What's next in the conflict between the U.S. and Iran

The U.S. and Iran seem to have backed away from the edge of all-out war following the flare up in tension after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general and the Iranians responded with missile attacks in Iraq. Steven D'Souza looks at where the conflict is likely to go from here.

All-out war seems less likely, but analysts don't expect the tense standoff to be resolved any time soon

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House about the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

The U.S and Iran may have taken a step back from the brink of war, but the underlying tension remains, analysts say, leaving the two countries back in the same tense standoff that's existed since U.S. President Donald Trump stepped away from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

In a speech from the White House on Wednesday to address Iran's missile strikes the night before against two bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops, Trump highlighted the fact there were no American casualties. The president said Iran appears to be standing down from its previous threats of severe retribution and he gave no indication the U.S. would unleash a military response.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the attacks a "slap on the face" of the U.S. 

The Iranian assault was a response to Trump authorizing the targeted killing last week of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force and a revered figure in that country. Trump called Soleimani a ruthless terrorist who directed attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and was planning new attacks on American targets before he was stopped. 

"The response by President Trump [on Wednesday] is that he's basically happy to leave it here, call it a draw and just re-emphasize the grievances that the U.S. has against Iran," said Hussein Banai, a professor of international studies at Indiana University.

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Trump on Wednesday pledged to continue the so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran, promising to impose additional economic sanctions on the country. He didn't provide any details about the new sanctions but said they "will remain until Iran changes its behaviour."

Buying time until the next clash

Banai said the threat of more sanctions will mean little to Iran, already suffering from crippling U.S. restrictions on its economy and oil exports. The value in threatening more sanctions, Banai said, is more strategic for the White House. 

"It gives the Trump administration another way of responding. It is an option Washington has that's not a military option," he said. 

But by continuing to impose sanctions, Trump is sticking with the policy that has underpinned the current tensions between the two countries, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think-tank. 

While the Pentagon says the missile strikes were designed to kill American soldiers, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed the attacks were "proportionate measures in self-defence."

Vaez said it doesn't appear Iran wanted to kill U.S. soldiers. 

"Although Trump is taking the off ramp that the Iranians have provided by deciding not to target any Americans in this retaliatory strike that they conducted, he is still sticking to the policy, and that means we're just buying time until the next clash between the two countries," said Vaez. 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a gathering in Iran on Tuesday. He called the missile strike in retaliation for the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani a 'slap on the face' of America. (Official Khamenei website/Handout via Reuters)

Iran has indicated in the past, before the Soleimani killing, that it would come to the negotiating table if the U.S. eased sanctions. Vaez said Trump has given no indication he's willing to ease the sanction burden, so any military de-escalation won't directly lead to talks between the two sides.

"I don't think President [Hassan] Rouhani would be able to meet with President Trump after the assassination of Iran's most revered military figure," Vaez said. "So I doubt that it's realistic to imagine that a diplomatic settlement can occur during President Trump's first term."

But other analysts, such as Behnam Ben Taleblu with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative-leaning think-tank based in Washington, D.C., said Trump is right to continue the maximum pressure campaign.

"If you start removing sanctions or even watering them down or waiving them before you get to the negotiating table, you've already given up your leverage," he said.

More Iranian aggression

Will Todman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C., said the return to a situation of unease and steady tension may lead to more Iranian aggression in the region.

He said Trump's response Wednesday showed Iran how far it can go without provoking a major response. 

"That red line is a U.S. casualty, so I would be very surprised if Iran conducted any future attacks that resulted in U.S. casualties, because they know there will be a response to that."

Instead of direct, highly visible attacks like the one this week, Todman predicts Iran's proxy forces in the region will continue aggressions, like the attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, or the attack on a Saudi oilfield, which escalate economic and political tension but can't always be traced back to the Iranian regime.

"I think there might be a period of re-calibrating from Iran, but after a while I would expect these attacks to continue, because ultimately nothing has really changed."

Experts say the return to a state of uneasy tension between the U.S. and Iran could see more attacks on regional targets by Iranian proxy forces, similar to the drone attack on a Saudi oil facility in September. (Amr Nabil/The Associated Press)

Barbara Slavin, a Mideast analyst with the Atlantic Council and author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, said European countries may step in to try to mediate the situation. She expects the tit-for-tat between Iran and the U.S. should stop temporarily.

"But Iran is still under maximum pressure sanctions and it is going to continue to respond to those sanctions until the United States makes it some sort of offer, which it has yet to do," she said.

Holding pattern until November

Banai said the relationship between Trump and Iran is so poisoned now, there is little possibility of a breakthrough before the U.S. presidential election in November. So, while smaller attacks from Iran are likely to continue, the situation will essentially be in a holding pattern, he said.

"I think the Iranians are basically going to have to wait this out and see whether Trump stays in office or there is a new administration that would offer an opportunity to get the relationship on a different path."

Todman said the risk of either side miscalculating how far to push their rival remains high. And while Trump thrives on uncertainty and acting unpredictably, recent events show he still wants to avoid all-out war. 

"I think actually this episode has shown that he's a bit more predictable than we thought and that military action would really only come if and when there's a U.S. casualty."

Banai said the apparent de-escalation of the current tension isn't surprising, because Iran cannot afford to engage in a conventional war with the U.S.

"So, I think we'll see these cycles of low-to-medium intensity retribution between the U.S. and Iran. But more than that, I don't think so."


Steven D'Souza

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Steven D'Souza is a co-host with The Fifth Estate. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.