Analysing Iran’s Counter Strikes
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

Iran on 8 January 2020 launched 22 surface-to-surface missiles at two US military bases in Ain al-Asad base in Anbar province and one facility in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.1 The operation called, “Shahid Soleimani” has been claimed by Iran as a proportionate response for the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani by the US on 3 January 2020.2 The commander of the Iraqi government-sanctioned counter-insurgency militia, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis along with 10 other people were also killed in the US strike.3 The US ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Kelly Craft justified the killing of Soleimani as an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter4 who according to the US President Donald Trump was planning ‘sinister attacks’ on American diplomats and military personnel. 5

Notably, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif defended the retaliation by referring to Article 51 of the UN Charter calling it as an act of self-defence. The airbases according to the Iranian Foreign Minister were targeted for launching the strike on Soleimani. He, however, asserted that Iran does not seek any further escalation but hold the right to defend against any act of aggression by the US.6 The subject of de-escalation was posed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He demanded the removal of the US presence in the region.7

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) in the aftermath of the Iranian attack also called for a complete withdrawal of US military presence from Iraq and warned that it would not distinguish between the US and Israel in terms of retaliation over the killing of General Soleimani. IRGC suggested that it is only the start of a series of revenge attacks without any end deadline. 8 It also warned the US’ allies that in case of an attack on Iranian soil from their bases, it would face massive retaliation naming cities such as Dubai and Haifa.9 Iran also claimed that it has identified 104 critical sites in the region which would be attacked in case of a retaliatory strike.10

The latest escalation began after the killing of an American contractor, Nawres Hamid in an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk housing foreign contractors that train Iraqi security forces on 27 December 2019. The rocket attack was blamed on Shiite militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah allegedly backed by Iran. 11 The US in response hit the militia group’s targets on three sites in Iraq and two sites in Syria killing 25 and injuring 51 fighters on 29 December 2019.12 The US attack was deplored by the Iraqi government and Iraqis in a display of outrage stormed the US embassy on Baghdad on 31 December 2019. The US blamed Soleimani for orchestrating the attack on the embassy and in response resorted to killing the top Iranian general on 3 January 2020.13 The killing has ignited the public opinion in Iran and emboldened the nationalist narrative and strengthened the regime politically which until recently was facing countrywide protests against the removal of oil subsidies. The massive public outpouring in Iran demanding revenge played a key role in Iranian retaliation on 8 January 2020.

US Posture and Response

The US President after the assassination of Soleimani on 3 January 2020 warned Iran against resorting to escalation stating that the US military has identified targets and on 4 January 2020, suggested that 52 targets including Iranian cultural sites would be hit ‘fast and hard’.14 The threat to destroy cultural heritage is tantamount to a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention. The top US officials such as Defence Secretary Mike Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later clarified that military measures would follow the rules of armed conflict.15

Domestically within the US, the prospect of an all-out war has highly polarized the political elites. Democratic Party leaders raised objections over President Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani without consulting the Congress. Subsequently, on 9 January 2020, House of Representatives passed a non-binding war powers resolution with 224 favoring and 194 opposing to terminate military operation against Iran essentially curbing the President to launch a further attack without US Congress’ approval.16 The critics have also questioned the information credibility of an impending attack by Iran as claimed by President Trump to validate the killing of Soleimani. 17 It is largely seen as an act of revenge for the killing of the American contractor and storming of the US embassy in Baghdad. Moreover, it has been speculated that the assassination was planned to divert public attention over allegations that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to push Ukrainian government to investigate Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and his family over corruption charges. These charges on Trump and his associates have invited impeachment proceedings that may dent his chances for re-election in 2020 Presidential election.

Notably, after the Iranian attack, President Trump’s aggressive rhetoric was diluted and he backed away from military confrontation possibly due to public pressure and instead resorted to imposing further sanctions and push for a diplomatic solution. While Trump has suggested the diplomatic route to de-escalate, the US has denied visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to attend the UN Security Council meeting raising questions over the US’ intentions to pursue diplomacy.18

The US President asserted that Iranian missile strikes did not result in loss of American and Iraqi lives. He repeated his reservations on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and went on to criticize then-President Barack Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran. He evoked the need to renegotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran and appealed to the remaining signatories of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to push Iran to enter into dialogue. Interestingly, he also appealed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to play a more proactive role in the region hinting his initial intention to limit the US force strength in the region. Moreover, he mentioned that Islamic State is a natural enemy of Iran and he expressed hope to work together with Iran to eliminate the shared threat. He ended his speech by appealing the Iranian leadership and the people that the US is willing to embrace peace and wishes stability and prosperity.19 The US’ strategic posture of de-escalation is based on lack of domestic support for a full-fledged war and Trump’s speech contained a series of contradictions over the course of future action.

