US President Donald Trump makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on November 20, 2019. - President Trump is heading to Austin to tour an Apple computer manufacturing facility. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Seventeen years after its blunder in the 2003 Iraq invasion, America has regained its mojo. It was previously thought inconceivable that Washington would dare assassinate the Iranian Quds Force general, Qasem Soleimani. Not only did it do so, but judging from Tehran’s response, the US also managed to neuter Iran’s ability to conduct non-state-level warfare. If indications pan out, the repercussions will be immense for Iran’s proxy wars throughout the region.

To appreciate this, you have to understand the totality of what Iran did and didn’t do.

Iran lost Soleimani, the mastermind of its signature “asymmetric war,” and had to retaliate. But it was in a bind. If it attacked Americans without claiming responsibility, that would not have counted as revenge. But if Tehran killed Americans openly, it risked more US wrath and a large-scale war that could devastate Iran, where the economy already has been crippled by American sanctions.

Tehran chose to respond openly. But its response was restrained and staged – almost theatrical. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was tasked with messaging the attack in real time. He also made sure it coincided with primetime TV viewing in the US. Zarif, after all, is practically American. He studied and lived for many years in the US and later worked as Iran’s permanent delegate to the United Nations.

Shortly after the missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, it became clear that the Iranian “revenge” was more of a public-relations stunt. Zarif tweeted the official Iranian position, signaling that the missiles “concluded” Iran’s “proportionate” response.

Shortly after the missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, it became clear that the Iranian “revenge” was more of a public-relations stunt

US President Donald Trump could have used the attack as a pretext to send B-52 bombers over Iran. But he too called it a night. A feeling of relief and victory over Iran’s mullahs prevailed. It was clear that Iran correctly understood Trump’s red lines: American blood shall not be spilled. His predecessor Barack Obama was right – not, however, for signing a faulty nuclear treaty with Iran, but for realizing that the regime responded correctly to external stimulus. When Obama showed weakness, Iran expanded. When Trump flexed America’s muscles, Iran licked its wounds.

Iran’s defeat by Trump is its own doing. After attacking regional oil tankers and Saudi oil installations and downing a US drone with no US reprisal, Iran “concluded that Trump was all talk and bluster,” according to Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

In fact, Iran had become so complacent that, on the day before Soleimani’s death, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei belittled Trump’s various threats. Trump “has tweeted that he sees Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad and will respond,” he said in a tweet, alluding to the months of deadly protests in the Iraqi capital. He then added: “You can’t do anything.” A day later, a US drone killed Soleimani.

Given his long career, Khamenei probably realized instantly that Trump had changed the rules of the game, and hence started choreographing Iran’s response. The Iraqi parliament met but did not obtain a quorum, according to Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policies. Unperturbed by a mere technicality, lawmakers nevertheless voted on a non-binding resolution that recommended US troops withdraw from Iraq – which Iranian propaganda and some US and other media outlets depicted as a mandatory demand from the Iraqi cabinet.

Next, Iranian propaganda and, again, some American and international media, tried to portray Soleimani as a popular figure in Iraq, even though Iraqis have long been protesting against Iran and its militias. Iranian propaganda claimed that more than a million mourners participated in Soleimani’s funeral processions. Experts who studied aerial photographs of the crowds suggested that there were 90,000 at best.

Finally came the missiles that fell nowhere, with an official Iranian message saying Tehran had concluded its retaliation. Iranian propaganda then insisted that the attack killed 80 American troops and wounded 200, and that the US was hiding the news – an impossibility in a country where even transcripts of presidential calls to foreign leaders are made public.

Trump killed Soleimani and Iran could not retaliate, not even by using its proxies. Over the past decade, the US has accumulated enough experience to learn how to deal with non-state actors while keeping American losses to a minimum. Defeating ISIS and killing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was one example.

Now, taking out Iran’s king of asymmetric warfare is another. Next will be to see how this affects all the wars Iran fights with its neighbors. Early indications from its almost impotent reaction to Soleimani’s death is that its abilities have now been greatly reduced.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.

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