During the past few weeks, conflict between the US and Iran grew hotter, became “kinetic” – the current term of art – and then abated, or so it seems.
A few days after Christmas, an Iranian-supported Shia militia force in Iraq shelled a military installation, killing an American contractor and wounding three other personnel. The US then responded with air strikes directed at the militia, killing 25.
That same militia group and others then participated in very aggressive demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad. In tandem to this, US intelligence sources pointed to the expected arrival in Baghdad of General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s terrorist Quds Force organization.
On January 3rd, the US launched a drone attack and killed General Soleimani, just after he arrived at the Baghdad airport, after having flown “commercial”, just as he was wont to do. In response, the Iranians launched missile strikes at the Iraqi Al-Assad airbase and the base at Erbil. No US personnel were harmed in these attacks.
Soon afterward Iran mistakenly downed a passenger jet airliner bound from Tehran to Kiev. After some dissembling, the Iranians confessed to shooting down the airliner and apologized for the mistake – the kind of statement virtually unprecedented for the regime to make. Both Iran and the US have now stood down, at least for the moment. Of interest, Iran’s initial prevarication on the airliner has excited an outbreak of domestic civil unrest, which bears watching.
On its own it was a force “escalation” between the United States and Iran that became “kinetic”. The overall situation itself however is multifaceted, occupying the geopolitical realm, the politics in Iraq and among regional neighbors, the political temperature in Iran, and the highly partisan domestic politics of the United States.
For the Trump administration, there is an argument to be made that the momentary seizure/volatility in the Gulf region was a small price to pay toward the US action of bolstering deterrence and taking out a grand-master terrorist operator, General Soleimani. Political opposition in the US argue that the Soleimani strike narrows even further the possibility for any kind of constructive rapprochement with Iran, especially in the context of the US withdrawal in 2018 from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) which putatively limited Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.
Moreover, supporters of the JCPOA see that agreement as a valuable “bird in hand” and as an effective means of controlling nuclear ambitions until the hoped-for Iranian change of heart, or until other arrangements can be made. Critics of the treaty point to its deficiencies: the sunset clauses on nuclear enrichment; the absence of any controls on ballistic missiles; the limitations on the inspection protocols, especially regarding military sites; and the omission of any restrictions on Iran’s regional behavior.
One can make the argument that the distinction between what the Trump administration sees and believes and what the Democratic Party in the United States see and believe is a crucial one for Iran’s leadership to make. One can then make the argument that as the US election approaches, Iran will be incented to engage in actions, some small and perhaps some larger, that will help skew the election toward its preferred outcome.