Trump Says 'Iran Appears to Be Standing Down.' But History Suggests That Might Not Be So Simple

Joseph Hincks

Iran launched a barrage of missiles at two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq early Wednesday morning local time, in an operation a top diplomat in Tehran said “concluded” Tehran’s retaliation after the U.S. killed the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3. Soleimani was the Islamic Republic’s most important figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.

U.S. President Trump told reporters Wednesday that there were no casualties. While that presents the Trump Administration an off-ramp from the warpath, a closer look at Iran’s history of responding to its enemies’ aggression suggests it’s too early to say whether this is, in fact, the end of its retaliatory moves.

Codenamed “Operation Martyr Qasem Soleimani”, Iran’s fusillade of more than a dozen rockets struck Al Asad Air Base in Iraq’s Anbar province. Another barrage beginning at about 1:30 am local time hit an airbase in northern Iraq’s Erbil. U.S. and European government sources familiar with intelligence assessments told Reuters on Wednesday they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter,” the Republic’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter soon after the strike. He added that Iran did not seek “escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

“Iran appears to be standing down,” Trump said during a short address at the White House on Wednesday morning. He also boasted of the U.S. military strength and said he would immediately impose further sanctions on Iran.

But in a Twitter post issued only hours after Zarif’s, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khameini seemed to contradict his foreign minister, casting doubt on whether Iran’s retaliation has indeed concluded. “[The Americans] were slapped last night, but such military actions are not enough,” he said.

In past instances where Iran has faced acts of military aggression, Tehran has sometimes declined to respond; at other times, it has retaliated with incredible violence, weeks later and thousands of miles from its borders. Here’s how the latest strikes on U.S. air bases in Iraq fit into Iran’s strategic playbook and what we could expect next.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 2020. | Win McNamee—Getty Images

The Hostage Crisis and the Tanker War

In 1953, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’etat to depose Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. The U.S.’s first military intervention against the Islamic Republic started just months after the overthrow of the American-backed Shah in 1979, when Islamist revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy, taking 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage. In April 1980, the Carter Administration launched a failed military operation called Eagle Claw in a thwarted bid to retrieve the hostages.

In 1988, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. launched its second military intervention in the Islamic Republic: Operation Praying Mantis. In the one-day operation, retaliation after an Iranian mine damaged an American ship, the U.S. Navy destroyed two Iranian surveillance platforms, sank two of their ships, and severely damaged another. Months later, the U.S.S. Vincennes missile cruiser shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 passengers on board in an incident the U.S. characterized as an accident.

That neither operation Eagle Claw nor Praying Mantis provoked a military response from Iran was a function of the Republic’s lack of resources at the time, says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank that seeks to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. In 1980, the nascent regime was too weak to confront America, and at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, its forces were too depleted to open a new front. Although the Trump Administration’s “Maximum Pressure” campaign of economic sanctions has placed Tehran under increasing strain, “Iran in the 1980s is nothing like Iran in 2020,” Vaez says. “It is much more confident and much stronger in terms of both conventional military capabilities and the unconventional asymmetric means it has for defending itself.”

Assassinations and asymmetric warfare

Washington has not launched an overt military operation in Iran since the 1980s but U.S. military force directed at both Iran’s allies and adversaries have at times prompted Tehran to reassess its activities in the region. In 2003, within hours of a U.S. cruise missile strike on a Sunni terrorist group Tehran had aided in Iraq, Iran shuttered the border over which it had supplied the group with arms. It also scrapped efforts to develop a nuclear warhead soon after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussain, according to U.S. intelligence agency assessments.

But looking at Iran’s relations with another adversary, Israel, can provide an insight into Tehran’s playbook. Israel, which traditionally maintains a policy of silence over its overseas military operations, is widely believed to have conducted a series of assassinations inside the Islamic Republic. It has fought a war against Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and clashed with various Iran-allied groups in Syria. In 1992, the Israel Defense Force’s killing of Hezbollah’s secretary-general Abbas al Moussawi outside his home in Beirut was followed a month later by a suicide attack that killed 29 civilians at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Hezbollah called the bombing revenge for its leader’s death. An attack at a nearby Jewish community center two years later killed a further 85 people.

Like Hezbollah, Iran has appeared to attack soft targets thousands of miles from its borders. In 2012 Khameini vowed to “punish the perpetrators” of a hit against an Iranian nuclear chemist, the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist Israel was believed to have assassinated over a two-year span. Amid fears of retaliation in Israel or on U.S. soil, attacks instead took place as far afield as Georgia, India, and Thailand—where a series of bomb blasts wounded nine Israeli diplomats—and in Bulgaria, where another explosion killed five Israeli tourists, the Wall Street Journal reports. Iran has denied that it perpetrated any of the bombings.

Iran’s global network of proxies and partners—many cultivated by Soleimani—gives it a variety of options to retaliate around the world. Nevertheless, experts note that the kind of terrorist attacks seen in the 1990s and 2000s have become less frequent since the establishment of effective deterrents between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006.

Still, Iran’s policy of using proxies to attack its adversaries will likely endure beyond Soleimani’s killing, Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation told TIME on Jan 4: “Let’s not kid ourselves. [Soleimani’s death] is not going to be a devastating strategic blow. Iran’s policy of cultivating non-state actors actually predates Soleimani. That should tell you that there is going to be a lot more continuity than we assume going forward.”

Maximum Pressure and Maximum Patience

At least since President Trump took office in 2017, Iran’s leadership has believed its regional adversaries are seeking to push Tehran into direct confrontation with the U.S. as a means of curbing its influence in the region, says ICG’s Vaez. “The Iranian leadership has tried not to play into the hands of its enemies. During the first year of Maximum Pressure, it basically pursued a policy of maximum patience,” he tells TIME. Iran’s carefully calibrated response to Soleimani’s killing represents another attempt not to take the bait, demonstrating Iranian resolve while providing the Trump Administration a means of saving face.

Still, that does not mean the Tuesday strikes are where Iran’s retaliation ends. “The Iranians might choose the time for doing this in a way that it would minimize the risks for backlash,” says Vaez. “If the U.S. is bogged down in another confrontation, in another crisis with North Korea, for example, that might be the time Iran would choose to take an eye for an eye.”