The Iranian retaliation may have opened a brief window for potential de-escalation of the US-Iran confrontation
On Wednesday morning Iran delivered the promised retaliatory blow against the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani by raining more than a dozen missiles at US forces in Iraq. In the tense moment that followed, the much feared military escalation between the US and Iran seemed inevitable. Oil prices spiked and stock markets dipped as the world waited with bated breath for the American response to the missile attack on the US bases.
As the dust cleared though, a counter-intuitive possibility came into view — that the Iranian retaliation may have opened a brief window for potential de-escalation of the US-Iran confrontation. Although much uncertainty prevails amidst the continuing room for misjudgement and miscalculation in both Tehran and Washington, a measure of caution seems to be settling down on both capitals as they absorb the full import of a military escalation.
There was no doubt that Iranian leadership had to be seen avenging the killing of Soleimani, if only to salvage its political self-esteem and calm the anger among the multiple militias that were commanded by the departed general. Tehran appears to have carefully calibrated the attack to reduce the possibilities for escalation. While sections of the Iranian media claimed scores of Americans died in the missile attack, US and Iraqi forces reported no American casualties. Having hit back visibly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could now claim Tehran has “slapped” Washington on its face. The Iranian foreign minister, Jawad Zarif, quickly affirmed that the attacks on the base “concluded” Iran’s retaliation. He also insisted Tehran has no desire for further escalation. President Trump too seemed to step back a bit, by ending the threat to target Iranian cultural sites.
Trump, however, would be well advised not to treat Iran’s decision to avoid escalation as some kind of victory. The White House, instead, should try and find ways to turn the temporary pause into an opportunity for not only de-escalation but also a long overdue direct political engagement with Iran on the future of the Gulf. It is also a moment for Delhi to consider a more active role in promoting regional peace, for a war in the Gulf will push the struggling Indian economy into the abyss. India’s good relations with both the US and Iran positions Delhi well to undertake that exercise.
To be sure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can’t overestimate his leverage over Trump and Khamenei and India’s ability to influence the course of an entrenched conflict between US and Iran. India’s high stakes in the Gulf, however, demand that Modi try his hand at regional peace. Doing it in partnership with other regional countries like Saudi Arabia and like-minded powers like Europe and Japan might yet make some difference to the political outcomes in the Gulf.