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Iran just fired missiles at US military targets. What does this mean?

An expert weighs in on Iran’s apparent response to Soleimani’s death.

Image of General Qasem Soleimani on newspaper front page.
An image of Qassem Soleimani on the front page of Iranian newspapers on January 7, 2020.
Babak Jeddi/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Iran has retaliated.

Overnight Wednesday local time, Tehran fired more than a dozen missiles at two US military targets inside Iraq in response to the United States’ killing of senior Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week.

The death of Soleimani, one of the most powerful figures in Iran, was extraordinarily provocative, and Iran had signaled that it would respond.

But now that it has done so, what comes next? It’s impossible to answer with any degree of certainty, particularly given the capriciousness of the current American president.

President Trump tweeted Tuesday evening that he would make a statement Wednesday morning but didn’t say much more than that, other than noting that “All is well!” and “so far so good!”

The Trump administration’s reticence might be the most hopeful sign that the US-Iran conflict that has escalated dramatically since the strike on Soleimani could cool back down soon.

To understand why, and what Iran’s actions might mean, I spoke with Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jen Kirby

When we hopped on the phone, you said you were feeling a little more positive than you were earlier this evening, so I guess that’s a good place to start: Why?

Ilan Goldenberg

Because the White House announced that there will not be a speech by the president tonight. If the president had gone on TV tonight, it would have been for one reason and one reason only: to announce the Iranian attack on the United States and a significant American retaliation.

The fact that he’s not doing that indicates at least two things to me. One is that the administration is thinking about things, so that’s good — they didn’t just jump immediately. Because we do have time, we can respond on our own terms, if we need to respond.

And two is that we don’t know yet what the exact battle damage assessment was and what the results of the strike were. But if they were truly severe, then we would already be seeing the president on TV tonight, I think. So, for me, it means this looks like a less significant attack than it might have otherwise been.

Jen Kirby

Basically, no news is good news.

Ilan Goldenberg

Yes, absolutely, no news in the form of a presidential speech is good news.

Jen Kirby

Since Soleimani’s death, the world has been watching and waiting to see how Iran might respond. How do you assess this response by Iran to the attack last week?

Ilan Goldenberg

First, it’s important to note that we don’t know exactly what the response was yet because we don’t know the results, meaning the damage done to these bases in Iraq. Things still haven’t been reported out.

This is also not necessarily the entire Iranian response. This might just be the immediate response.

My sense is that Iran needed to do something quickly, something symbolically, something that was public given how public the killing of Soleimani was. Those were some of the parameters that the supreme leader set down, at least according to reporting.

But Iran didn’t want to trigger an all-out war. This Iranian attack is bold. It’s major. It’s significant. But it stops short of killing a large number of Americans.

Then the Iranians, on their own state television, they’re saying things like 30 Americans were killed and that Iranian planes are flying into Iraqi territory. They’re saying all kinds of crazy things, which is really for their own domestic audience.

So the reality is Iran found a way to, at least for the moment, respond relatively proportionally. That’s my sense.

But this is not going to be the only response, in my opinion. I think Iran will look to do other things over time, just maybe not as public. I still think we need to be worried about things like cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, targeting American embassies, assassination attempts on American officials. I think all those things are entirely on the table for potentially years, frankly, in retaliation.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned the domestic audience. How important was it for the Iranian regime to signal to it that they were responding to Soleimani’s death?

Ilan Goldenberg

It matters.

One, there’s this nationalistic response to Soleimani’s killing. On the one hand, he’s very popular in parts of Iran as the guy who protected Iran from ISIS. He’s also very unpopular in parts of the Arab world, especially for his actions in Syria.

But, like I said, it’s a national moment in Iran, and if you’re an authoritarian government you’re trying to channel it toward support for you. And second of all, you want to show the people that you are tough and strong. So Iran had to do something.

Jen Kirby

To that point — of Iran trying to make a very public response — do you think these attacks on the US military targets were strategically calculated to do that, but also avoid, perhaps, American casualties that would be more likely to necessitate US counteraction?

Ilan Goldenberg

Look, launching about 12 moderately accurate missiles at a massive base in the middle of the desert is unlikely to kill anybody. But I can’t say they purposely went out of their way not to kill Americans.

Jen Kirby

And what about Iraq in this situation? What does this conflict between the US and Iran mean for Iraq? It looks as if the country is increasingly going to be caught in this escalation.

Ilan Goldenberg

This is Iraq’s total nightmare. I was in Iraq last month, and the sense I got is that Iraqis just want their country back. They’re sick of Iranians. They’re sick of Americans. They just want their country back, and their worst nightmare is to be the chessboard board on which the game gets played between the United States and Iran. Now it appears this is where it might be going.

Jen Kirby

It does certainly seem like that. Obviously, we’re still figuring out what happened, but what should we be watching for next?

Ilan Goldenberg

So I think there are two things to watch for: On the US side, the president’s national security team had a meeting at the White House [Tuesday evening] and left. Are they going to cook up more options? Are we going to see an American response in the next couple of days? Or are we going to see a calm silence?

On the Iranian side, the question is what is the immediate and what is the long term? In the immediate, are they done? Or will we have another wave like this tomorrow? I think they’re done. I’m really hoping they’re done.

I think we should still watch out for other unattributable things, which is where the more damaging or meaningful response will come. Again, cyberterrorism, assassinations — I think those things are being cooked up and may come, but we just don’t know when they will come.

And that could be a matter of weeks. It could be a matter of months, it could be years. It could even be after Donald Trump’s presidency.

Jen Kirby

So to the question everyone wants to know: Are we at war? Or, at least, are we closer to war than we were after the initial news of Soleimani’s death?

Ilan Goldenberg

I don’t know yet for sure. Here are the things to watch: It ultimately depends on what we, the United States, do in response, and what Iran does next.

At the moment, we’re not at war. We are in a highly escalatory situation. We are in a shadow war. We’re not at war. And being at war would mean having to go to Congress and get approval for that.

So we’re not at war. Are we a step closer? Maybe. I’m actually not sure we’re a step closer. We may even be a step farther away because if this was the extent of Iran’s, at least its initial, public retaliation — it could have been worse. But if it’s the beginning of more public retaliation, that’s different.