Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed “forceful and bitter revenge” in response to US President Donald Trump carrying out what his predecessors had long avoided doing: assassinating arguably the second most powerful figure in Iran – Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.
To pretty much anyone outside of Iran, Soleimani was one of the world’s worst war criminals. Inside Iran, he was a war hero and national icon.
To pretty much anyone outside of Iran, Soleimani was one of the world’s worst war criminals, having helped ignite the sectarian civil war in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, and orchestrated the siege of Aleppo in Syria, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. Inside Iran, however, Soleimani was a war hero and national icon.
For the sake of American citizens at home and abroad, let’s hope the Trump administration has a coherent and effective strategy underpinning its decision to assassinate a man who built a reputation throughout the Shiite Muslim world for humiliating the US, otherwise known as the “Great Satan” among Iranian hardliners.
So, what might Iranian retaliation against the United States look like, and has the Trump administration given serious and contemplative thought to what “forceful and bitter revenge” might mean for the American people?
To borrow a Donald Rumsfeld quip, there are known knowns and there are known unknowns, which pretty much means no one really knows how Iran will respond to what it views as tantamount to a foreign state assassinating either the US Secretary of Defense or the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
But, it’s safe to presume a direct attack carried out by flag-wearing Iranian soldiers, or weapons platforms, is unlikely. Proxy forces are the preferred method of force projection by the Iranian regime, as evident in the way it has intervened in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere.
What’s known for certain is that the leadership in Iran will see that it has little choice but to hit the US hard.
What’s known for certain, however, is that the leadership in Iran will see that it has little choice but to hit the US hard. Indeed, the regime sees itself under internal threat, from the Iranian people, because of rising gas prices and a crashed economy, a result of US-led sanctions on its oil exports. The ensuing popular protests culminated last month with the deadliest political unrest in the country since the Islamic revolution began four decades ago.
When the legitimacy of a regime is in peril, war, or the threat of war, is often the scheme endangered regimes turn to, which may explain why Trump, who is facing record low approval ratings in an election year and the prospect of impeachment, carried out the assassination in the first place.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Trump predicted in 2011 that President Obama would deliberately ignite a war with Iran to help his reelection campaign in 2012. His prediction didn’t materialize but it does provide an insight into the way Trump thinks.
The range of options in front of Iran are pretty well known, including attacking Israel via Hezbollah in Lebanon, striking Saudi oil refineries, as it did in September, or attack oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, the world’s oil choke point, as it allegedly did in June 2019. Kidnappings, hostage takings, assassinations of American diplomats and tourists are all included in what amounts to an array of tools at Iran’s disposal.
“Iran will simply continue to do what it has always done, in Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Gaza, indefinitely testing the patience of its enemies, willing to spend years weaving a carpet,” predicts Marco Carnelos, the Middle East Peace Process Coordinator Special Envoy in Syria for the Italian government.
In other words, Iran may escalate and expand its military measures in the Middle East and beyond with the aim of dragging the US into deeper and wider military commitments, which very well might bring an already exhausted US military to the brink of ruin. That Trump announced the deployment of a further 3,500 US soldiers to the Middle East today to meet and counter “imminent” Iranian threats speaks to this point.
More worryingly for Americans now is the fact that Iran’s armed proxy forces don’t only reside in far away overseas places, but also here in the United States.
More worryingly for Americans now is the fact that Iran’s armed proxy forces don’t only reside in far away overseas places, but also here in the United States, as recently revealed in the 2019 trial of Ali Kourani, a senior Hezbollah operative in New York.
“While living in the United States, Kourani served as an operative of Hezbollah in order to help the foreign terrorist organization prepare for potential future attacks against the United States,” said John Demers, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security.
In fact, Kourani was part of a sleeper cell for the “Black Ops of Hezbollah,” an elite behind-the-lines force that reports to Hezbollah in Lebanon but takes its orders from Iran.
“There would be certain scenarios that would require action or conduct by those who belonged to the cell,” Kourani told the FBI.
Kourani said that if the US waged war on Iran, or attacked Hezbollah or Iranian interests, then his sleeper cell and others like his would be called upon to act.
The killing of the Ayatollah’s right-hand man, an Iranian hero, would certainly meet these per-conditions, and given Hezbollah is the most successful and effective extremist and fanatically militant organization the world has ever known, there’s good reason for grave concerns.
Furthermore, Kourani was directed to procure arms, carry out surveillance of airports and military facilities and compile a list of Jewish American citizens in New York.
“Hezbollah has crossed a threshold and is, at a minimum, developing North American networks capable of executing attacks should the group’s leadership deem them necessary,” observes Matthew Levitt, author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.
While there’s no doubt Soleimani was a dastardly character with the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and American soldiers on his hands, Trump has only further endangered American lives.
Time will tell what Iran does next. While there’s no doubt Soleimani was a dastardly character with the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and American soldiers on his hands, Trump has only further endangered American lives. He also has poured more gasoline on an already volatile Middle East at a time when the US is confronted with the threat of a rising China and a more aggressive Russia.