Further direct confrontation unlikely between Washington and Tehran

Further direct confrontation unlikely between Washington and Tehran

- Geopolitical Risk - Intelligence


In brief

  • A US drone strike killed former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on 3 January. Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at the al-Asad and Erbil military bases in Iraq, where US troops are stationed.
  • Despite the retaliation, Tehran has sought to de-escalate tensions. The US has also shown restraint in its response to the missile attacks.
  • Further military confrontation between the two adversaries is unlikely in the immediate future. Outright confrontation would have unwanted consequences for both Iran and the US.
  • Iran is likely to continue antagonising the US in Iraq through its closely aligned Shi’a militias as it seeks to counter US presence in the region. Tensions could rise should the militias mobilise against US positions and conduct ‘revenge’ attacks.


On 3 January, the United States killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani led the powerful Quds Force — the foreign arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — and was killed alongside several officials from Iran-aligned Iraqi militias, including Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The attack came days after supporters of the Tehran-backed PMF stormed the US embassy in Baghdad. Recent months have also seen occasional violence targeted at US positions, namely rocket attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad and Iraqi bases hosting US troops.

Iran responded to the killing of Soleimani by launching ballistic missiles from Iran at two military bases in Iraq that house US troops. There were no reported casualties from the attacks.


Iran’s counter-attack indicates Tehran wishes to prevent tensions with the US from spilling into a direct military confrontation.  Despite the missile attacks and the government’s aggressive rhetoric, Iran gave warnings about the attacks to Iraqi forces, who in turn likely alerted the US. They also targeted bases that have been on high alert for several weeks over the possibility of such an attack.

The attacks were also intended to allow the government to appease an angry domestic population while avoiding a cycle of reprisal attacks, as highlighted by Iranian claims of having killed 80 US soldiers in the attacks despite the lack of confirmed casualties.

Canadian allegations that Iran accidentally downed a passenger aircraft on the day of the attacks may further encourage Tehran to behave cautiously in Iraq to avoid further negative international and domestic opinion. The Ukraine International Airlines flight bound for Kyiv was downed shortly after taking off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 people onboard.

The US has also showed a desire for de-escalation. Washington opted to introduce further economic sanctions on Iran over the attacks, rather than the air strikes which it had initially threatened.

Further direct confrontation unlikely in short term

Both Tehran and Washington are likely to continue exchanging aggressive rhetoric in the coming months while also seeking to avoid further direct military confrontation.

Iran is likely to prioritise maintaining influence in the region over risking further reprisals from the US.  Iran’s military and economy would be unlikely to withstand a war with the US. Despite its sophisticated missile arsenal, Iran’s military capabilities are weak in comparison with the US. Iran is also facing a crisis over its influence in Iraq and Lebanon, which have seen months-long mass anti-government protests denouncing perceived Iranian interference in domestic affairs.

Washington is similarly unlikely to seek further military confrontation with Iran. President Donald Trump is wary of the public’s aversion to engaging in another Middle Eastern conflict. With the pressure of the November elections, he is unlikely to engage in tit-for-tat retaliations at the potential cost of US personnel lives.

Potential triggers for escalation

Iran may seek to continue antagonising the US in Iraq through its closely aligned militia forces. This may take the form of rocket attacks on US positions, though Iran will ensure to preserve plausible deniability to avoid further retaliation.

The Shi’a militias could also launch independent attacks on US targets, raising the risk of inadvertent escalation if these operations are subsequently blamed on Iran. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Shia militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, has called for an attack on US troops as retaliation for the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani. Hours later, two rockets landed in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad near the US embassy. No group has yet claimed the attack.

In the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, Iraqi militias may compete for a larger share of power and thus may launch independent attacks against US positions in Iraq. Soleimani previously oversaw a large coalition of militias in Iraq, many of which operate with significant independence and may seek to take advantage of the ensuing power vacuum to further their own influence. 

The security situation remains volatile and unpredictable and is likely to persist over the coming months.

The long-term implications of the fracturing of Iraqi militias and disengagement of US forces may include a possible resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group. IS’s activity is currently limited to the insurgent cells in north and northeast regions of Iraq, though this could change should infighting between state-aligned armed actors break out in the rest of the region.

Iran will likely continue deploying asymmetric attacks against the US and its allies in the region in the long term, likely impacting the business environment in the region. Tehran may launch cyber-attacks or target shipping in the region through one of their proxies, in turn hindering global oil markets and discouraging investment in the wider region.

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