Maitra “Iran’s Attack On U.S. Bases Is A Face-Saving Gesture” for an “Internal Audience”

In a new Op-Ed for the Federalist Sumantra Maitra argues that Iran’s attack on U.S. bases is a “face saving gesture” done more for an “internal audience” of Iranians that out of desire for escalation or appetite for war with the United States.

Maitra writes:

The length, scope, and operational duration of the attack suggests it is a targeted towards regime stability and an internal audience. Whether it leads to further escalation is a political call.

Last night, around the time Iranian missiles were dropping on U.S. bases, a friend from the Pentagon texted me saying, “Oh, well, it appears they will do something dumb, and we may go to war.” Any crisis leads to paranoia, hysteria, and essentially all other basest instincts in a human being. What differentiates a realist or a strategist from an ideologue or a cultist is how one thinks in a nuanced fashion during a crisis situation.

The question is not if something is right, moral, or legal, but of prudence and smartness. Given the state of the debate about the ongoing crisis in Iran, one can’t help but feel even more depressed. Nevertheless, as Iran targeted U.S. bases in Iraq, and as an international security crisis escalates, where British Royal Navy warships are massing in the Strait of Hormuz, there needs to be a debate, and for a debate, there needs to be clarity about a few common misconceptions.

A Face-Saving Gesture from the Ayatollahs

In foreign policy, and during fogs of war, signaling is everything. Consider the recent Indian – Pakistani crisis, where both powers bombed the other’s territory. In one of the key factors, both targeted regions and bases with zero casualties.

The Iranian attack seems to follow the same modus operandi. When the strikes happened, I noted on Twitter that given the number of missiles in a volley, it is unlikely that this was a precursor for a greater assault. The largest operational Iranian missiles can reach Haifa, Saudi oil factories, or even Poland and India, given their range.

But it was curious that a mere ten missiles dropped dumb pay loads in a U.S. base where the majority of the soldiers were Iraqi. That meant the mission was strictly targeted for a domestic audience and regime stability. Within hours, confirmations started to pour in.

One can logically deduce that there is no appetite for greater conflict in Iran. The actions are strictly an act of retaliation for what is considered restoring deterrence. Was United States restoring deterrence when it struck Gen. Quasem Soleimani? In strict international relations terminology, no.

The use of the word deterrence is wrong in this context for two reasons. One, deterrence is not deterrence if there is a need to restore it. It is then an escalation, for good or for bad. A valid act of deterrence, for example, would be to plant a Hellfire missile 500 yards ahead of Soleimani’s car, to demonstrate the capability and act as a warning. The moment the missile hits the car, it no longer is deterrence or denial, but a decapitation strike.

In broader theoretical terms, it might be called an act of “compellence,” wherein an act of aggression is used to compel an adversary to think differently. If the reports are to be believed, Soleimani grew more reckless and rash and started to believe in his invincibility. He even told his followers that Americans wouldn’t dare touch him. He was apparently also planning more attacks, and he masterminded the recent demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy.

Iraqi citizens, especially Sunnis and Kurds, were getting tired of Iranian meddling, and Soleimani devised a plan that would make America act aggressively, and therefore channel Iraqi anger against Americans. What he failed to calculate was that the aggressive action would be against him personally.

However, as international relations follow Newton’s Third Law of reaction to every action, Soleimani’s death has managed to at least temporarily unite the Iranians. Decapitation strikes against a top official usually does not empower moderates, but unite a country, and suppress moderate voices. Historically it is the extremists who then claim that they had been right all along, in what is known as a “rally round the flag” effect.

Also, this has a possibility of opening a Pandora’s Box, with other great powers taking unilateral actions. In the future, one can similarly expect a Russian decapitation strike against a Chechen, Georgian, or Ukrainian, or Chinese unilateral action somewhere in Africa. One needs to remember, as Gen. George Patton once said, that the enemy gets a vote.

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