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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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