Iran has promised revenge for the killing of top military commander Qassem Soleimani. The Islamic Republic’s response will be carefully calculated, but could lead to spiralling violence.
In a history book recording the Iran-Iraq war, faded photos of a young Qassem Soleimani show a fighter in a khaki anorak, with dark hair and eyes. Standing in front of piles of sandbags, he’s flanked by men in sand-coloured military uniforms. It’s not clear exactly when or where the picture was taken, but it was likely during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The caption describes some of them as “martyrs” – indicating that they were subsequently killed in battle.
Qassem Soleimani joined his comrades in achieving martyrdom status – much-lauded among Iran’s military forces and its regional proxies – on Friday morning, after a US drone strike hit his convoy near Baghdad International Airport in the Iraqi capital.
The photo is testimony to just how long Qassem Soleimani has been militarily active. The young man in the pictures had joined Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1979, and rose through the ranks to become chief commander of its external branch, the Quds Force, in 1998. At the time of his death yesterday, he was Iran’s most formidable modern military commander, having masterminded campaigns in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria that ultimately led to the deaths of thousands of people. He was subject to multiple sanctions by Washington, who held him responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US troops in the Middle East.
The strike that took him out – alongside four other IRGC commanders and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi paramilitary leader close to Soleimani, came after a US contractor was killed in a rocket attack in northern Iraq in late December.
US officials have made it clear that the contractor’s death, and an attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iran militias last week, were game-changers when it came to confrontations between the long-time foes in Washington and Tehran.
Although they are well aware that the Islamic Republic will respond in some shape or form to Soleimani’s killing, US officials hope that Iran will de-escalate. In other words, they hope that the response will be on a smaller scale than the US strikes that killed Soleimani and Muhandis, rather than a notch upwards in terms of severity. To put that in perspective, a similar level of response to the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis would be taking out top US generals in the Middle East.
The Iraqi government appears furious with Washington at using its territory to settle scores with Iran, and for going well beyond the role of supporting anti-Daesh (ISIS) operations, which is the main reason the US military gives for maintaining a presence in Iraq. Security forces called the strike on Soleimani and Muhandis, a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” As for the international community, because no one quite as significant as Soleimani has ever been taken out in similar circumstances, there is little precedent, leaving analysts, governments and the world media to wait and see how Iran responds.
As surely as day becomes night, officials at the highest levels of the Iranian government quickly confirmed there would be retaliation for Soleimani’s killing, which Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif described as an “act of international terrorism.”
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said there would be “harsh retaliation” for what it described as the USA’s “criminal adventures” in the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, at the “appropriate time and place.”
The council is responsible for Iran’s major foreign policy and security decisions, which need the green light of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Iran could react in one of several ways, although it is impossible to predict exactly how or when. One analyst in Tehran supportive of Soleimani told me, “I know that the ultimate goal of Iran is to make the US leave the region. But how it will be done, I don’t know.”
The response could be direct, or through proxy networks in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The IRGC also supports militant groups in Bahrain, where there were protests following Soleimani’s death on Friday.
Even before the latest series of events, tensions between Iran and the US had been simmering. Rockets allegedly fired by Iran-backed militias in Iraq have fallen near military bases housing US troops, and the Green Zone, where the US Embassy is located. In June, President Trump nearly launched a military strike against Iran after the IRGC shot down a US military drone over the Strait of Hormuz. In September, Iranian proxy Hezbollah and US ally Israel exchanged missile fire following the killing of Hezbollah operatives in Syria.
But it’s difficult to ascertain what these proxies would target, and how. The US killing of Soleimani in response to the American contractor’s death, allegedly at the hands of pro-Iran Iraqi militia, shows that Washington is now ready to meet Tehran’s use of its proxies with targeted, high-level killings.
Attempted strikes on northern Israel, probably via Iranian proxies in Syria, aren’t off the cards. The Hezbollah-Israel Defence Forces exchange in August was prompted by the IDF taking out two Hezbollah operatives who’d been planning a drone attack on Israel from Syrian territory. The two men, also lauded as martyrs, had received instruction from the IRGC, and this planned attack set a precedent for the sort of operations that the Quds Force and its allies could and would plan out of Syria. Cognisant of heightened risks, northern Israel has been on alert since yesterday morning, although not quite at the same level as last summer.
Hostage-taking is another possibility. Iran has favoured kidnapping since the infamous US hostage crisis that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since then, Iran-backed militias have kidnapped and killed locals and foreigners in Iraq, and Iranian authorities have imprisoned dual-national citizens, occasionally freeing them in prisoner exchanges. Hostages could be seized anywhere Iran operates proxies, especially in Iraq – a danger underscored by the seizing of two French journalists during attacks on the US Embassy compound in Baghdad this week by pro-Iran Iraqi militants.
There could be further rocket attacks on US military sites or military vessels in Iraq or the Gulf region, where the US deployed around 14,000 additional troops over summer and autumn 2019, according to the Associated Press. A senior IRGC commander in southern Iran has said that 35 US targets, as well as Tel Aviv in Israel, are within the forces’ reach.
There is also an increased risk of “unofficial” responses by ardent Soleimani fans that could mean street violence or greater-than-usual harassment of anyone criticizing the revered commander. Such was the aura created around him, that some supporters will want to take matters into their own hands.
Whether by boots on the ground or missile or drone attacks, a response threatens to pull the region into a maelstrom. If the Iranian response prompts yet further reaction from the US, and the confrontation escalates even further, tension between those who support and oppose Iran could rise, and with it the risk of further casualties, including civilians. Iraqis are fearful that US-Iran escalation resulting from Soleimani's death will play out on their soil. Amid all the politicking in Washington DC, it’s people in the region, including in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gulf, who, stand to lose most from the fall out.
And at the same time, Iran doesn’t want to walk into all-out war. Its economy is falling through the floor, and it needs stability more than ever. The fiery rhetoric from Tehran suggests a large-scale attack on American interests somewhere in the Middle East region, but in Iran’s case, words speak louder than actions. Iran’s leaders would rather find a way of responding that satisfies parts of the population and regional proxies expecting vengeance, while avoiding escalation into more prolonged or intense conflict with the US or its allies that it cannot afford.
In the immediate period of reflection, Soleimani’s supporters will mourn and idealise him: online memes lauding him as a “martyr”, and carrying the threatening words, “a harsh retaliation” in English, Arabic and Farsi, are already circulating on pro-IRGC social media channels. Soleimani is not irreplaceable, but Iran’s top military brass and the Supreme Leader will devote time to commemorating him, before working out its next steps, carefully.
What form the Iranian leadership’s response will take, and when, are not yet clear. It will likely bide its time. The US strike will not lessen support for Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC and its proxy network. Meanwhile, many of the civilians who suffered from the brutal conflicts that Soleimani masterminded, including in Syria, are celebrating his death. Even if the Iranian response isn’t quite as severe as its leaders boast, more violence and bloodshed could be on their way. The life of the young man in the khaki anorak was far from peaceful, and his legacy may be no more so.