The blowback has begun. The question is: Is it over?
Delivering on promises to retaliate after the assassination of general Qasem Soleimani, Iran conducted missile strikes on at least two U.S. bases in Iraq, including the Al-Assad airbase. The strikes were touted by Iran as a “successful attack … in the name of the martyr” Soleimani.
Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman confirmed that “Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq,” targeting “at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel at Al-Assad and Irbil.”
Hoffman said the Department of Defense was “working on initial battle damage assessments.” It is unclear if there were casualties, although preliminary reports suggested American troops may have escaped harm. (UPDATE: In a national address Wednesday morning President Trump reported that the strikes produced no American casualties: “No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack,” he said.)
New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi linked the timing of the attacks to the hour that a U.S. drone struck and killed Soliemani, whose remains were returned to his hometown earlier on Tuesday.
— Farnaz Fassihi (@farnazfassihi) January 7, 2020
Farnaz also passed on a statement from the Iranian government calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region to “prevent more damage.”
The Iranian counter-attack increases the risk of a full-scale war between the United States and Iran. The two nations have a decades-long history of animosity, dating to a 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran, countered by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. America now stands at the precipice of a third major bloody conflict in the Middle East since the turn of the century.
Part of the tragedy of the escalating conflict is how utterly avoidable this was. President Trump’s reckless decision to assassinate a senior member of the Iranian government was predictably interpreted by Iran as an act of war and that country has responded with aggression of its own.
The governments of both nations now have an opportunity to de-escalate the situation and ward off further violence and death, but it remains to be seen if either will be wise enough to do so.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a tweet, hinted that Iran may be willing to stand down after its missile strike. “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” he wrote. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Will American officials also consider the matter concluded? Trump met with Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House Tuesday evening and later tweeted, in part, “All is well!” as he announced he would further address the attack in a statement on Wednesday morning.
All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020
America’s top ranking Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, addressed the Iranian attack in a tweet, calling on cooler heads to prevail. America “must ensure the safety of our servicemembers, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence,” she wrote. “America & world cannot afford war.”
As an uneasy calm held overnight, much seemed to depend on Trump’s ability to accept a counterpunch, both literally and figuratively. In 21st-century form, the missile attack was accompanied by online trolling. Iranian diplomat Saeed Jalili taunted Trump — who had celebrated the death of Soleimani by pinning an image of the American flag to the top of his Twitter feed — with an image of the Iranian flag.
— Saeed Jalili (@DrSaeedJalili) January 7, 2020
UPDATE: In a national address on Wednesday morning from the White House, Trump appeared disinclined to escalate the present conflict. He celebrated the lack of casualties and said, “Iran appears to be standing down… which is a good thing for the world.”
Watch the president’s remarks (beginning at about minute 41:40) in the video below: