Iran's strategy: Short term reaction - long term revenge

The Iranian government and leadership is not a monolithic bloc, despite how it is written and spoken about in the West. There are a many layers and indeed many narratives and opinions within it. In this sense it is very different to Arab regimes where often it is the will and decisions of one man or one family that dictates the course of events.

How Tehran has calibrated its response to the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filtered, deliberated and decided upon through a myriad of concerns, impulses and fears - both immediate and long term.

Troops outside an airbase in Iraq. (File photo) Credit: AP

If there is one thing that modern history has demonstrated about the Iranian regime's domestic and regional ambitions and priorities is that it’s most profound strategic choices are almost always made and calculated in the longer term, and that short term political and military actions are almost always aimed at boosting and massaging immediate domestic political opinion.

It’s hard not to see the events of the last 24 hours though that prism. The missile attack on the two US bases in Iraq - and the comments by senior Iranian officials that accompanied - was in part about maintaining the Iranian leadership’s political credibility and show of strength both domestically and regionally.

Not reacting by hitting American targets would have been a far more dangerous show of weakness and fear. But the manner of the strike, by targeting the airbases but not American personnel was also about maintaining Iranian “threat credibility” whilst not provoking a devastating American response and a wider direct war with the USA.

Within hours of the strike, Iran’s Foreign Minister was describing the missile attacks on the US bases in Iraq as “proportionate measures in self-defence” under the UN Charter, adding: “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression."

Both sides want to avoid a direct and large scale military conflict, hence President Trump’s reaction after the Iranian strikes - also via Twitter that - “All is well”.

But we come back to the point that the Iranian government’s most important strategic aims and ambitions are constructed and executed over months and years.

Iran is a master of unconventional and disruptive warfare. One need only look at Iran’s role in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq over the last 6-9 years under General Soleimani’s command to realise that. Whereas the USA has all the resources and firepower to overwhelm any one regional force in a conventional military confrontation.

Iran holds pretty much all the cards on the ground in Iraq, in terms of its influence on the politics and unconventional military forces, through Shia militia groups. It can and, as seems pretty clear, will make a continued long term US and NATO presence in Iraq almost unsustainable. And now, through the killing of Soleimani, it has a reason.

If you want to know how Iran will take it’s so-called “revenge” on the US - don’t pay attention to the momentary strikes on US airbases. Pay more attention to the politics inside Iraq - and the clearly panicked reactions to events in pro-Western Gulf monarchies. And perhaps pay attention to the words of Iran’s Prime Minister, Mr Rouhani, who a short while after his Foreign Minister tried to calm the waters.

“Our final answer to (General Soleimani’s) assassination”, Mr Rouhani said, “will be to kick all US forces out of the region”.

"It may take months or years, but that is now what has been set in motion by Tehran - not just in Iraq, but probably also in Afghanistan.”

Judging by their success in helping to push the US out of Syria - it’s very far from unthinkable.