Iran has stated that—barring a U.S. response—the missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq will be the only immediate retaliation for the killing of Soleimani. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says this latest development offers an exit from further escalation, but “this doesn’t mean the broader tensions and the slower, more simmering tensions … will end.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Joining us on POTUS is Sarhang Hamasaeed, who's director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He's tweeting @sarhangsalar. Sarhang, welcome back. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Good morning, welcome. Sorry. Good to be back with you.

Tim Farley: I would like to get your overall take on this series of events, and maybe we just need to start with where we are right now between the U.S. and Iran.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Yeah. Lots of developments in the trajectory of tensions between Iran and the United States, and the most recent development was late last night Iraq time. Actually, it was late last night our time and early morning Iraq time, when Iran launched over a dozen missiles at primarily two bases in Iraq that host American troops and coalition troops in an asset in Anbar Province and further north in Erbil Province. So far, no reported casualties on the Iraqi side or the American side, and that is good news, because that may have become the symbolic response that Iran needed to send to the world and to the United States that it does not accept, and it is a retaliatory measure against the United States for killing their senior general, Qassem Soleimani, and one of their allies in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: We'll see it has already drawn some condemnations and projections from within Iraq and from outside Iraq. But if this stays as-is, and there is no U.S. retaliatory response, this may be a good exit out of a very, very serious situation.

Tim Farley: It sounds to me almost like the symbolism of the U.S. airstrikes in Syria. In other words, they were very targeted, but, in some ways, minimally damaging. Just enough to say, "Look, we're here. Don't go too far, but we're not going to take it any farther than this." And it sounds like Iran may end up doing something similar to that.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Yes, they accept that the U.S. attack, in terms of killing a very senior general, is different proportionally to the response of Iran. In which, if this is indeed proven that there was no personnel killed, Iran will put a show that this was a slap, and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, has already indicated that. And Foreign Minister Zarif has already tweeted that this concludes their action, if there's no further action from United States. They may find this sufficient for now, but that doesn't mean the broader tensions, and the slower and more simmering tensions between the United States and Iran, and between Israel and Iran, and between the Gulf States and Iran, will end.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: It may take other forms, just not the kind of action that could lead to an all-out war, which the stake was really high with this incident.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed with us. It strikes me, as I'm looking at the reaction internationally, there's a lawmaker from Russia, it's not somebody from the Putin government specifically, the German foreign minister or one of the ministers from Germany. Indeed Mr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, who's the foreign minister of Iran, is the face of this. Although, we have heard a couple of tweets from the Supreme Leader. In the United States, it's really pretty much President Trump with a bit of the Secretary of State.

Tim Farley: People are waiting for him to speak, and I wonder if there's a significance to this, and that is, that President Trump, in some ways, his voice becomes preeminent. And I wonder if it drowns out any other attempts to be diplomatic, as opposed to some of these other countries, where there is a sense of plausible deniability with having surrogates, underlings, if you will, make a statement on behalf of the government. At which point, maybe, the ultimate leader of the country can come in and speak what is on his or her mind.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: It's a complicated situation. The president, the administration, and the other actors involved choose different methods of managing a very sensitive crisis. The strongest statements from the president were meant to send a clear message to Iran, as a way of deterrence that if you act, we will act even more. It may have worked. These threats may have prevented Iran from taking a more serious measure. But, also, I'm sure there has been a lot of diplomatic efforts, maybe, behind the scene, to try to prevent all of this from getting out of control. So the public statement is one thing, but what was happening behind closed doors through diplomatic channels is another. We'll find out, maybe, if Iran was promised other things in return for making its measures more contained than it is.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: I think there's a lot to unfold over the coming days and weeks. We'll have a better judgment if the steps that the different sides took was sufficient, were the right steps, or not.

Tim Farley: Excellent point, also, that we do not know everything that's happening. We can just judge by what we see, and that often is not indicative of everything that's going on. Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs, United States Institute of Peace. I was reading one of your quotes where you were saying that the Iraqis have wondered for years why the U.S. let Soleimani act freely in Iraq. They also have worried that any action against Soleimani, or Iran more broadly, could result in an open confrontation between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi soil. Many Iraqis were critical of the U.S. for not doing more to curb the influence of Iran, but they're now concerned the U.S. may, yet again, not do enough to contain a wounded Iran and the PMF.

Tim Farley: It seems that Iraq is inextricably intertwined with this, as well.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Very much so, very much so. I mean, this is the talk of the hour for everybody in Iraq, whether you are a politician, whether you are an ordinary citizen, and the concerns are the same. That they do not want their country to be a battleground for either, direct or proxy, confrontation between Iran and the United States. The concern is that as the attack happened against Soleimani ... I mean, death in the culture of Iraq and the Middle East is not usually celebrated, even if it's for your enemy, some people do. The Iraqis have been quietly very happy with what happened, but also very concerned about what this meant.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: If it meant a one-off action by the United States that does not have a sustained strategy around it to contain the wounded Iran, then they were concerned that Iran will double-down, will come in heavy and use all its leverage, in the forms of armed groups and political leverage, economic leverage, and crush any voice of dissent. This, to a certain degree so far, has been successful in taking attention away from popular demonstrations in the south, where tens of thousands of Shia youth have been protesting against Iranian influence, against corrupt officials, and wanting a better future. And now they're trying to make an attempt to call for big demonstrations later this week. Start bringing attention from internal and outside Iraq to their cause.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: If the turn of events finds its way back to focusing on the demands of the people, and early elections, and giving us a new government in Iraq that can strengthen the institution of the state, that may be the best course to push on aligning external influence in Iraq and get the country on a better trajectory.

Tim Farley: Last question for you, Sarhang. This has to do with Iran and the U.S. again, because the JCPOA, President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran Nuclear Deal. The sense from the Obama Administration was, yes, Iran probably, at some point, will try to become a nuclear power, but we can delay that. Does this just accelerate the conflict between the U.S. and Iran on that issue, or does this have something to do with something entirely different?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: This is going to be a key issue in part of the bigger issue with Iran, which is Iran is being seen as a destabilizing force in the Middle East, and it is seen in the form of it's currently seeking nuclear weapons, and that's seen as a threat to regional stability and beyond. Second, its ballistic missile program is seen as a threat to regional stability. And third, Iran's expansion beyond its borders and wielding a lot of influence in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen. This package of issues will not go away. And the nuclear weapon issue for the United States and for Israel maybe the most important issue.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Prospects of getting back to the table to discuss this under the current administration has always been slim, but moments like this, when both countries got very close to a war, may send signals to both sides to reconsider. Again, the chances are very slim, but they are not nonexistent, so that possibility could be still pursued. But Iran may still choose to wait until after the elections to see if another administration could come, or if President Trump is reelected, will have a different position on Iran.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, thank you for joining us on P.O.T.U.S. this morning. I really appreciate your perspective. Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, and thoughts on Iran, the U.S. and Iraq obviously intertwined here. Tweeting @sarhangsalar.

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