For months, the Islamic Republic of Iran was undeterred.
The world’s chief sponsor of terrorism had seized and sabotaged ships in the critical Strait of Hormuz, downed an American surveillance drone, and attacked the world’s largest petroleum processing facility in Saudi Arabia. At no point did it face proportionate consequences for its actions.
For the final two months of 2019, Iran-aligned militias in Iraq rained rockets down on U.S. positions, targeting both military and diplomatic stations including Baghdad’s green zone. When one such attack killed an American contractor and wounded three U.S. service personnel, the U.S. finally responded, albeit proportionately, with a strike targeting the responsible militia’s positions in Iraq and Syria. But Iran remained undeterred.
In retaliation, the Islamic Republic orchestrated the siege of the American Embassy in Baghdad, breaching the outer wall, setting fire to the reception area, forcing U.S. diplomats into safe rooms, and directly threatening the U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq.
It had become unavoidably clear at that point that Iran’s reckless and escalating provocations would not be discouraged by muted or proportionate responses from the West. Indeed, Iran’s failure to calibrate its attacks so as not to jeopardize vital American interests suggested that it would not be long before the theocratic state miscalculated, necessitating an American military response against a broad array of Iranian military targets—an outcome that would likely inaugurate a conventional conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
The U.S. had to reestablish deterrence. Doing so would require communicating to Iran in the clearest of possible terms that the risks associated with its actions vastly outweighed the benefits. Taking the blood-soaked Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani off the battlefield represented a disproportionate response to Iranian aggression, but it was nonetheless calculated. Soleimani’s neutralization degraded Iran’s capacity to execute the kind of attacks on America and its allies that risked a broader conflict, and it imposed costs on the Mullahs they had previously not known.
But the Iranians would respond. They had no choice. Iran had no diplomatic offramp to pursue, no face-saving way to climb down from the crisis it had inaugurated. The response would be military in nature, but it could have taken many forms—and if those forms included more American deaths, Washington would be compelled to retaliate, and the cycle of violence could spiral into an all-out war.
On Tuesday night, that response came in the form of a barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles launched from Iran at U.S. targets inside Iraq. But the volley produced no casualties—a conspicuous outcome given Iran’s capabilities. Their targets did not include some of the positions where the U.S. forces were concentrated in the largest numbers and excluded some likelier targets closer to the Iranian border. In the wake of the strike, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif talked about Iran’s retaliatory response in the past tense, telegraphing a desire to deescalate. Donald Trump’s refusal to respond to the Iranian volley indicates that Washington got the message.
It would be premature to suggest that the crisis is over, but it is possible that a worst-case scenario has been averted. For American policymakers, the most pressing threat posed by Iran is its capacity to execute deniable attacks against soft targets and civilians in theaters far removed from the Middle East. That threat will persist, but the prospect of direct and conventional conflict between the United States and Iran has dissipated for now. If Iran returns to a strategy of unconventional and asymmetric attacks against the U.S. and its allies, it would be a reversion to the status quo ante that has prevailed for the better part of the last 40 years. That’s hardly ideal, but it would represent a dramatic retreat from Iran’s strategy of taking direct (or implausibly deniable) action against U.S. and allied assets, personnel, and interests.
On Wednesday, commentators and media figures praised Iran’s restraint and suggested Tehran had provided the president with a way to deescalate the conflict if he so chose, but this is a myopic and unfair assessment of how the Trump White House managed this crisis. This administration didn’t accidentally stumble its way into a textbook strategy for defusing a cascading spiral of violence against a revisionist adversary. It’s too soon to say if Iran is once again deterred, but there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. If there is any credit to be doled out at this early stage, it’s the Trump administration, not the Mullahs, who deserve it.