The assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani ordered by Donald Trump is the most aggressive escalation yet in the conflict between the United States and Iran, risking violent retaliation and volatility across the Middle East.
While US officials now warn of a potential Iranian response, analysts say there are a variety of forms that such a reprisal may take.
As head of Iran’s Quds Force elite military unit, Soleimani was the central figure in Iran’s foreign clandestine operations and its network of military proxies. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council held an emergency meeting on Friday following the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani, with supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei attending in a show of how important Soleimani’s death is to the Iranian government.
Khamenei has vowed “forceful revenge” against the US for Soleimani’s death, while other Iranian officials condemned the attack and similarly promised retribution. Already backed into a corner by Trump’s maximum pressure campaign of economic sanctions, analysts expect that Iran will retaliate but say a traditional military conflict isn’t something Tehran considers advantageous.
“Iran has known for a very long time that it can’t win in any kind of conventional military warfare with the United States, but it has proven to be very sophisticated at asymmetric warfare,” Ellie Geranmayeh, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told HuffPost.
Iran’s conventional military forces lag behind those of the United States and Israel, another adversary, and it’s much more adept at relying on insurgent-style attacks and proxies to exert its influence. Iran cultivated a wide network of pro-Iranian militias under Soleimani’s leadership, and it’s possible that after his death those become the primary actors in responding to his killing.
The US has a wide range of interests, assets and allies that could all become targets for an Iranian response. These range from embassies and consulates to shipping routes and oil facilities, according to Naysan Rafati, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Iran may additionally target U.S. partners in the Middle East, which would threaten to draw more actors into the conflict. The U.S. and other nations have already put embassies on security alert, and on Friday, American defence officials announced the deployment of over 3,000 additional troops to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran.
Iran and its proxies could also seek to target U.S. personnel in the region or carry out their own assassinations, an extreme option that would almost certainly lead to further escalations in the conflict.
With “the US president coming out in a tweet to publicly condone the assassination of an Iranian official, you are now basically opening up space for a huge range of possible targeted killings and retaliation from Iran,” Geranmayeh said. “The very public nature in which the US is boasting about the assassination is cornering Iran into a position where they have to respond in kind.”
But Iran is also wary that an overt attack against the US or its interests abroad could result in airstrikes on Iranian soil, experts say, and could opt for a more indirect approach. Many of the attacks against American-affiliated entities in the past year have come from Iranian-linked militias and allowed Tehran a degree of plausible deniability. These militias also have varying degrees of independence, and given that the leader of the Iranian-linked Popular Mobilisation Forces was also killed in Thursday’s airstrike, they may seek reprisal on their own that may further complicate the situation.
“Some of these groups have their own reasons now to act with or without instruction from Tehran,” Rafati said. “You have a wide array of possible actors, either acting on guidance from Iran or on their own initiative, across a very fragile regional chessboard.”
Military action is also not Iran’s only avenue for responding to Soleimani’s death. Since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018 and has since imposed harsh economic sanctions, Iran has continually threatened to no longer comply with the agreement to curb its nuclear program and has taken provocative but largely reversible steps to increase its uranium enrichment. Prior to Soleimani’s death, Iran was expected to issue a statement on its nuclear plans next week and may use the opportunity to announce a more aggressive move away from the nuclear deal and towards weapons-level enrichment.
There is also the potential for Iran to carry out cyber attacks against the US as a means of avoiding conventional conflict, although the country likely lacks the capability to carry out a large scale operation against infrastructure or heavily secured targets.
Whatever Iran’s response, analysts warn that the assassination of Soleimani creates a situation where deescalation is unlikely. Although the US intended the killing to be a deterrent against Iran’s foreign influence operations, in the short term it may bring increased threats to Americans abroad, heighten the possibility of open conflict with Iran, and draw the US further into foreign entanglements.
“In the past week things have moved so fast,” Geranmayeh said. “It’s not clear to me how we have a cooling off period.”