Regional experts are ruling out the possibility of direct military conflict between Iran and the US but they also expect a strong retaliation from Tehran.
As Iranian military general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a precision airstrike on Friday, ordered by US President Donald Trump, a dominant discourse amongst security experts is that Tehran and Washington are heading towards a prolonged conflict.
Speaking to various experts, here are the possible scenarios that are likely to play out in the near future.
Renewed proxy war in Iraq
Adem Yilmaz, an Istanbul-based expert on Iran, told TRT World that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who wields a strong influence on the country's foreign policy, would want to retaliate against the US by using Iraq as a proxy battleground.
While Iraq's powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr announced the reactivation of his Mahdi army soon after the US airstrike, Yilmaz said it's an indication that Sadr, who was a formidable rival of the US during its invasion of Iraq in 2003, is now part of Tehran's military plans.
The US has killed the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Major General Qasem Soleimani, along with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the deputy chief of an Iranian-backed militia network, in an air strike on their convoy at Baghdad airport pic.twitter.com/e53irgF864— TRT World (@trtworld) January 3, 2020
Even if contained, according to a Financial Times analyst, the conflict between the US and Iran is likely to "scatter more sparks across a region deeply scarred by war and turmoil," besides exposing the international oil market to new vulnerabilities as the oil prices have already jumped 3 per cent a barrel soon after the news of Soleimani’s assassination was made public.
A measured response
Tehran-based Iranian journalist Fereshteh Sadeghi told TRT World that the consequences of Soleimani's killing will be "felt in a few weeks or months".
"At the moment I do not believe that there will be an escalation against the US within Iraq because the US has already moved reinforcements. An immediate response is not an Iranian way of retaliation," Sadeghi said.
Soleimani was one of the most decorated military generals of Iran and Tehran, according to experts, will take time to move on from his loss and again be as "self-assured" as they have been in the past decade.
Will Iraq plunge into another civil war?
Sadeghi ruled out the possibility of Iraq slipping into yet another cycle of civil war.
“This time there are no Sunni insurgents taking up arms against the central government,” she said.
For months, Iraq grappled with furious protests, driven by young people who are frustrated because of a dysfunctional economy, corruption and the pervasive influence of Iran.
With the US airstrikes hitting an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia earlier this week, following with the second strike targetting Solemani, the Iraqi anger has now turned back on the US.
Harsh economic reality
Ankara-based political analyst Ali Bakeer said Iran cannot afford a direct military conflict with the US, in light of its harsh economic reality.
"The Iranians, and Khamenei in particular, underestimated the US response as did the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad. They paid the price," he said.
"I don't believe that Iran is prepared for a direct counterstrike in view of the harsh economic situation, its regional isolation and recent protests against its influence in countries like Iraq and Lebanon. However, an indirect response through its regional allies is always a convenient option."
Additional reporting by TRT Deutsch's Ali Ozkok.