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.”
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
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
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.