Is this it? Is this all you can conjure, Iran?
That’s what everyone must have thought this morning. The Iranian response to the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the secretive Quds Force and arguably one of the most powerful men in Iran and the Middle East, was feeble, to say the least.
The Iranian military, and specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Corps, launched a few dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. bases in Iraq and Jordan. Those missiles that didn’t malfunction mid-flight, did little more than to reshape the geography in or around the bases. No U.S. casualties nor significant materiel damage were reported.
But why so feeble a reaction?
In deciding its response, Tehran faced a conundrum: Respond in proportion and trigger an all-out war — Soleimani, after all, was a combination of the CIA director, the commanding general of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a State Department special envoy — that would have certainly ended in the complete destruction of the Iranian military and the partial ruin of the country’s economy, or respond disproportionately. Wisely, the Mullahs of Tehran chose the latter option.
They had to do something otherwise they would have lost face in both the international community — lest we forget, Iran is an aspiring regional power that’s heavily involved in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars — but also domestically.
The crippling Western sanctions have brought the Iranian society to a boiling point. In the past few months, protests against the theocratic regime have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the arrest of dozens of thousands. The regime’s response, sprinkled with heavy doses of fanatical propaganda, can go a long way in uniting the Iranian society against a foreign enemy — one of the oldest plays in the book for autocratic regimes.
Behind the fanatism and threat, however, Iran’s response signals a strategy. By attacking only U.S. bases, thereby avoiding any unintentional collateral damage, military or economic, Tehran is attempting to take advantage of the domestic political adventures of President Trump in order to marginalize America’s actions. By citing self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, Tehran wants to cloak its actions in a garb of legality — and that of the U.S. in a veil of illegality. And it seems to be succeeding as the Iraqi Parliament voted to kick out all American troops in the country.
Iran’s retaliation, however, also signals a political and military weakness. The famed Iranian military that waits to devour Western aggressors seems to be better at proxy and irregular warfare than at conventional.
But there lies the real danger. For four decades now, Iran has been funding and coordinating attacks against Western targets through its numerous proxies. And be sure that those proxies will be working overtime in the near future as Tehran conjures its proportionate response.