The media campaign between America and Iran has escalated in the lead up to the first anniversary of the assassination of Iran’s Quds Force commander, General Qasem Soleimani, and the Chief of Staff of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The two sides intensified their campaigns on social media, especially Twitter, with messages warning and threatening each other, describing what their response would be if one attacked the other.
The American side flexed its military muscles recently by flying their giant B-52 bombers from bases in the US to the Persian Gulf’s skies, where they remained for a while and then returned to their bases. US CENTCOM commander Gen Frank McKenzie said in a tweet that “The U.S. continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities … to deter any potential adversary and make clear we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests.”
Iran also put its military on full alert and began a media campaign, threatening Americans with “severe revenge.” Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Hussein Salami said in a tweet published by the Iranian Tasnim news agency, “This revenge has two aspects; one aspect is revenge that must be taken from the commanders and murderers. Another is strategic revenge, namely the expulsion of the U.S. from the region.” Iranian-backed media also launched a hashtag in Arabic that translates to ‘take out the occupiers.’
The current US administration is wholly preoccupied with internal problems. President Donald Trump is primarily focused on the issues of his administration’s final days and is trying hard to push Congress to not endorse the election results, which is seemingly unlikely. There is no doubt that the American president is not interested in foreign policy affairs at this time. Those who are leading this policy are the Secretary of State and some advisers.
Military observers rule out any American pre-emptive strike on Iran. General Mark Kimmitt, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East affairs, was asked: Is there any military benefit in striking Iran in the coming days? He responded: “No, but certainly America will not carry out a pre-emptive strike unless there is a strike from Iran first, and in this case any American president will be forced to respond.”
The Department of Defence decided on December 31 to withdraw USS Nimitz, the only Navy aircraft carrier operating in the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf. Many believe that is a clear indication that the US doesn’t need this significant firepower in the region and could be read as a sign that there is no intention to strike Iran.
A widely held belief is that the Iranians are pragmatic in their calculations and do not take action based on emotions. They are also known for their patience and tolerance. It is unreasonable for the Iranian leadership to choose military confrontation for several reasons.
First, the current US administration mandate ends in eighteen days. The new administration coming in has some prominent officials familiar with Iranian issues, such as the secretary of state and national security advisor. They were part of the team that led P5 plus one negotiations with Iran and reached the nuclear agreement. Secondly, all of Iran’s signals to their proxies in the region are to de-escalate and keep calm. Third, some Iranian statements speak of long-term retaliation, which means maintaining this aggressive media momentum and internal mobilization to support the regime and gain public sympathy. This sympathy may change if Iran wages a devastating war.
As a result, it is expected that Iran will allow space for diplomacy with the new administration. However, if they conclude that the same policy of maximum pressure and economic blockade will continue, then and only then will they move towards other options.
The Iranian administration was clear in the early days of the sanctions, back in 2018, that they would not yield to this policy for long and become like Iraq in the nineties, which suffocated under the weight of sanctions. The Iranians opted to endure current sanctions for a limited period, waiting for the departure of Trump. They cannot now throw out more than two tough years of waiting through sanctions just 17 days before the new administration takes office. If the Iranians wanted war, they would not have waited for so long and could have opted for it much earlier.
As for taking revenge for Soleimani’s assassination, they were content with a missile strike on Iraq’s Ain al-Assad base. This is evidence that they do not want perpetual war with a superpower like America, which has a military arsenal unmatched by any other country in the world.
However, war cannot be ruled out completely. There are other possibilities for military escalation. For example, a third party, such as Israel, could strike Iran or strategic Iranian installations in the region, or parties affiliated with Iran could attack American interests in the region.
Diplomacy and dialogue are the most effective solutions for all parties and the region. One party that has an interest in a peace deal or a dialogue-led solution is Iraq. De-escalation between the US and Iran will be of great benefit to Iraq, a country that is ravaged by decades of war and does not need to be torn between powerful partners who both stand to be long term friends of Iraq if they choose to co-exist together in the Iraqi arena.