After the US attack on general Soleimani near Baghdad at the beginning of the year, I thought my comment from last year, when I wrote that a war with Iran didn’t seem likely, wouldn’t age that well. Iranians were put in a situation when they had to respond in some way, even if they didn’t want war.
For a few days, the Middle East was on the brink of a larger war. Iranians then sent a message to the Americans, that they could, if they wanted, inflict serious damage to their forces. Their missile attack on two bases in Iraq proved without any doubt, that they could hit targets with absolute precision and there was nothing Americans could do about it, but they went out of their way, not to hurt anyone, so the US would not have an excuse to strike again.
Long story short, the entire episode turned out to be more of a public spectacle both in the US and in Iran. People died, but the situation remained the same. Iran and the US are still battling it out in Iraq and Iran has the advantage. The US is more isolated than ever and it can keep its presence in the country only by ignoring the wishes of the Iraqi government and relying on sectarian tensions. Kurds have nowhere to go and need them and Sunnies could be used against Shia.
There is a possibility of civil war in Iraq, with all the protests going on, some against US presence, others against the government. At the same time, the Islamic state is still lingering on and carrying out attacks.
What did Donald Trump think, when he ordered the attack on the general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds force, general Soleimani? Most likely he just wanted to send a message to the domestic audience, that he was tough in foreign policy and appease those inside his administration who want war. He gambled a lot because it seems he personally really doesn’t want war, but the attack put Iranians in a situation, where they had to respond.
The basics in the region remain the same. Iran is slowly winning in both Iraq and Syria and if the trend continues, Americans will be pushed out at some point in the future, with the only hope remaining in some outposts in the Kurds controlled areas in Iraq or a newly carved out Sunni state in parts of Iraq. The US still doesn’t have enough troops in the region for a full-scale war, which indicates Trump doesn’t plan one. The Iranians, on the other hand, know that the continuation of their building up of allied groups in the region and spreading influence through Iraqi institutions is the best way forward.
There are still plenty of elements who want a war and they will most likely try to provoke it. A false flag attack is a real possibility and people around Trump could push him to act aggressively, manipulating him with some exaggerated threats. But the level of US forces in the region and Iranian strategy still inspire hope that a full-scale war can be avoided.
That said, the US policy of imposing more sanctions against Iran is a war with other means, no less destructive than wars with tanks and guns.