Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards launched its first retaliatory strike for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in the dead of night with a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting US forces in neighbouring Iraq.
As information trickled in during the early hours, with the guards claiming to have fired “tens of missiles” and issuing fresh threats against the US and its regional allies, fears that the attack would trigger a wider conflict were reflected in the markets, where oil prices spiked.
But as the dust settled, signs emerged from Tehran that the move was a calculated response to President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, one meant to satisfy Iranian calls for revenge without provoking full-blown war.
First, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, tweeted that Tehran had taken “proportionate measures” in self-defence, adding that the Islamic republic did not “seek escalation or war”.
When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, spoke later to supporters, he used relatively restrained language. He described the missile attack on two bases in Iraq hosting US troops as a “slap” in the face for the Trump administration and demanded US forces leave the Middle East. But he refrained from making further military threats.
Instead, Mr Khamenei praised Soleimani for being “brave and thoughtful” and “cautious” in military and political fields. To some, this invocation of the slain commander’s name was used to justify Iran not retaliating further against US bases.
Crucially, there were no casualties, American or Iraqi, in the operation code-named “Martyr Soleimani”. This, combined with the messaging out of Tehran, meant that when Mr Trump addressed his country hours later he was able to say that Iran “appeared to be standing down”. Rather than announce any additional military action, he said he was imposing fresh sanctions on Iran.
“American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent,” Mr Trump said.
At least for now, the latest escalation in the shadow war between Washington and Tehran had eased, with both sides stepping back from the brink.
Tehran and Washington have been locked in a stand-off since Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers, which imposed swingeing sanctions that have devastated the Islamic republic’s economy.
But the killing of Soleimani, one of Iran’s highest-profile figures, struck at the heart of the Islamic regime and took their confrontation to a new and unexpected level.
Washington had been expecting reprisals ever since the commander was killed in a US air strike as he drove away in a convoy from Baghdad airport five days ago. A US official told the Financial Times that the military was able to track the incoming missiles and warn personnel in Iraq. The US and Iran exchanged hurried messages overnight through a Swiss back channel, both signalling an intent to de-escalate, a person familiar with the matter said.
Although the official damage report was not yet available, the official said the only buildings hit at the sprawling al-Asad air base in western Iraq did not contain people. Missiles that targeted a facility in the Kurdistan region landed in an open area.
Still, Emile Hokayem, a Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, cautioned that the decision by both Tehran and Washington not to escalate the situation did not mean an end to hostilities.
“The response was direct, military and it came from Iran, so it checks the immediate requirements of Khamenei and the Iranian regime,” said Mr Hokayem. “But this is probably just the opening salvo . . . at an acceptable cost risk. The real Iranian response will take time to unfold and will probably rely more on proxies than direct military force.”
The network of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen remain intact, and analysts believe hardliners will be empowered by the assassination of Soleimani.
Iraq in particular remains a potential flashpoint.
Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Shia militia, said on Wednesday that the Iran-backed militia would seek its own revenge for last week’s US air strikes. “Now is the time for the first Iraqi response,” he said.
The latest crisis was triggered after Washington blamed Iran-backed militias in Iraq for firing a barrage of rockets at another base in Iraq hosting US troops, which killed an American civilian contractor. The US responded by launching air strikes on five sites associated with Kata’ib Hizbollah, one of the more militant Iraqi factions, killing at least 25 fighters.
Iraqi militiamen and their supporters then attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, invoking memories of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the 2012 attack on the mission in Benghazi. Mr Trump blamed Iran and subsequently ordered the strike on Soleimani.
Iran’s leaders have also been stepping up their vows to drive US’s more than 50,000 forces in the Middle East out of the region.
“Now that the vicious leaders of the US have realised what capabilities the Islamic republic has over the world’s geography, they should pull out their terrorist army from the region as soon as possible,” said Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s chief of staff for the armed forces.