This possibility depends upon:
- Where the missiles impacted in relation to the target.
- Population density of the impact area.
- CEP (Circular error probable) of the missile.. This is the average of the distance of the actual impact point from the target.
These are the tells:
- If a bunch of impact points cluster together, but hitting an empty area, near the target, it suggests that Iran really wanted the missiles to land there.
- If the cluster is far from the target, it’s bad guidance, from bias error.
- If the missile impacts cluster together, but kill Iraqis, it suggests bad guidance. This can happen from bias that makes all the rockets drift in the same direction, like loaded dice.
- If the impact points are spread out on the map, it suggests bad guidance.
Only the first is a good demo. Here “near” and “far” are relative to the CEP, the average error. Large CEP = bad guidance system. Small CEP = good guidance system. But how can we tell if the missile was bad, or the aim was deliberately off? From years of watching missile tests, the CEP of a missile type is known to the intelligence community.:
- If the CEP is thought to be 100 yards, and it hits 200 yards from the target, it’s bad guidance, because it’s too risky.
- If the CEP is 10 yards, and it hits 50 yards from the target, that’s good guidance.
Now imagine you are Khamenei, and you want to prove to the Great Satan that you can put U.S. forces at risk, while avoiding retaliation. You want a demo:
- The more convincing the demo, the riskier for Iran.
- The less convincing the demo, the safer it is.
- Assume the Iranians are counting cards at the blackjack table. They sure aren’t playing strip poker.
Al Assad Airbase is in the Syrian Desert of western Iraq, where almost nobody lives.
- If the missiles hit in tight clusters, away from barracks, yet close enough to give worry, it suggests an accurately guided missile that was intentionally set for the “wrong” impact point. It doesn’t have to be accurate to save Iraqis, because the local population is close to zero.
- If the missiles straddle the base, with some coming close to barracks, it suggests bad guidance, risking an accidental hit that could start a war.
Iran had to be careful with the U.S. consulate in Erbil, which is at the northern edge of the built-up area. (Google Earth, 36°14’08.21″ N 43°59’20.86″ E ). An impact south of that has high risk of civilian casualties. An impact 1500 feet north of the consulate, just north of an irrigation channel, would impact farmland, avoiding subdivided but vacant lots south of it. This is the strongest indication of a demonstration.
We can’t draw this conclusion if the impact clusters are loose. For a good demonstration of strength, they have to be tight. If the clusters are loose, aim-to-hit cannot be excluded.
Why did Iran choose this, if it was a choice?
Khamenei stated that he wanted the response to come from inside Iran, and be directed against military targets. This was to satisfy the national urge to revenge. The need is shown by the 65 Iranians who died in a stampede at Soleimani’s funeral. Martyrdom was on display.
The Iranians reflected on how well deniable actions have worked for them: damaging the enemy while mostly avoiding reciprocation. With the death of a U.S. contractor, they discovered a level of conflict that triggered a U.S. response. They will now try to estimate what that level is in general terms, and stay below it.
The Soleimani killing has a different meaning for us and for them. To us, it is the lawful killing of a combatant who was out to kill U.S. forces. We drew a red line. Iran has drawn a reciprocal line: an attack on Iranian notables in Iraq is an attack on Iran.
Besides expanding the idea of Iran to include Iraq, the demonstration is intended to restore immunity from U.S. attack of Iranian commanders, continuing superior leadership of Iraq/Iran militias.
The use of proxies to shield the aggressor is not new. It was used with partial success in the Vietnam War, and most recently by Russia in eastern Ukraine. International law is blind to proxies like it is to undeclared war. This is the drawback of a voluntary code that recognizes the “nation” as a basic division of humanity.