Observers agree that Iran’s response to the US killing of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force, on 3 January as he left Baghdad’s International Airport was minimal or merely symbolic.
The Iranian missile attacks on two US military bases in Iraq did not kill any US soldiers or Iraqi citizens working at the bases, and the material damage was also reportedly minimal. But if Iran’s missile capabilities are as great as Western and Israeli propaganda have claimed for years, then Iran’s response must have been only symbolic and carefully chosen for political reasons and not meant to display Iran’s true capabilities.
On the other hand, if Iran only possesses such low-grade missiles, then the repercussions will be great in both Iran itself and for its image overseas. Its credibility has relied for years on the idea that it is a strong military power, and this has allowed it to expand in the region and threaten its neighbours.
If this second possibility is not true and Iran could in fact have carried out a powerful strike against the US by using more accurate and destructive missiles had it so wanted, then it might be assumed that Iran was quietly threatened through mediators that the US had several targets in its sights if Iran carried out the strong retaliation it had promised.
The key question is: what threats did Tehran receive?
Before answering this question, it is necessary to consider the first two possibilities. According to the website Missile Threat, a report published in December 2019 claimed that Iran owns seven types of ballistic missiles, including the Shahab-1 and Fatah missiles which both have a 300 km range. Iran’s Shahab-2 missiles can reach 500 km, and its Zulfiqar missiles have a range of 700 km.
Iran has admitted to firing the missiles that targeted the two Iraqi bases from its territory, but it did not clarify which type of missiles had been used.
Preliminary reports from Tehran stated that more than 80 US soldiers had been killed in the attacks and the two bases had been entirely destroyed. However, US President Donald Trump denied this as soon as Iran issued the statement, and Iran eventually admitted that the attacks had not killed any US or Iraqi nationals because their target was to destroy military equipment at the two bases, specifically the drones which were used in Suleimani’s assassination.
Iran’s retraction of its initial claims raised key questions. First, which ballistic missiles were used and why was their impact so limited? Even Iran admitted that four of the 12 missiles missed their targets, and two out of the ten in the second strikes did not explode at all. This modest outcome of Iran’s revenge strikes at the US either raises doubts about Iran’s missile industry, or it suggests that Iran purposely used unsophisticated ballistic missiles because it feared an all-out US response.
This would have been especially the case since Trump had threatened to bomb 52 sites inside Iran if any Americans were killed in Iran’s retaliation.
Inspecting the missiles that were used could answer such questions, and it could indicate that Iran used missiles that showed that Iran’s weapons system is not as advanced or as powerful as has been promoted by both the West and Iran. This would reveal vital information about Iran’s deterrence capabilities that would be certain to impact its ability to deter its enemies or continue its current expansionist policies in the region.
It could also force Tehran to go back to the negotiating table in a weaker position for talks with the West about its nuclear plans and missile tests.
If the investigations reveal that Iran used unsophisticated missiles on purpose in the strikes, this could mean that it took Trump’s threats seriously and chose to carry out limited strikes that would not provoke Washington and at the same time would appease the public uproar at home that had demanded a strong response to Suleimani’s death.
It could also have been a move to send misinformation about its missile capabilities. But if this had been the case, what was the threat that had been made that forced Iran to scale back its retaliation?
Although Trump was not specific about the targets the US would attack if Iran retaliated strongly, they are likely to have included oil refineries, military and industrial compounds, and perhaps some nuclear programme facilities. All these would have been likely targets in Iran, and perhaps not the most serious threats.
However, a further target that Trump may have threatened in covert messages to Tehran that could have worried and deterred the Iranians more would have been a threat to attack the holy city of Qom. This possibility arose when Trump mentioned “targeting cultural sites” among the 52 targets he vowed to attack in Iran.
Although Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif claimed Trump meant targeting archaeological sites that are classified as World Heritage and are protected by international law, it is not certain that this is what Trump meant. He could have meant sites of spiritual and political importance for the Iranians, which if attacked would deal a deep spiritual and psychological blow to both the Iranian people and the regime. This would be strongly effective psychological warfare since it would have targeted religious sites.
For many reasons, Qom would have been an ideal target to cause psychological and spiritual damage and even strategic damage as well. The city is home to the largest and most prominent universities and Shiite religious academies in Iran, and it has tens of thousands of students. Most of the country’s religious leaders also live there, including the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Geographically, Qom is also located close to some of Iran’s most vital cities: Isfahan which houses many of Iran’s oil refineries; and Arak where one of Iran’s key nuclear programme sites is located.
Qom is also home to the Al-Mostafa International University, affiliated to the charity of the same name, whose graduates are active in dozens of countries that Iran has targeted to export its revolution. It is also key to training overseas espionage agents and handpicked agents to work in domestic intelligence agencies, especially those associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It houses dozens of holy Shiite shrines and sites, most notably the shrine of Fatima Al-Maasuma, daughter of Moussa Al-Kazim, the seventh imam of the Twelver Shiism, which is the official religious doctrine of Iran.
It is likely that Iran’s leaders received a discreet message from the US directly threatening to obliterate Qom, and they took the threat seriously and chose a symbolic response to Suleimani’s assassination that would not provoke Washington into retaliating by not only bombing industrial and military targets, but also holy sites. This would have been a direct threat to the clerics who control the country and the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Iranian people.
The regime in Iran has long propagated the legend that the presence of the ayatollahs and the holy aura of Qom where they live have protected Iran from US assaults over recent years. The failure of the US to liberate its hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the crash of US fighter jets while attempting a rescue were also interpreted as divine signs of the ayatollahs’ protection.
If there was a threat to obliterate Qom on the part of the US, this would have been a prime example of the psychological warfare that is vital in both traditional and cyberwarfare. It would also have been the launch of cultural warfare in both its religious and non-religious dimensions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.