The last several weeks have seen a dangerous escalation in US-Iran tensions in the Gulf. Following the pro-Iranian, Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah’s (KH) attack on a US facility that killed an American contractor and injured others, the US responded with several airstrikes on KH’s camps in Syria and Iraq, killing an estimated 25 militants. Shortly after those attacks, a KH-inspired demonstration resulted in an assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, investing the embassy’s lobby area, challenging the Marine Security Guard force and causing extensive damage with the start of a fire.
How Will Iran Respond to the Assassination of Qassem Soleimani?
That General Qassem Soleimani — working with KH commander and long-wanted terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — was behind the embassy incident is a given. Soleimani was the almost legendary force behind the Quds Force’s and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) activities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia for years, if not decades. He had been considered to be Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top security and policy adviser for the Middle East. In the short term, Soleimani’s death on January 3 in a US drone strike in Baghdad is a major setback for Iran and its aggressive policies throughout the region. The impact of his absence cannot be exaggerated.
Soleimani had long been the regional nemesis of the US, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in the 2003-11 Iraq War and the chief strategist behind Iranian successes in Syria and Yemen’s civil wars. The general was doubtlessly on the US hit list for some time.
The US and Iran are now inexorably moving toward open confrontation. Going after such a high-level official, likely seen as a “strategic” target, is tantamount to an act of war and will surely prompt Iranian retaliation. Here are a few questions to consider, however, as the various conflict scenarios are considered.
Why This and Why Now?
First, why this particular action and why now? The US could just as easily have attacked Iranian non-personnel assets in the Gulf. That would have been a seemingly sensible response to the embassy invasion in Baghdad — i.e., physical asset for physical asset. In fact, KH’s attack on the embassy, which reportedly involved no deaths or injuries of Americans or Iraqis, could have been interpreted as an attempt to adjust the retaliatory options to non-personnel after the US had bombed the KH camps.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper previously stated that Iran was planning attacks on US facilities and personnel in the Middle East. That is only slightly more likely now after this latest escalation than it had been since President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. Iran, too, has no doubt always had all sorts of options for striking out against the US.
So, the fact that the US would act peremptorily against Iran and especially the inspiration behind Tehran’s anti-US campaign, Qassem Soleimani, is entirely logical. But not to overstate the point, Soleimani wasn’t just any Iranian target. His killing must lead to an appropriately proportionate retaliatory action(s) on Iran’s part. The US will surely know that it has moved its conflict with Iran to a much higher and more threatening level.
In so far as timing, well, 2020 is an election year in the US. (Coincidentally, 2020 is an election year in Iran, too. This year, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament and, in 2021, they will elect a new president.) And nothing rallies Americans like war, especially against a long-despised enemy like Iran. President Trump, depending on which poll and pundit one chooses to believe, faces less-than-certain prospects for reelection in November. One can always hope that no president would willingly lead the US into war simply to boost his reelection prospects, but history and this president’s unorthodox approach to governing suggest something different.
The timing is also a factor in Iran, which has been racked by anti-government protests and demonstrations for months. According to some reports, some 1,500 Iranians may have died at the hands of government forces in these protests. The government’s popularity and that of its theocratic leadership may be at an all-time low. An attack like this on a high-ranking general, however, might rally Iranians to support their leaders or, at the very least, pause those protests. That would undermine US hopes, as impractical and far-fetched as they might be, for regime change in Iran.
Over to Iran…
A second consideration must be the manner of Iran’s retaliation. The killing of such a revered Iranian figure demands a strong response. But the Iranians are well aware that they cannot afford to be drawn into an open conflict with the US. America’s dominant naval and air power in the region and its ability to marshal even greater resources are unmatchable. Going toe-to-toe on a battlefield with the US would be unwise and end badly for the Iranians.
But Iran has resources and assets at its disposal. It has a long list of proxy groups that are more than willing and able to strike not only US targets, but Israeli, Saudi and other allies’ facilities, cities and personnel as well. US embassies and bases in the region — including but not limited to the Gulf, the broader Middle East and even Europe — are unquestionably possible Iranian targets. Senior US officials, including ambassadors, generals and senior administration officials, should be considered as high risk, as well as virtually all other US government personnel in those areas.
The Lebanese Hezbollah, which is based in southern Lebanon and armed with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, might easily be called upon to launch multiple and repeated salvos against Israeli targets across the border, including major urban areas like Tel Aviv and Haifa. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates may be targets and, at the very least, American facilities and personnel in those countries, too.
Iran may be circumspect about further escalation in Iraq, however, given recent popular Iraqi outrage over Iran’s already outsized influence there. Iraq is critically important to Iran, and it cannot afford to jeopardize its now shaken presence and influence in that country. Yet attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq may not be as upsetting to Iraqis. Nevertheless, Iraq’s unsettled political situation following months of intense popular demonstrations and hundreds of deaths urges greater caution for Iran.
In truth, the list of possible Iranian targets is nearly endless, given America’s ubiquitous presence around the world. In reality, the global US footprint increases its vulnerability. For Iran, it’s only a question of which one(s) and when.
Inevitable Escalation… Then What?
Given the inevitably of Iranian retaliation, the final question seems clear: Then what? This US administration has put little stock in diplomacy, the one approach that could potentially defuse the crisis. Even quiet diplomacy employing US allies who have relations with Iran in an effort to get the Iranians into talks would help now. But President Trump’s penchant for insulting traditional allies and denigrating their leaders — think Germany, France and Britain, who are perhaps the best suited for this sort of quiet, under-the-radar diplomacy — makes the chances for this sort of de-escalation tactic disappointingly low. But even Russia and China, both of whom maintain relatively good relations with Iran, have a stake in this and could also play potentially helpful roles.
One thing we can be certain of, however, is that the US can forget about issuing ultimatums. They were never truly effective and even less so against an ideologically-committed leadership like Iran’s.
Given the Trump administration’s aversion to diplomacy with adversaries, is there no alternative to open conflict between the US and Iran? What would that mean for the Middle East, its millions of inhabitants and the shaky governing institutions in them? Then there are the oil markets — expect higher oil prices for the duration — and the concomitant impact on the global economy. What would American voters think about that?
The inevitable question is, of course: Could there ultimately be an all-out war? Yes, there could but, in fact, such an outcome would be unpredictable, horrendously costly and serve neither country’s long-term interests. Nevertheless, escalation has a way of getting out of control. And in the case of two nations that could not despise each other more, a conflict once begun may not be controllable.
That is probably the biggest reason why one side or the other — I nominate the US — must find a way to begin de-escalating the situation. Quiet diplomacy to get a temporary truce followed by something more substantial and enduring that addresses underlying tensions and issues ought to be the ultimate goal. It is in the interest of any and all conceivable parties.
As anxious as Iranians and Americans may be over this latest flare-up, the rest of the world should be equally nervous. Two nations that view one another as so patently loathsome and are governed by unorthodox leaderships are on a collision course. Coming off a tumultuous 2019, 2020 is not off to a hopeful start.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.