Iran’s Options for Avenging Soleimani’s Assassination
The first step the American administration did after the attack on a US base in Iraq at the end of last year was blame Iran or its proxies in the region for any assault against American interests. The second step was US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s announcement on Thursday that Washington intends to carry out preemptive strikes against Iran. Hours later, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Forces, Qasem Soleimani, was assassinated in Baghdad.
With that, the American-Iranian confrontation has become direct after it was being waged covert ways. Washington has sent a strong message to Tehran: If American officials are targeted, then the response will be strong. The question, however, remains: How will Iran avenge the assassination of the “engineer” of its expansion in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Lebanon? Will it retaliate directly or through its proxies? And where?
Iran may decide to escalate the confrontation by directly targeting American interests and bases through jet strikes or surface-to-surface missiles. The IRGC had previously struck ISIS targets in northeastern Syria with ballistic missiles on three occasions, the last of which was in October 2018 in Soleimani’s presence.
Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, American forces and Iran-backed groups, especially the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have learned to live together in an uneasy existence characterized by rivalry and selective cooperation. American interests and bases had come under 11 attacks by Iran-backed groups, but the strike on December 29 was different. It left a US contractor dead and wounded others.
Considering that Soleimani’s assassination took place in Baghdad and that Iran wields strong influence in Iraq, it is likely Tehran may choose to avenge his death there. It may influence efforts aimed at reviewing the security agreement between Iraq and the US and possibly reconsider cooperation in any future war on ISIS.
US President Donald Trump last month announced that he was keeping 500 American troops in the region east of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border. He also decided to maintain American presence in the al-Tanf base near the border with Syria, Iraq and Jordan. It is widely believed that the real reason for maintaining the deployment is aimed at blocking the establishment of any land route that connects Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon together. This coincided with Tehran bolstering its presence in Syria’s Alboukamal border region and setting up military bases to find an alternate route. Soleimani was seen on several occasions celebrating the “breach” of Washington’s attempt to block the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut route.
The presence of American forces in close proximity with Iranian groups makes them a target. Israel had on several occasions carried out raids against the Alboukamal bases.
Another option would be for Iranian groups to launch attacks from the Golan Heights. Such an attack had taken place in November. The situation in that area, however, is under Russian military control and Tel Aviv and Moscow are making sure to avert any flareups there. As a precaution, Israel shut on Friday a ski resort in the Golan in anticipation of any possible Iran-backed attack from Syria or Lebanon.
Iran boasts a strong presence in Lebanon through the Hezbollah party, making it possible that Soleimani may be avenged from its territories. Back in 2015, Hezbollah launched a “limited” operation in southern Lebanon in retaliation against Tel Aviv’s assassination of two prominent party figures in southern Syria.
Soleimani’s assassination coincides with efforts in Lebanon to form a new government as the country grapples with the worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war. Lebanon is also committed to United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 despite Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria.
Hamas and the “Islamic Jihad” were quick to condemn Soleimani’s assassination. The Iranian official had personally overseen the structuring of the relationship between these two Palestinian factions. Recent months, however, have revealed rifts between them, significantly after Israel’s assassination of Jihad official Baha Abu Al-Atta. Moreover, in recent months, Hamas has been turning more and more to its Arab surroundings, not Iran. It has strengthened its relations with Egypt and sought to resolve the economic crisis in Gaza, while also seeking a long-term truce with Israel. An all-out war between it and Tel Aviv is not in the cards.
This does not apply to the Jihad, which has a deeper alliance with Iran, but not as much influence as Hamas. Ultimately, any developments in Gaza are more connected to the situation in Lebanon than that in Iraq.
Iran has repeatedly, through its proxies, threatened to launch attacks against American interests and bases in the Gulf. The Pentagon has recently deployed more than 750 soldiers to Kuwait to bolster its presence in the region, in stark contrast to Trump’s previous announcement that he was seeking to withdraw American troops from the Middle East.
Tehran had launched last year complex military attacks in the Gulf, including the downing of an American drone in June. Iran had sought to avoid targeting American troops deployed in the region because Washington had only been applying economic pressure on it. It has hesitated in attacking American vessels in the Gulf, despite its hostile strategy in confronting Washington’s policy of “maximum pressure” against it.
Iran may turn to its Houthi militia proxies to avenge Soleimani. The militia boasts an arsenal of drones and ballistic and cruise missiles, which it had used to attack ships and airports.
Iran may decide to attack American troops in Afghanistan where Washington boasts its largest military presence in the region. Tehran may exploit its relations with the Taliban to carry out the retaliation.