The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fired 15 ballistic missiles at two military bases in northern Iraq housing U.S. military personnel last night in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassim Soleimani and several top IRGC lieutenants as well as Iran-backed militia commanders. Ten of the missiles, believed to be Fateh-313s, hit the Ain al-Asad Air Base. One hit a military base in Erbil while four others missed their mark. There were no U.S. or Iraqi casualties though a hangar at the Al-Asad airbase appeared to have been damaged.
The Iranian strike appeared to be a face-saving measure designed for internal consumption. Iran is currently experiencing extreme economic distress and its populace is growing restless evidenced by recent widespread protests that paralyzed the nation for several days. Some 1,500 protestors were killed by government forces and many more were arrested and imprisoned. Iran is therefore in no position to militarily challenge the United States. Its anemic economy, which is reeling from sanctions simply cannot sustain a full-blown war, one in which it would surely lose.
The failure of Iran to inflict even one casualty, American or otherwise, allows President Trump more flexibility in determining the appropriate response to the Iranian aggression. In this regard, Trump can follow the Israeli model of strike and counterstrike. On August 25, an Israeli preemptive airstrike liquidated two top Hezbollah operatives as well as an undisclosed number of Iranians who were about to launch explosive laden drones into Israel from Syria. The Hezbollah operatives were trained by the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the IRGC. Within hours of the strike, an Israeli kamikaze drone struck a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut destroying highly specialized machinery for mixing high-grade propellant used in precision-guided missiles.
The one-two punch was a significant blow to Hezbollah, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed to harshly respond. A week later, Hezbollah fired Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military vehicle. The missiles missed but Hezbollah nevertheless claimed “victory,” and the matter was over. Had there been casualties, Israel was prepared to wipe out Hezbollah’s entire ballistic missile program. According defense sources, fighter-bombers were already airborne and ready for the contingency. However, the lack of casualties gave Israel the leeway it needed to avoid further escalation. Israel had accomplished its military objectives without going to war.
Similarly, the failure of Iran to inflict a single U.S. casualty allows Trump to walk away from this skirmish knowing that American interests were preserved and deterrence vis-à-vis Iran, lost during the Obama years, has been re-established. Iranian government propaganda outlets like PressTV and the Tansim News Agency are claiming that the missile strikes inflicted casualties, but these reports, like most reportage out of Iran, should not be taken seriously.
On paper, the United States emerged the clear victor in this round of fighting. It succeeded in killing the Quds Force’s top commander and brainchild of its overseas mischief making in the January 3, drone strike. It was Soleimani who ordered the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, to fire rockets at a U.S. compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor, and injuries to U.S. and Iraqi military personnel. And it was Soleimani who ordered KH thugs to storm the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Finally, it was Soleimani who supplied deadly explosively formed projectiles to Iraqi and Afghani insurgents which claimed the lives of some 500 American personnel.
Also killed in the drone strike was KH commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, whose involvement in terrorism extends back to the 1980s. Additionally, several Quds Force and KH terrorists, with varying degrees of specialized military and asymmetrical warfare expertise were also vaporized in the strike. These Iranian reversals were in addition to the roughly two dozen KH terrorists killed in U.S. strikes a few days prior to Soleimani’s liquidation.
Like Hezbollah, Iran has declared victory but make no mistake, Iran is licking its wounds and has sustained harsh blows from which it will soon not recover. The removal of Soleimani from the scene does not mean that Iran will halt its malign activities in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Lebanon. These will continue. But the mullahs, who were accustomed to appeasement under Obama and treated to pallets of untraceable cash to the tune of $1.7 billion, are now very cognizant of the fact that there is a new sheriff in town who takes names, fulfills promises and protects American interests.