnel. The US retaliated on December 29 by striking five Katab’ib Hezbollah bases killing 25 militia members.
On December 31, 2019, Katab’ib Hezbollah and supporters attacked the US embassy in Baghdad which caused damage to the embassy’s periphery. They also burnt some trailers used by security checkpoints outside the embassy. The mob spray painted “Soleimani is our leader” along with anti-American slogans.
This incident reminded US policymakers of 21 November 21, 1979 burning of the US embassy in Islamabad and the September 11, 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi in Libya. They felt that a targeted attack on US diplomatic staff was being planned by Iranian special forces under Major General Qassem Soleimani. It was said that the order of the drone attack on him was signed by Trump on December 29 at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Another report said that Soleimani was “taunting” America by “going to Baghdad with impunity”.
Another reason for possible de-escalation is that top US officials have openly shared “varying pictures why that decision was made” and what they plan to do next. Pompeo’s belligerent defence on January 7 of the targeted killing of Soleimani failed to justify the American claim that they had evidence of an ‘imminent threat’ to the US from him. According to the US media, “Pompeo stumbled when asked by a reporter to be specific”.
Similarly, Trump’s threat tweet that the US would target 52 Iranian sites (representing 52 American hostages taken in President Jimmy Carter’s time and released much later) if Iran targeted American interests, was contradicted by the Pentagon on January 6. The Billion Press