Iran’s retaliation was just as muted as its threats. Tehran could have targeted large, heavily populated U.S. bases across the Persian Gulf, all of which are within range of Iranian missiles. Instead, it fired a handful of missiles at bases in Iraq, in an attack that deliberately did not target American troops. The Iranians warned Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in advance of the attack — a message they knew he would pass on to the United States. To control the outcome, they carried out the strike themselves, rather than relying on Shiite militia proxies in Iraq, who might accidentally kill an American. According to Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin, the Pentagon “believes there was a political decision taken in Tehran NOT to kill Americans … Even within that target, the Iranians chose to hit dirt rather than runways … so as not to escalate militarily.”
The objective appeared to be political, not military. They wanted their people to see Iranian missiles firing at the Americans, without actually killing one — provoking an even more devastating U.S. response. And once it was over, Zarif announced on Twitter that Iran’s response was complete and meekly added that “we do not seek escalation or war.”
In other words, the Iranians blinked. All the overwrought warnings of a U.S.-Iran conflagration were wrong. Trump understood what his critics did not — that the Iranian regime’s No. 1 priority is the preservation of the regime. Before the Soleimani strike, Iran doubted Trump’s resolve. After the Soleimani strike, they knew Trump was serious when the president warned that next time “Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” Trump has treated Iran for what it is — a bully. When confronted, bullies back down.
Far from provoking war, Trump’s action against Soleimani might have prevented one. Iran had been escalating for months — striking allied oil tankers, U.S. drones and Saudi oil facilities — with no significant U.S. response. This failure to respond emboldened Tehran. Had Trump allowed Iran to get away crossing his red line and killing an American, they would have been further emboldened. Instead, by taking out Soleimani, Trump put the regime on its heels. As the president put it in his address to the nation Wednesday: “For far too long … nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over.”
In his excellent speech, Trump rightly castigated the Obama administration for providing the Iranian regime with billions in sanctions relief as part of its nuclear deal, noting that “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” He might well have added that Soleimani’s reign of terror was directly subsidized by those funds. When Trump came into office, Iran was on the march across the Middle East — in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — thanks in part to the money President Barack Obama released. We were promised that the nuclear deal would alter Iran’s malign behavior. Instead, it was an accelerant. With his maximum-pressure campaign, Trump has removed the accelerant. And with his strike against Soleimani, he has eliminated the mastermind of Iran’s proxy wars across the Middle East and restored deterrence. Now he must maintain it.