It isn’t every day you can say a missile strike means things are calming down, but hey, it’s the Middle East. The rules are different.
Overnight Jan 2-3 the United States killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s go-to guy for using paramilitary tactics to spread Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. As Soleimani was the lynchpin for much of Iran’s regional strategy, Iran immediately swore revenge. According to Iranian state media, that revenge began last night (overnight Jan 7-8) when the Iranians sent a few missile barrages into Iraq, ostensibly targeting US troops.
The damage was…underwhelming. At present there are no reports of significant damage nor reports of any American deaths. Iran does not shine in the world of conventional weaponry. Several of the missiles did not explode, and one reportedly missed by 20 miles. What the missiles were was loud and splashy and headline-grabbing. It appears the barrage was little more than an Iranian propaganda effort to convince their own people that Iran is not powerless against the United States...which it largely is.
Iran's strengths, and how it usually engages the United States, are in places throughout the Middle East where the Americans have a large troop presence, or on the territory of America’s regional allies. However, for the last 15 years those troops have been withdrawing, and those relationships have been weakening. Even with recent troop buildups, US deployments in the region are down 75% from their peak. The United States simply does not have many targets in the region the Iranians can go after at all, much less with the sort of paramilitary forces which serve as the backbone of Iran’s power projection capabilities. It was those forces Soleimani commanded, and his skill at that command made him the second-most important person in Iran.
About the only way the Iranians can strike the US directly is in the cyber realm, but it's hardly like Iran has been holding its cyber capability in reserve. Aside from logging a little bit of overtime, it is unclear what Iran's cyber warriors can do to hurt the United States that is not already a daily occurrence.
Iran could use its itty bitty navy, combined with mines and missiles and its wildly outdated air power to "close" the Strait of Hormuz, but it's unclear that the United States would care. The shale revolution largely severed the United States from Middle Eastern oil. And unlike Saudi Arabia or the UAE which both have Strait bypass pipelines, Iran is 100% dependent upon passage through Hormuz to sell its crude. Not to mention that Iran’s customers in East Asia and Europe would quickly and likely permanently switch to other suppliers. Iran closing the strait would be less shooting itself in the foot and more using disposable cutlery to gouge its own eyes out.
Iran seems to recognize this. It hardly means Iran won’t be looking for opportunities to make the Americans bleed, but they now know anything big enough to be a real win would trigger a massively disproportionate response. After all, the Americans have always believed that anything worth doing is worth overdoing – and that was when they cared about the consequences.
I have to admit, I have been rather impressed how Trump has handled this crisis so far. In killing Sulemani there was a far from insubstantial risk this would escalate. Instead, Trump has established a red line around the American withdrawal process while also eliminating the most skilled paramilitary operator in the world who is the individual responsible for the most American deaths in the 2010s.
Trump’s mini-speech to the American people had the normal economic and military boasts, but there was no vitriol. No heavy condemnations of either the Iranian government in general or the missile barrage in specific. No call for regime change. There was even a very direct noting of past (and perhaps future?) points of cooperation in the fight against ISIS. Trump seems to have suppressed his normal need to engage in one-upmanship and gloating and instead has demonstrated a degree of insight and subtlety that are not normally associated with the man. This is doubly notable considering Trump has fired pretty much everyone in his inner circle who can find Iran on a map.