Iran’s Options for Retaliation… between Diplomacy and Military Action
Iran’s leaders promised to avenge the Trump-ordered killing of General Qassem Soliemani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threatened the American president with strong and angry words, but he did not make any reference to a direct full blown war. With tensions rising in the region since the killing, Khamenei finds himself in a position in which he cannot call for restraint without seeming weak to his people and his proxies in the region. He may opt for revenge for this reason, but it would probably be small-scale.
What are Tehran’s choices? Here are a few:
An American Homeland Security intelligence report last December laid out three primary Iranian military abilities: The ballistic missile program, the naval forces that could threaten the Gulf’s ability to produce oil, and its proxies in states like Syria Lebanon and Iraq. Iran claims to have high precision missiles and drones that could be used to attack US bases in the Gulf its arch nemesis Israel.
Tehran or its proxies could attack oil tankers in the Gulf and Red Sea or close off shipping lanes, for both and oil and non-oil related trade. However, the Americans claim that this would cross its “red line” and it would take the step necessary to reopen these routes.
Perhaps the greatest danger is to the American troops deployed in the Middle East, since Iran depends mostly on its proxies and asymmetrical warfare tactic. Iran has already passed on the needed weapons and technical expertise to these allies as we saw in Yemen where the Houthis used Iranian-made missiles and aircraft.
Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq have already attacked American bases there. In June, Iran shot down a US drone with a surface-to-air missile, pushing both sides to the brink of direct conflict.
Ali Alfouna, a senior fellow at the Institute of the Arab Gulf States in Washington, said that Iran was unlikely to move quickly, adding: “Iran has no choice but to respond and avenge the assassination of General Soleimani ... but the Islamic Republic is patient, and the timing and nature of the strike is an issue. It is unknown to us now."
Iran and its allies can flex their muscle outside the region as well. In 1994, a member of the Lebanese Hezbollah party blew up the building of a Jewish Argentine Association in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people.
"The most likely course of action is that proxy attacks directed at America and its allies’ interests, regionally and even globally, will persist," said Karim Sajadoor of the Carnegie Institute. "Iran has a long history of conducting such attacks in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, with varying degrees of success."
Iranian leaders have previously kept the door open to diplomacy to achieve their goals, especially while their country's economy struggles under the pressure of US sanctions.
Reuters quotes a senior regional diplomat claiming: "Iran and America have worked together in the past. They worked together in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; they have mutual interests and enemies. A military confrontation would be very costly for both sides, but diplomacy can solve many problems, and this is one of the options." Iran refuses to hold any talks with the United States, before Washington recommits to the 2015 nuclear agreement, and lifts all sanctions it has imposed on Tehran since it withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington was committed to easing tensions after Soleimani's death.
Sajadoor goes on: "While many speculate about a third world war, the last 40 years of Iranian history demonstrate that the most important thing for Tehran is its survival. Tehran cannot afford the cost of an all-out war with the United States, while facing crushing economic sanctions and internal disturbances, especially without Soleimani."