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The USA and Iran: A step back from brinkmanship, future remains tense

USA Iran tension, Ain al-Asad airbase, Fateh-313 missiles, Qasem Soleimani assassination, US attacks, Iranian General

By Brig NK Bhatia

As anticipated, the first signs of escalation from Iran came after it launched a series of Fateh-313 missiles on Wednesday 08 January, on Ain al-Asad airbase, which is located 233km (144 miles) west of Baghdad and Erbil. The missiles did not cause any damage. Earlier, Iran had launched two missile attacks immediately after the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in solidarity with the slain military leader and as a sign of retaliation against US attacks.

Immediate reactions by global leaders to the US actions against Iranian General had been calls for restraint by both sides. But knowing Iranian belligerence it was widely known that Iran was unlikely to follow the advice since it would show it in poor light in the eyes of the local population, scores of Shia leaders worldwide and proxies that it has nurtured across the globe.

As a follow-up, Iran did carry out the missile attacks and claimed that it had caused a huge number of casualties of US personnel in the airbase but that turned out to be mere rhetoric to satisfy the appetite of domestic constituency who had been promised a befitting response against the US attack killing General Qasem Soliemani.

Some US analysts also claimed that the Iranian response was deliberately kept muted so as not to cause any casualties, clearly with an intent not to escalate tensions with the USA as US reaction to any attack on its facilities would have been harsh and fierce in relation to any damage caused by the Iranians, keeping in mind US strength and projection as the world leader.

After the missile attacks Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif had indicated that its immediate response to the killing of General Qasem Suleimani was over for the time being by stating "we do not seek escalation of the war, but would defend ourselves against any aggression". That probably was the first sign that Iran would not be willing to escalate conflict.

With Iran probably realising that any further attacks on the US and its allies; most importantly Saudi Arabia and Israel would lead to human casualties resulting in returning body bags will only take escalate things to point of "No Return", something that would be unacceptable to the US, leading to retaliation against Iran causing huge casualties and further cripple its dwindling infrastructure and resources.

US President Trump immediately after the Iranian missile attacks had retreated for the night after stating "all is well", fully assured that there were no US casualties. He returned the following morning to announce that "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned". The same was termed as a "big retreat from threats" as per Iranian news agency.

President Trump's statement managed to cool things for the time being. But has the situation been saved from 'brinkmanship' is difficult to state.

In the meantime, both the USA and Iran have clarified their strategic objectives and that indicates as to what lies ahead.

While Iranian stated objective has been to get the USA to leave the region and withdraw all its assets from middle-east, the USA's stated the objective is to prevent nuclear proliferation by Iran. As things stand today neither objective is achievable as there is too much at stake for both sides to reconcile.

The USA abandoning its allies or economic interests is simply impossible. Similarly, Iran giving up on its proxies and animosity against the regimes opposed to its theocratic ideology would challenge its own survival.

The two sides have indicated to not immediately escalate things but that in no way indicates that the region will return to peaceful times in the near future.

Meanwhile, the situation continues to be uncertain and a cause of anxiety especially for India as it looks to balance out its relationship with warring factions in the middle-east.

(The author is Indian Army Veteran. He comments frequently on the situation in India’s Western neighbourhood. Views expressed are personal.)