In August 2019, the International Crisis Group published an analysis in which they said that “a single attack by rocket, drone or limpet mine could set off a military escalation between the United States and Iran and their respective regional allies and proxies that could prove impossible to contain.” Coming days will show if the time of the red lines has gone. If Iran does not immediately and fiercely respond to the US killing of Qassem Soleimani, Washing will interpret Tehran’s inactivity as a sign of weakness and will keep provoking the Islamic Republic until Iran de facto capitulates to the United States.
Sarajevo 1914, Baghdad 2020
According to some analysts, the killing of the Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on January 3 2020 could be for the Middle East what the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was for Europe. Qasssem Soleimani was not just a battlefield commander, but also part of the Iranian political system, which means that the US action can be interpreted as a political assassination. Soleimani was probably the most powerful figure in Iran after its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There is no doubt that, for Tehran, his death is seen as an act of war. The United States, on the other hand, sent a strong message to Iranian leadership by killing the Quds Force commander – you cannot humiliate the world’s only superpower.
While the world was busy celebrating New Year’s Eve, Iranian proxies in Baghdad broke into compound of the US Embassy. It was a reaction to the American strikes on the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia group in Iraq and Syria, which resulted in death of 25 fighters. In a humiliating day for Washington, hundreds of demonstrators besieged the US compound, at one point breaching the main gate and smashing their way into several reception rooms. They lit fires, battered down doors, and lobbed bricks at bulletproof glass. Even though they could have tried to fully capture the embassy and take hostages, which would be an adequate response to the US attack, the Iran-backed protesters eventually left the compound. That way, Tehran showed that it is not ready for a full-scale escalation. Instead, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replied to the US President Donald Trump on Twitter:
“This guy tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the Baghdad events and we will respond to Iran. There is nothing you can do.”
Khamenei was, obviously, wrong. He underestimated the United States and its might. Qasssem Soleimani fell victim of the rhetoric of his own country. After his death, Iran kept posing empty threats to the United States. According to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, there are 35 vital US positions in region, as well as Tel Aviv in Israel, that are within Iran’s reach. That, however, does not necessarily mean Iran will attack the US positions. Over the past months, Tehran was carefully managing its own escalation, which is why casualties have remained so low.
How will Iran Respond?
At this point, Tehran cannot afford full escalation of the conflict, and a potential direct war with the US is extremely unlikely. Iranian military leaders know that the US military is much more powerful and lethal than their own forces and, therefore, will not want to risk a direct clash where they come out looking weak. Instead, Iran will try to mobilize their militia allies in Iraq and use their political influence to compel the Iraqi parliament to end the US military presence. Even if Baghdad makes such request, the United States will certainly not obey the Iraqi parliament’s decision. Since might makes right, the US troops will stay in Iraq, and America will likely increase its military presence in the region.
In that case, Iran’s backed militias are expected to attack the US bases in Iraq, which would trigger a proxy war between Iran and the United States on Iraq’s territory, and potentially in other counties as well. Tehran’s proxies across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are ideologically mobilized and organized to hit Iran’s enemy targets, allies, and interests. Iran has the “menu options” that it can use against America. Some analysts fear that the Islamic Republic can get involved in kidnapping and execution of American citizens. This might explain why the State Department has ordered the evacuation of all US citizens in Iraq, not just government and embassy employees. However, it is unlikely that Iran would target ordinary American citizens, as the so called international community would accuse Tehran of being a terror-state. Another option is to attack American diplomatic and military outposts in the Middle East, which is also improbable since that could trigger a direct confrontation with the US, which is something that Tehran seems to try to avoid by all means.
Since Washington, unlike the Islamic Republic, is not hesitating from full escalation, Iranian leaders should take Lindsey Graham’s threats seriously. The US Senator recently called for strikes on Iran’s oil refineries. It is worth mentioning that John Bolton, President Trump’s former national security adviser, said that he hopes that the killing of Sulemani is the first step to regime change in Tehran. Such statements are clearly showing that Washington does not intend to step back.
Is war imminent?
The US escalation was a deliberate choice to push Iran into a reckless reaction in order to blame it for the start of a new regional war. It is extremely unlikely that the US will give up its regime change agenda. Iran is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of energy resources, and Washington will seek to get control over Iranian natural gas and oil. Iran has two options: to respond mercilessly to the US actions, even if that means a major war, or to keep calculating and eventually provide a limited response in an attempt to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. The latter option is something that Russia has been doing ever since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014. As a result, Russia gets humiliated by the West on a daily bases, and constantly has to make concessions to those that President Vladimir Putin calls “dear Western partners”.
Unlike Russia, Iran is not heavily dependent on the West. Its businessmen do not have bank accounts in London and other Western capitals, and children of the Iranian officials do not live and study in the West. Such position provides Iran an opportunity to respond to the US by all means, regardless of the consequences. For the Islamic Republic it is imperative to retaliate. It is a matter of honor. Sooner or later, Iran will have to directly defend its sovereignty and natural resources. However, at this point it is unlikely that Tehran is determined to get involved in a major war. Iranian leadership will likely use the killing of Qassem Soleimani to consolidate the power at home, especially after the recent wave of protests.