Did Iran mean to kill Americans in its Iraq attack? The answer hints at how far Iran will go to challenge US

WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump tweeted “All is Well!” Tuesday after Iran’s missile attack on two U.S. air bases in Iraq, the danger of imminent war seemed to have passed.

No casualties. It was a warning shot, said a U.S. official after dawn broke Wednesday in the desert. Many outside national security experts agreed, saying they believed Iran took deliberate steps to avoid American casualties. And in a televised address, Trump spoke of “minimal damage” and “Iran standing down” in a relatively restrained retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s second-most powerful figure, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

But by dusk in Washington, the official assessment had darkened. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley became the first of several administration officials to assert Iran had indeed sought to kill U.S. soldiers and destroy vehicles and warplanes.

Days later, Iran’s intentions remain a subject of intense debate and some outside experts harbor doubts about Milley’s assertion. Iran has been even less clear. Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Force, said Tehran was not trying to kill anyone “although tens of US troops have likely been killed and wounded,” according to Iran’s Fars News Agency.

The question of whether Iran tried to kill U.S. soldiers or merely rattle Americans with a warning shot is significant because the answer hints at how far Tehran is willing to go to challenge the country it calls the “Great Satan.”

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“This is the first, not the final, shot from Iran,” said Eric Brewer, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who focused on Iran issues at Trump’s National Security Council. “Whether or not Iran intended to kill Americans, I don’t think we should expect that this is the only step that Iran is going to take on.”

Iraqi Kurds inspect a crater caused by a reportedly Iranian missile initially fired at Iraqi bases housing U.S. and other U.S.-led coalition troops, in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Bardarash on Jan. 8, 2020. The missiles targeted the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq and a base in Arbil, both housing American and other foreign troops deployed as part of a U.S.-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group.

If Iran wanted to, it could have

In the chaos before dawn on Wednesday, officials scurried to assess damage from 16 short-range ballistic missiles that Iran had fired at two air bases U.S. and coalition troops occupy in Iraq: al-Assad in the western part of the country and Erbil in the north. Eleven missiles struck at al-Assad, and one fell near Erbil. The rest failed to reach their targets.