Interestingly, Tehran Times immediately after the strike reported that around 80 US soldiers have been killed and 200 others have been injured and 20 critical points including a number of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and helicopters were destroyed.20 The US retorted denying any casualties suggesting that the radar system tracked the missiles offering time for the US security personnel to find shelter.21 Trump during his speech also reiterated that due to the precautions taken by the military, no lives were lost. Notably, Iraqi Prime Minister’s office informed that it received prior verbal notification from Iran about the strikes which is likely to be passed to the US. 22 US military officials have admitted that they had intelligence through satellites, signals and communications intercept about a possible strike. Several commentators have opined that Iran’s strikes were precise in hitting seven buildings in Ain al-Asad airbase however it deliberately missed killing US military personnel to avoid an all-out war.23 CNN correspondent Jake Tapper quoted US military officials that believe that Iran intentionally chose to strike without causing casualties to resonate “deliberate targets, minimum damage and maximum warning/ effect”.24 Therefore, Iranian strikes can be seen as an act of intimidation or sending a message and a way to pacify the domestic audience rather than directly provoking a war.

The conflict in the short term may have subsided however, it requires to be seen how the strategic dynamics between the US and Iran are going to play out in coming days. The contention over spheres of influence in the West Asian region is likely to continue. Iran possesses several sub-conventional assets in terms of militia groups which could colour the conflict through proxy wars not only in Iraq but also in other states. Moreover, cybersphere is a crucial theatre in case of an impending conflict. To conclude, Hasan Rouhani after the attack had tweeted that Iran’s final answer to Soleimani’s assassination is the withdrawal of all US troops in the region. Therefore, despite Trump’s appeal to working together to counter IS, the strategic interests would continue to diverge with the US seeking containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and influence and Iran seeking to weaken US’ strategic foothold in the region.

  1. BBC News. “Iran missile attack: Did Tehran intentionally avoid US casualties?” BBC News. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  2. Iran Press. “Barrage of Missiles were ready to fire at US bases: IRGC Commander.” Iran Press. January 9, 2020. Accessed January 2020.
  3. Schwartz, M.S. “Who Was The Iraqi Commander Also Killed In The Baghdad Drone Strike?” NPR. January 4, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  4. Al Jazeera. “US to UN: We'll take more action 'as necessary' to protect troops in Mideast.” Al Jazeera. January 9, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  5. Wolf, Z.B. & Stracqualursi, V. “The evolving US justification for killing Iran's top general.” CNN. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  6. Press TV. “IRGC targets US airbases in Iraq in response to assassination of General Soleimani.” Press TV. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  7. Togoh, I. “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Calls Missile Strike A ‘Slap’ At U.S.” Forbes. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  8. Middle East Monitor. “Iran launches large attack on US-led forces in Iraq.” Middle East Monitor. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  9. TRT World. “Amid Soleimani crisis, Iran threatens to level Dubai and Israel. But Why?” TRT World. January 9, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  10. The Times of Israel. “Iran claims 80 American troops killed in missile barrage; US says no casualties.” The Times of Israel. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  11. Davis, A. C. “Contractor who death Trump cited was a naturalized US Citizen born in Iraq.” The Washington Post. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  12. BBC News. “US attacks Iran-backed militia bases in Iraq and Syria.” BBC News. December 30, 2019. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  13. Harding, L. “Trump accuses Iran over storming of US embassy compound in Baghdad.” The Guardian. December 31, 2019. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  14. Press TV. “Iran writes to UN: We’re not after war but reserve right to self-defense against US threats.” Press TV. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  15. Superville, D. “Trump backtracks from threat to attack Iranian cultural sites.” Boston Globe. January 7, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  16. Roberts, W. “US House votes to restrain Trump's actions against Iran.” Al Jazeera. January 10, 2020. Accessed January 10, 2020.
  17. Cohen, Z. “Skepticism mounts over evidence of 'imminent' threat that Trump says justified Soleimani killing.” CNN. January 6, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  18. Cummings, W. “US denies visa to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif before UN Security Council meeting.” USA Today. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  19. CNN. “Watch President Trump’s speech after Iran’s strike.” CNN. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  20. Tehran Times. “Over 80 U.S. forces dead in Iran’s missile strikes on targets in Iraq.” Tehran Times. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  21. The Jerusalem Post. “Khamenei: We must end the 'corrupting presence' of America in the region.” The Jerusalem Post. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  22. Steinbuch, Y. “Iraq says Iran warned them of missile attack before it happened.” New York Post. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  23. Haaretz. “Iran Missile Hits on U.S. Military Targets in Iraq Were Precise, Satellite Images Show.” Haaretz. January 9, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.
  24. BBC News. “Iran missile attack: Did Tehran intentionally avoid US casualties?” BBC News. January 8, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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