The Rockets of January: Have We Really Escaped ‘A Trap From Which There Was no Exit’?

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo by the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society. The assassination set in motion a chain of events through July and into August that resulted in World War I. Barbara Tuchman concluded in her seminal history of the crisis, “The Guns of August,” that “nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days…a trap from which there was…no exit.” The sheer momentum of diplomatic ultimatums, military mobilizations, escalations, and declarations of war had taken over for the calculated designs of empires.

Qassem Soleimani — the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force who was killed by the United States in an airstrike in Baghdad — had been a bad actor in the region for decades. He was responsible for destabilizing actions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and beyond, led a designated foreign terrorist organization, and had a hand in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. military personnel during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soleimani’s demise is not, in itself, a bad thing.

However, Soleimani’s death occurred in the context of increased U.S.-Iranian tensions, and was preceded by years of tit-for-tat diplomatic and military escalations. In 2018, the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the Iran nuclear agreement, and renewed sanctions against Iran. In April of 2019, the U.S. designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization; Iran responded by designating United States Central Command and U.S. forces in the Middle East as terrorist organizations. From June-July 2019, a series of attacks attributed to Iran targeted oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and both the U.S. and Iran shot down drones belonging to the other. On September 14, 2019, Saudi oil processing facilities were attacked by drones, disrupting 5 percent of global oil production, in an attack claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.

Recent provocations included escalating attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias. Grown out of militias that fought against coalition forces during the Iraq War, they were reconstituted and rebranded with Iranian help to fight against ISIS. Modeled to some degree on Lebanese Hezbollah, they constitute a state within a state, and are part of the reason for months of protests in Baghdad against government corruption and Iranian influence in the country. These attacks culminated in a rocket attack near Kirkuk on December 27, in which a U.S. contractor was killed and several U.S. and Iraqi military personnel were wounded. The U.S. retaliated on December 29, striking five Kataeb Hezbollah bases in Iraq, killing at least 25. The militia responded by violently protesting at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, causing extensive damage, including graffiti reading “Soleimani is my commander.” The U.S. answered by sending Marines to the embassy, deploying portions of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Immediate Response Force to the region, and targeting Soleimani.

Since the killing of Soleimani, Iranian state television called the act the “the biggest miscalculation by the U.S.” in the post-World War II period, a telling statement when one considers that same period includes the U.S.-backed coup of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, U.S. support for the Shah of Iran through 1979, and the accidental downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by USS Vincennes in 1985, all cardinal sins in the eyes of the Iranian regime. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of “harsh retaliation,” and the U.S. Embassy urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately. The Iraqi parliament voted along sectarian lines on a non-binding resolution to expel U.S. forces, and President Trump responded with a threat of sanctions. On January 5, Iran announced that it would no longer abide by the restrictions of the nuclear agreement, opening the door to the development of a nuclear weapon as a hedge against the threat of regime change. On Wednesday, Iran launched multiple ballistic missiles at bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq. The visually spectacular attacks resulted in no casualties, and it is possible that the strikes were designed with that outcome in mind. Following the attacks, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted “Iran took & concluded appropriate measures…We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” In remarks on January 9, President Trump made it clear that the U.S. response to the strikes would be increased economic sanctions, rather than a military response. For the moment at least, it appears that the chain of escalations emanating from the death of Soleimani has been broken by mutual acts of restraint by both the U.S. and Iran.

Decades ago, President John F. Kennedy saw such meaning in the lessons of Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” that he presented copies to his cabinet and military advisors. He drew on those lessons to understand the risks inherent in misperception, miscommunication, and unpredictability in situations of strategic escalation, and applied them to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. To his brother Robert, Kennedy is said to have remarked, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October.” Kennedy balanced the need to create time for diplomacy with military timelines and left his adversary a face-saving way out. When U-2 pilot Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down over Cuba on October 27, 1962, Kennedy exercised restraint to avoid further escalations that could have prevented the resolution of the crisis, but that resolution required concrete actions by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to meet each other’s policy demands, specifically, regarding the removal of offensive missiles from Cuba and Turkey, and an American pledge not the invade Cuba.

Neither the U.S. or Iran had previously been seeking a full regional conflict, but the situation could still very well end up there through a series of uncontrollable and unpredictable escalations, miscalculations, accidents, and events. The question at this point is whether the chain of escalations is truly broken and a new equilibrium emerges, or whether the chain will be renewed and lead to war. In other words, can we breathe easy or have we merely paused to catch our collective breath before resuming the climb up the escalation ladder?  Restraint is the first step in reaching a new equilibrium, but restraint, like deterrence, is not a static state and must be continually reinforced by gradual improvement in the relationship. If restraint is to prevail, it cannot mean a return to the status quo. The U.S. is unlikely to accept renewed attacks by Iran or its proxies, and Iran is unlikely to accept further economic sanctions for any meaningful duration. Iran has made its political objective clear: the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. The U.S. has made its political objectives clear: Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear ambitions and an end to its support for terrorism. Neither side seems ready to accept the other’s political objectives. Accordingly, the durability of the current moment of restraint appears fragile. Whether we someday discuss the rockets of January as we now discuss the guns of August may well depend on whether we return to the status quo that brought us to this moment or find tangible ways to move forward on the broader policy issues that divide the U.S. and Iran.