Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the family of slain General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2019. Photo: AFP

Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani was torn to pieces when American drones rained a salvo of missiles on his convoy at Baghdad International Airport on January 3. The attack also killed the head of Kataeb Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. It must have been the last place where the Iranians expected such an attack. The operation was undertaken in a third country, where Soleimani was visiting in an official capacity as a military leader of a sovereign state. In any case, Soleimani was not the leader of any proscribed militant organization, but a serving general.

The Iranian response was swift but limited. On January 4, two rockets hit Balad Air Base in Iraq. Two mortar shells also landed in Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.

The price of Brent crude went up by 4.4% and a steeper rise was expected based on the ferocity of the anticipated Iranian response. Most of the world maintained a guarded reserve. Neither was there an outcry against US President Donald Trump nor voices hailing the attack as his triumph.

Meanwhile, domestic pressures would have surely continued to mount on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran was caught in a no-win situation. The Ayatollah’s stature in the Shia Muslim world, not Iran alone, was going to nosedive if he remained a mute witness.

The Iranian response manifested itself on January 8. The first indicators were not missiles in the air but a call to the Iraqi prime minister from the Iranians that the response had either started or was due to be initiated immediately. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was assured that the attacks on the bases selected by the Iranians would not lead to Iraqi casualties. The exact bases were not revealed, reportedly. The Iraqis, in turn, apprised the Americans, who had enough time to prepare.

The Iranians used more than a dozen missiles. Most of these were the short-range Fateh 110 road-mobile surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 200 to 300 kilometers. The missile can carry a payload of 500 kilograms. The other missile used was the Qiam 1. It has a longer range of 750-800km. According to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a total of 16 missiles were used of which 11 hit Ayan al-Asad and one hit the Erbil base. Four missiles couldn’t find their targets. The missiles were launched from three different locations.

The fact of neither any American casualties being reported nor any damage to equipment raises the issue of what the Iranian intent was. Was it merely a question of satisfying the domestic audience that was baying for blood? Apparently, care had been taken not to hit either troops or equipment in the two bases. Soleimani’s killing had posed a huge challenge to the Ayatollah’s sway in Iran. Even beyond Iraq, Shia Muslims were awaiting a befitting response from Iran.

However, a few inconsistencies in the entire episode are worth delving into. None of the 16 missiles or so were intercepted by the US air defense weapon systems in Iraq. It can perhaps by reasonably assumed that such systems existed. Yet in spite of early warning having been received from the Iraqis, not a single missile was shot down by the Americans. Either the Americans decided to go into their underground bunkers or simply failed to detect and engage the missiles.

Both possibilities seem preposterous. To take for granted the Iranian warning of attack and any assurance they may have given of the attacks being so planned not to cause damage to the bases does appear a bit far-fetched. It’s doubtful whether US military commanders would have so much trust in an Iranian assurance. It’s an issue the Americans are yet to clarify.

The next issue is what will be the response of Kataeb Hezbollah. It lost one of its top leaders, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and is unlikely to be satisfied with Iran’s mere demonstration of retaliation, without any bite whatsoever. Though trained and funded by Iran, the group operates with relative freedom and is unlikely to follow Tehran’s dictums beyond a point. Will it stage something more lethal and draw Iran and the US into another confrontation? The Balad Air Base had faced rocket attacks on December 12.

The Ayatollah has lost ground in the entire episode. However, as much as Iranian television rattled on about the deaths of 80 American personnel, there will be few takers with news of no casualties or damage being reported on most other channels. In a democratic country like the US, it’s not possible to keep the deaths of 80 soldiers, as claimed by the Iranians, under cover. The dissenting groups within Iran will be the net gainers.

Unfortunately, the Iranians also shot down a Ukrainian aircraft with 176 people on board. This lowers the regime’s image further. However, though there have been demonstrations in Iran ostracizing the regime for not having stated the truth immediately and owning responsibility, the issue is not enough to sustain a protest movement across the country. Apparently the Americans believe that the incident could ignite a wave of resistance, and the simmering discontent in Iran would blow up to rock the leadership. However, the issue is quite inadequate really to see Iran in flames.

What’s more likely is the European Union getting tougher with Iran. The 2015 nuclear deal has already come under grayer clouds. Three of the European signatories, the UK, France and Germany, have initiated the dispute mechanism in the deal that could lead to UN sanctions on Iran. Iran’s oil sector is already reeling under US sanctions. Sanctions lead to hardships for the citizenry, and more domestic problems for the Iranian leadership.

As far as Iran is concerned, it has been definitely pushed a lot more into the Russian and Chinese orbits. With the Russians having greatly stabilized the Syrian situation, they are definitely a very proven partner.

The Iranian leadership will definitely go for softer options in the short term. More attacks on US troops and bases are hardly likely. However, they will also search for ways and means of greater uranium-enrichment capabilities to get a decisive deterrent nuclear capability.

President Trump has had the last laugh so far. A lot of the world may feel he is crazy, but he seems to have won a decisive round as of now. The fact that striking at the Iranian leadership can prove to be of substantial deterrence value has been established.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.

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