(Bloomberg) -- Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threatened “severe retaliation” against the U.S. for the assassination of the country’s most prominent military commander, but he may be limited in what he can do.
While Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told state TV that the Islamic Republic’s response can come “at any time and by any means,” U.S. sanctions have hobbled his nation’s economy. Any action that triggered a conventional war with the U.S. would put the Shiite Muslim power at a severe disadvantage.
Anti-government protests have also challenged the regime’s dominance in Iraq, Lebanon and at home. Now, in Al Quds commander Qassem Soleimani, Iranians have lost the very man they would have relied upon to craft an effective response.
Tehran’s strategy since President Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that had promised rapprochement between Iran and the West suggests any retaliation will likely be measured. It needs to be significant enough to reflect Soleimani’s stature, though not enough to invite an unbridled conflict with the world’s military superpower. Such controlled reprisals could include a strike at diplomatic staff or cyberattacks.
“I don’t think either the U.S. or Iran want all-out war,” said Sir Tom Beckett, a former lieutenant general in the British Army and now executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East. “The U.S. needed to assert its willingness to take military action alongside its campaign of exerting maximum economic pressure.” That has now been done. The bigger question is whether the removal of Soleimani, a national hero to many Iranians, proves to have been part of a wider strategy.
The U.S. and Iran are effectively already at war. Since at least the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s approach to challenging American power was to assemble and strengthen proxy Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He then used these to prosecute a hybrid war against the U.S. and its regional allies at arm’s length, without triggering a direct response from Washington.
The Trump administration plans to send about 2,800 troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne division to Kuwait to act as an additional deterrent against Iran. The new U.S. contingent will join about 700 troops dispatched to Kuwait earlier this week as part of the division’s rapid-reaction “ready battalion,” according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing the deployment. The U.S. already had about 60,000 personnel.
Successive administrations underGeorge W. Bush and Barack Obama chose not to risk an escalation despite Soleimani’s responsibility for U.S. fatalities. Now it’s Iran that will have to weigh the risks of a determined response. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put it hour before the drone strike in Baghdad: “The game has changed.”
Yet despite Khamenei’s stark threat, Iran is unlikely to reach for a maximal option, such as a missile strike on American bases in Bahrain or elsewhere in the Gulf. To do so would invite suicide, analysts say.
“This is an intensely dangerous moment, but as always with Iran, we should be wary of hyperbolic predictions,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “Tehran is well practiced at calibrating retaliation around its real interests, which ultimately concern regime survival and targeting its reprisals with deliberation and precision.”
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In the past, it was Soleimani who made those calibrations. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Soleimani ran the elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that specialized in unconventional warfare and overseas operations.
They included a series of pinpoint attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf last year that culminated with a daring attack on a Saudi oil facility. No fatalities were reported in any of the attacks and neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia had a response.
Soleimani’s network of militias appear to have triggered his death. They shelled a U.S. base in Iraq, killing a U.S. contractor, and then stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, evoking memories of the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. had struck out at Soleimani because it had information he was planning further attacks against U.S. personnel.
Those militias remain the most effective and usable military tool at Iran’s disposal. Soleimani’s deputy, who was quickly named as the new Quds force chief, said the group’s strategy would not change.
The question, according to British military strategist Beckett and others, is where Khamenei will opt to strike and at what level -- with a single dramatic action, or multiple much smaller attacks that would make it harder for the U.S. to escalate again.
“Iranian leaders are unlikely to lash out blindly,” said Maloney. “Instead, they will indulge in the short-term opportunity to whip up nationalism and wait for the best opportunity to inflict damage on U.S. interests and allies.”
Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group predicted on Friday that Iran’s immediate response would likely involve low to moderate level clashes inside Iraq, with Iranian-backed militias attacking U.S. bases, renewed harassment of shipping in the Gulf and other strikes around the world that could be hard to anticipate. A cyberattack is one option Iranian officials are almost certainly considering, according to some experts.
Zarif said Friday that the consequences of the U.S. killing Soleimani will be “broad” and will be out of Iran’s hands because of the general’s widespread popularity in the region.
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Unlike the political assassination in the Balkans that triggered World War I, the fallout out from Thursday’s attack is likely to be far less widespread, according to Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East Security at the London-based IISS.
“This is not a Franz Ferdinand moment,” said Hokayem. “It’s at best an inflection point. Hundreds of thousands have been dying in the region over the last 10 years or so, including at the hands of Soleimani. The U.S. and Iran are already at war.”
(Updates with Zarif’s comment, U.S. troops dispatched starting in second paragraph)
--With assistance from Lin Noueihed, Glen Carey and Polina Noskova.
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