Just what message did Iran intend to communicate with its missile attack on two Iraqi bases last night? “This was a very carefully calibrated attack on the part of Iran,” CBS analyst and former Joint Chiefs vice chair Admiral Sandy Winnefeld explained. It was calibrated not to start a war Iran knows it would lose and lose badly, Winnefeld told CBS This Morning, while giving the mullahs just enough to claim victory and depart the field, so to speak:

WINNEFELD: First, what did they use? They used increasingly accurate ballistic missiles, either the Kayn-1 or the Fateh 110, which other than those that might have gone astray, which always happens. Probably hit pretty close to what their targets were. So the second thing is, what were their targets? This is a big, sprawling air base, mostly desert. They could have targeted these missiles into remote areas to avoid any possibility that an American could be killed, or they might have done what we would have done, and that is perhaps target aircraft on the ramp, but not barracks or places where there would be a lot of people.

And then to your question, that third thing is: what were they trying to accomplish? Well, there were really four key audiences here. The first is the United States. “Hey, we can hit you guys, and by the way we didn’t hurt anybody, so please don’t start a war with us — that we would lose.” Second audience, of course, is the internal Iranian audience. They can say anything they want to to that audience. “We did this hard revenge, we killed 80 Americans,” which of course isn’t true, but they have that internal message.

The third audience is the international community. “Hey, we did this legally and in self-defense, so please don’t come after us there,” and the fourth audience is the regional audience. “Please don’t help the Americans retaliate for this, and by the way, why don’t you kick them out of the region.” So it was very carefully calibrated, and we’ll see what happens next.

That’s an astute analysis, if a bit on the obvious side. Iran had three choices yesterday in their reaction to losing their top field commander and most influential official short of Ali Khameini himself. They could have done nothing, which would have meant total humiliation. They could have launched large-scale attacks on US locations with both missiles and ground forces from their militias and started a full-scale war. Or they could launch a handful of harmless pinprick attacks as a “symbolic” slap. In choosing the latter, Khameini has made it clear that even he sees his forces as a paper tiger compared to the US, even with its relatively light footprint in the region.

That, however, is only half of the calculation. As Winnefeld explains and former CIA deputy director Mike Morell noted in this earlier segment, Iran conducts war on both the overt and covert levels. Morell expects an assassination attempt on a US official by an Iranian proxy in the near term and other covert attacks on American interests as well, even if this “symbolic” slap offers both sides an opportunity to take a breath:

The Iranians aren’t the only nation in this equation with the ability to conduct covert ops, however. Khameini’s also not the only head of state inclined to project power short of touching off a full-scale war, either. By taking out Qassem Soleimani so publicly, Donald Trump made it very clear that the old rules about playing along with Iranian denials on proxy attacks no longer apply. That was why those attacks were so carefully calibrated but made directly, and why Khameini might have some second thoughts about proxy attacks in the future.

The speech from Trump today hasn’t changed that calculation at all, either. While Trump called on the mullahs to negotiate in good faith, he also pledged to escalate economic, military, and diplomatic pressure in the short term. That puts the ball very much back in Khameini’s court. If he tries more violent proxy actions against the US in response, Trump is not likely to respond through Iran’s proxies but to attack the command-and-control functions Iran has over them. They can’t afford to keep replacing Soleimani replacements, which their response shows they realize all too well.

Update: Or maybe the Iranian military is just … incompetent?

Maybe, but this seems less likely. If they wanted to kill Americans, they would have thrown more than 12-18 missiles at the two bases.