Does Iran appear to be standing down? Perhaps.
It feels more like neither the United States nor Iran has the stomach for a prolonged, open conflict with each other. Iran knows that it can’t stand toe-to-toe with the United States, especially with its weak economy, internal dissent and environmental issues.
The United States? We just don’t have the energy for another prolonged rebuilding effort in the Middle East. A rebuilding effort would ultimately be the prolonged endstate of this conflict. Nobody wants that outcome.
Iran’s actions are surprising to me because as a U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment Commander in Iraq, we never fought with Iran; however, we fought numerous battles with (not-so-allegedly) Iranian-backed militia forces. For numerous political reasons, the United States has frustratingly tolerated this behavior.
That is until President Trump made the bold move to eliminate Gen. Qassem Soleimani. It was an unprecedented presidential action. A move that shocked us all. After the feeling of surprise subsided, I asked myself, “what’s next?”
Iran has always talked loudly, publicly and with fire, and they did not disappoint in response to the killing of Soleimani. We immediately heard the same rhetoric about the “Great Satan” and “Death to America.” Instead of taking the expected non-confrontational political response that we are used to, Mr. Trump responded by threatening that he would destroy 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites. That’s the same number of Americans held hostage for 444 days from Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 20, 1981, after a group of Iranian college students who supported the Iranian Revolution took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Wow. Game on.
In order to save face, Iran needed to acknowledge and respond to the surprisingly overt killing of its top commander. Iran chose to attack our airbases at Ain al-Assad and in Irbil. With all of the information at their disposal, they chose to attack our bases in the middle of the night with a small number of missiles, when our military personnel would be at low-risk while only a small number would be on guard duty or out on the base. In addition, we received intelligence very early on that a potential attack would occur, giving us enough time to evacuate and prepare.
No Americans were killed and there was minimal damage to the bases.
Iran’s actions indicate that they were certain that no Americans would be hurt in this attack. It was a gesture to Mr. Trump — they do not want war, they do not want to escalate this potential conflict, but they can’t swallow their pride and do nothing.
Unfortunately, politics drive action. As it stands, Mr. Trump wants re-election and not another Middle Eastern conflict. His address to the nation shows that he wants to de-escalate the situation and return to the same boring “punishing economic sanctions” rhetoric that we have all heard for years. It’s a good move and probably the best move although it doesn’t quite sit right with the barrel-chested freedom-fightin’ American spirit.
Both sides have deliberately chosen to avoid conflict, for now.
After the elections are over, who knows?
• Jason B.A. Van Camp is a decorated former Green Beret who served three combat tours of duty in Iraq, and is the author of the book “Deliberate Discomfort” is scheduled for release Feb. 18.
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