On January 8, in response to the American airstrikes that killed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Islamic Republic’s forces abroad, Tehran launched 22 missiles at two military instillations in Iraq, causing neither Iraqi nor American casualties. Jonathan Spyer notes that, from the ayatollahs’ perspective, an appropriate act of vengeance would have involved the killing of a U.S. figure of similar prominence to Suleimani, or, failing that, a considerable number of more junior personnel. Yet they chose not to attempt such an attack:
Iran has both assets and an ample “target bank” in the local area for the carrying out of such an attack. . . . The problem was not military or logistical in nature, [however]. It was political and strategic. An attack of sufficient magnitude to settle the account over Suleimani would almost certainly be one that would invite further, wider American retribution, and begin the descent to a direct clash between the U.S. and Iran, which Iran could not possibly win, and which could potentially mean the destruction of much that Iran has gained in the region over the last decade. Iran thus had to choose between facing destruction or accepting a somewhat humiliating outcome.
[T]he attacks of January 8 appear to have been formulated and carried out in order to produce precisely the result that they did—namely, a large amount of noise and smoke, so as to enable Tehran to claim that it had taken retribution for the death of Suleimani. And no U.S. casualties, so that Iran could avoid the escalation that these would have made inevitable.
Of course, Iranian efforts to expel the U.S. from Iraq will continue. The Iranian calculus at this point may well have included the assumption that the current administration wants out of the Middle East, and therefore should not be provoked into staying. . . . But the latest round of hostilities indicates that those who helm the Iranian bid for regional hegemony are aware of their drastic limitations in the military arena, are not suicidal, and are capable of formulating and implementing policy in line with the prevailing realities.