The day after the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the U.S. State Department held a special briefing with reporters, one of whom asked whether the Trump administration expected Iran to respond militarily. "No," a senior State Department official replied, "I don't."
Asked why not, the official said, "I'm just saying that weakness invites more aggression. Timidity will invite more aggression." Pressed further on why the administration thinks Iran may be deterred from launching retaliatory measures, the State Department official added, "Because we're speaking in a language the regime understands."
It appears that confidence that Iran would be intimidated into submission was misplaced.
Iran retaliated for the killing of a top general by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces on Wednesday local time.Washington and Tehran both confirmed that Iran was the source of the missiles. The extent of any causalities or damage was not immediately clear.
Key details about the developments are not yet clear. There have been some reports, for example, that there were no American casualties in response to the ballistic missile attack, but those assessments have not yet been confirmed. There have also been reports that this Iranian offensive represents the totality of Tehran's planned response to the airstrike that killed Soleimani -- Iran's foreign minister said in a tweet that the country has "concluded" its attacks on U.S. forces and does "not seek escalation or war" -- though Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the strikes were not sufficient retaliation.
For his part, Donald Trump, who green-lit the Soleimani mission for reasons that are still unclear, published a tweet assuring the public, "All is well!" Referring to the damage assessment in the wake of the Iranian missile strike, the American president added, "So far, so good!"
In context, the Republican seemed to suggest that there were no American casualties. But all things considered, it's difficult to look at the landscape and agree that "all" is "well."
An American enemy has fired ballistic missiles at facilities housing U.S. troops. Our ostensible allies in Iraq seem awfully eager to kick Americans out of their country. NATO has begun removing some troops from Iraq for their safety. The Trump administration finds itself isolated from several of our traditional allies, while it struggles to keep its story straight when trying to explain the president's dangerous and nebulous new policy. The military campaign against ISIS, meanwhile, is now on hold.
A variety of phrases come to mind when describing these conditions. "So far, so good!" isn't among them.
That said, there is a possible off-ramp. Iran appeared eager to find a "Goldilocks" response to Soleimani's slaying -- not so aggressive as to start a full-fledged hot war, not so tepid as to appear weak in the eyes of its own people -- and Tehran may be satisfied that last night's missile strike met the standard
At least in theory, if no Americans were killed in the blast, Trump could shrug off the Iranian strike, and we could see a de-escalation. Alternatively, the Republican, who warned Iran not to retaliate, may now feel the need to respond to Iran's response, continuing the cycle.
Watch this space.