Tehran's strike was targeted at Islamic State but it also puts US bases in the region on notice and exposes the flimsiness of the Trump Administration's Middle East policy
At its most obvious level, Iran’s missile attack on the Islamic State command centre in the Syrian city of Dier Ezzor on Sunday may be regarded as the demonstration of an extraordinarily innovative military capability.
Iran says it fired six ground-to-ground missiles from Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) bases in Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces, both in Western Iran, and that they “hit the targets in Deir Ezzur with high precision after flying through the Iraqi airspace.”
From all accounts, the missiles hit their target with devastating precision. Simply put, Iran has notified the US that its 45,000 troops deployed in bases in Iraq (5,165), Kuwait (15,000), Bahrain (7,000), Qatar (10,000), the UAE (5,000) and Oman (200) are highly vulnerable.
The Chief of Staff of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Baqueri, said on Monday: “Iran is among the world’s big powers in the missile field. They (read the US and its allies) don’t have the capability to engage in conflict with us at present, and of course, we don’t intend to involve in clashes with them, but we are in permanent rivalry with them in different fields, including the missile sector.”
Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had specifically forewarned Washington last Wednesday that “if the US decides to start any war against Iran, all its military bases in the region will experience insecurity.”
Clearly, the missile strike constitutes a snub to the US Senators who passed a bill on Friday imposing more sanctions against Iran over its missile program. It is also a defiant response to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ill-conceived remark on Wednesday that the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran includes “regime change”.
However, there are five other takeaways, all of which have downstream implications.
For a start, the Iranian leadership seems to have concluded that the strategic restraint exercised over the past 3-4 years since negotiations on the nuclear issue began, is being misunderstood by the Trump team. On Sunday, Khamenei launched a vitriolic attack on US policies.
As Tehran sees it, the Trump team, which lacks experience in international diplomacy, might harbour notions that Iran’s moderation in recent years is a sign of weakness or lack of political resolve on the part of the moderate-reformist leadership of President Hassan Rouhani.
Most certainly, Tehran expects that its iron-fist display on Sunday will serve as a wake-up call to the Trump administration. This finds echo in the words of the influential Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council Mohsen Rezayee, who is also a former IRGC commander: “After four years in office, Tillerson will come to understand Iran.”
Setting a precedent
Two, Iran has created a hugely consequential precedent. Make no mistake, Tehran will hit ISIS again, reckoning it to be “like a wild dog that we can annihilate easily along with its masters.” Of course, this will impact the overall military balance in both Syria and Iraq.
Again, if ISIS can be targeted, why not other extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, some of which might be enjoying covert support from the US or its regional allies?
Three, the fact that Tehran coordinated Sunday’s missile strikes in advance with Russia, Iraq and Syria is an important signal in geopolitical terms and in regional politics. Centered around Baghdad, the quadrilateral mechanism involving these four countries has openly acknowledged that such coordination took place. It didn’t have to do that, but it did so with deliberation.
Four, against the backdrop of a series of unfriendly and provocative moves by the US against Iran in recent weeks at different levels, it is a fair assumption that Iran’s willingness to cooperate with the Trump administration on the path to a settlement in Syria is now virtually nil. Equally, it remains to be seen what follows next in Iraq after the liberation of Mosul.
Specifically, an all-out rivalry between the US and Iran can now be expected on the ground for control of the Syrian-Iraqi border and southern Syria. It will be a miracle now if the US beats Iran in the race to take control of the strategic city of Dier Ezzor, which has become an emblematic military front for the latter. Iranian statements claim that the terrorist attacks in Tehran on June 7 were masterminded and executed from the ISIS command center in Dier Ezzor.
US policy adrfit
Finally, Washington now has no option left but to accept Russian help to stabilize the “de-confliction” zones in southern Syria bordering Jordan and the Golan Heights. Yet, incredibly enough, the Pentagon chose just this moment to provoke Moscow by shooting down a Syrian jet on Sunday – albeit a few hours ahead of the Iranian missile strike.
Moscow has put the Pentagon on notice that henceforth all American aircraft and flying objects in the Syrian air space will be treated as “targets”. Coming on top of the bizarre policy somersaults over Qatar in the past week, not to mention the fake arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration’s Middle East policy looks adrift, lacking intellectual content and diplomatic acumen.
The veteran ex-CIA officer and Brookings scholar on the Middle East Bruce Riedel pondered aloud last week how an administration so abysmally lacking in talent and diplomatic experience could cope with a first-rate crisis situation such as a war in Gaza or Lebanon.
Of course, in immediate terms, it remains to be seen how the Trump administration handles the Iran sanctions bill given the latest developments. The Iranian Majlis plans to adopt counter-measures vis-à-vis the proposed US legislation, which it regards as a blatant violation of the matrix of understanding reached under the nuclear deal of July 2015.