US-Iran: Peace and challenges

A top US general said Wednesday that Iran had wanted to “kill” American military personnel in the missiles attack on Iraqi bases, pushing back against a view gaining ground that Tehran had staged the attack to address domestic outrage over the killing of General Qassem Soleimani and not to actually punish the United States for carrying it out.

“I believe, based on what I saw and what I know, that (the more than a dozen) strikes were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft and to kill personnel,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff told reporters, adding, “That’s my own personal assessment.”

If Iran really wanted to kill US personnel, as suggested by General Milley, it would indicate there really was not much basis to President Donald Trump’s assertion from the White House earlier in the day that Iran had wanted to “stand down” and not escalate hostilities.

Iran hit two Iraqi bases, at al-Assad and Irbil, that also housed American forces with 15 missiles in an attack that was intended to avenge the killing of General Soleimani in an American drone strike last Friday. But it is also supposed to have communicated to the United States through three separate channels that it had not no intention to escalate the situation.

“Iran appears to be standing down which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said in a televised address from the White House, basing his assessment, according to some reports, on these back-channel communications.

This assessment was bolstered by a tweet from Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif that signaled a desire to de-escalate in the immediate aftermath of the missile attack. “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” he wrote on twitter, adding, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

The fact that there were no casualties in the Iranian attack on the US forces was advanced as proof of Tehran’s desire to not escalate tensions. Trump pointed to the lack of casualties in his remarks that were seen as far more reconciliatory than was expected based on his bellicose warnings in recent days of “very fast and very hard” reprisals for Iranian retaliation to Soleimani killing.

The president said early warning systems had helped prevent casualties but there were also reports that suggested that Iran had provided advance warning of the attacks to the Iraqis who, in turn, had passed it on the US and coalition forces. There were also suggestions that Iran intentionally avoided hitting US forces because the attack was only intended to send a signal, as an expression of its outrage over the killing of Soleimani.

That assumption of Iranian desire to also de-escalate faced its first test just hours later as reports came of a rocket attack on Green Zone in Baghdad, the militarily secure area that houses the US embassy. It was attributed to an Iran-supported militia by experts who expressed doubts about Tehran’s ability to enforce the de-escalation it appears to favor to end the confrontation.

General Milley, of course, threw into doubt the central premise of that thesis with his assertion that Iran had actually intended to kill US personnel and inflict damage on these bases, and not stage an attack to address local concerns.