London — The killing of high-ranking Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the United States last week has heightened tension between the two countries and prompted Iran to retaliate with a missile strike on bases in Iraq housing American troops. The U.S. and Iraq say there were no casualties from the strikes.
In a televised address, President Trump said Iran “appears to be standing down” after the retaliatory attack, but as both countries remain on alert, what threat does Iran actually pose to American interests at home and abroad?
Does Iran have nuclear weapons?
Iran does not have nuclear weapons and insists it does not want to develop any. The Trump administration, however, says Iran does want to obtain a nuclear weapons capability and Mr. Trump has personally vowed not to let that happen.
The Iranian government announced Sunday that it would no longer abide by restrictions on uranium production and enrichment set out in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was widely seen as a response to the airstrike that killed Soleimani, but experts said the move had been expected before Soleimani’s death.
Iran started breaking its commitments under the deal last spring after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from it and imposed harsh new economic sanctions. Those sanctions, and Iran’s view that European countries were not fulfilling their commitments under the JCPOA, led Tehran to scale back its compliance with the pact.
Those steps have slightly reduced the time it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. It had been estimated at a year — now it may be as little as six months, according to Dr. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at London-based security think-tank RUSI.
However, Iran is still allowing international inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities, and has remained a signatory to the JCPOA.
“It’s important to stress that what Iran has been trying to do is saying that it’s no longer meeting the obligations (of the nuclear deal) but, at the same time, that it’s still part of the JCPOA and is still allowing the verification by the IAEA inspectors, which … is the main element that is going to assuage the concerns of the international community with regard to the nature of the Iranian nuclear activities,” Tabrizi told CBS News.
On Tuesday, Iran’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told CBS News’ Elizabeth Palmer that the country’s moves could be “reversed immediately if they (European signatories) start obeying their commitments under the deal.”
The direct military threat that Iran poses to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East is with its conventional weapons. The missiles that hit the Iraqi bases on Tuesday night appear to have been small in scale relative to Iran’s capability.
“Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic arsenal in the Middle East, and a substantial inventory of close-range ballistic missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and medium-range ballistic missiles that can strike targets throughout the region up to 2,000 kilometers (1243 miles) from Iran’s borders,” the Defense Intelligence Agency reported last year.
Not only are American forces in Iraq within easy range, but targets in Israel, a sworn enemy of Iran, could be as well.
However, whereas Iran’s regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia have the technology to carry out precision airstrikes, Iran largely does not, according to BBC News.
“Iran has a highly developed missile force with weapons of a variety of ranges,” Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s defense and diplomatic correspondent, said. “They are reasonably accurate — but not as accurate or as reliable as advanced western systems.”
The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that there are 523,000 active Iranian military personnel, according to BBC News, including 350,000 in the army, 150,000 in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and 20,000 in the IRGC’s navy.
CBS News national security contributor Michael Morell, a former acting director of the CIA, said that while Iran seems to have concluded its “overt war,” a “covert war” via Iranian proxy groups could still be coming.
Iran has proxies around the Middle East — groups that are not officially part of the state apparatus but which work to advance Iran’s interests and receive direct support from Tehran. These groups include the Badr Organization and Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Syrian Hezbollah in Syria, and groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gaza Strip.
Soleimani himself did a lot to develop this network, but in the wake of his death, Iran’s government distanced itself from the proxies — at least publicly.
“We do not have proxies,” Zarif told Palmer on Tuesday. “You must have seen in the streets of Iraq that we have people, not proxies. Those people are not controlled by us because they’re not our proxies. They’re people with emotions, independent thinking, and that is why I said, what they will do is not controllable by Iran.”
As President Trump appeared to step back from a military response to Iran’s missile attacks, some of these groups issued statements urging both action and restraint.
The leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., said Wednesday that the “initial Iranian response to the assassination of the martyred commander Soleimani has happened. Now it is time for the initial Iraqi response to the assassination of the martyred commander Muhandis (who was killed alongside Soleimani). And because Iraqis are brave and zealous, their response will not be any less than that of Iran’s. That is a promise.”
But Vice President Mike Pence told “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell on Wednesday that the U.S. was “receiving some encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages to those very same militias not to move against American targets or civilians.”
Another influential Iraqi Shiite leader, Muqatada al-Sadr, told Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to hold their fire until other political and legal means to oust the American “occupation” were exhausted. Al-Sadr recommended these groups, which were recently integrated into the Iraqi armed forces, shut down their headquarters to avoid being easy targets should there be a decision to launch an “armed resistance” against foreign forces.
“This is not the end of it,” Fernando Cutz, who served as senior adviser to former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, told CBS News. “The Iranians said this is the end of it to try to de-escalate and stop there from being a war, but they will continue their destabilizing efforts throughout Middle East. …The real retaliation will be ratcheting up the shadow operations they have been engaged in for years. But it will be nothing that would lead us to go to war.”