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Iran Threatens Retaliation, Here’s What Could Happen Next

Neither the US nor Iran really wants a full-scale war.

Iran fired back with a salvo of words on Friday after a strike in Baghdad killed a top Iranian general. The US has now confirmed that Major-General Qasem Soleimani was killed by an American airstrike from a drone rather than by a Katyusha rocket attack as was initially reported.

After the killing on Friday, Iran vowed retaliation against the US. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said in a tweet that the “great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.” Rouhani said that Iran would raise the flag of Soleimani against “terrorism and extremism in the region” as well as “US excesses.”

NBC News reported that the supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that “harsh retaliation is waiting for the criminals whose filthy hands spilled his blood.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif added that the attack was “an act of state terrorism and a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”

There are many possibilities for Iranian retaliation around the world. A State Department report from 2018 detailed how Iran supports terrorist groups around the world as well as presenting a threat to maritime commerce in their own backyard. In the past year, Iran has attacked ships in the Persian Gulf, shot down a US drone, and been linked to a drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities.

With theater-range ballistic missiles, Iran could launch attacks on neighboring countries a far away as Egypt, Israel, and Eastern Europe. Using terror cells and cyberattacks, they could strike almost anywhere in the world. Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities have also been judged to be “ahead of most nations in strategy and organization” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies but are not as advanced as those of Russia and China.

Even worse is the possibility that Iran could strike the US at home. There have been numerous recent reports that Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy group, has terror cells within the United States. Among the reports are a Washington Institute report detailing the FBI capture of two Hezbollah operatives tasked with “carrying out pre-operational surveillance for potential Hezbollah attacks in the United States and Panama.”

The attack on Soleimani and his cohorts was a legitimate target of opportunity. The Iranian general headed a covert warfare branch of the Revolutionary Guards and was meeting with pro-Iranian militia and terrorist leaders in Baghdad in an obvious effort to undermine the US and the government of Iraq.  

The big question is what comes next. Even though justified, Soliemani’s death is an escalation that raises the possibility of a broader war with Iran. A conventional invasion and occupation of Iran would be much more difficult than the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran has a military comprised of nearly 1 million men per the Military Times and sophisticated anti-shipping missiles that could close off the Persian Gulf to the US Navy. Russia and China upgraded Iran’s air defense system over the past decade into a state-of-the-art integrated missile system that would be much more difficult to destroy than that of Iraq. Much of Iranian geography consists of mountainous terrain that would be amenable to a Taliban-style insurgency.

One of the most important considerations, however, is that the American public, after two decades of the War on Terror, is not in the mood to embark upon another long war. Neither is President Trump, who has been conducting on-again/off-again negotiations with the Taliban to allow the US cover to withdraw from Afghanistan and has tried twice to disengage in Syria. The Iranians know this and will undoubtedly be skeptical that President Trump has the stomach for a full-scale war.

Likewise, Iran knows that it cannot withstand the full force of the American military. They will avoid direct confrontation that could provoke the US into a regime-destroying war.

The conflict will most likely settle into a low-intensity battle of covert forces and one-off missile strikes by both sides. Terror attacks at home and cyberattacks on US companies and government agencies are a real threat in coming months as Iran must act to save face.

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