Sam Faddis, former American intelligence officer
Recent events—the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian retaliation with missile strikes on bases in Iraq, and the downing of a Ukrainian airliner—have the entire Middle East on edge. A region tired of seemingly endless war and conflict wonders if the worst is yet to come. Are we standing on the edge of a conventional conflict between the United States and Iran, and, if so, what does that mean for everyone else? It is time for calm, sober reflection and clear analysis of what has happened and what has yet to come.
America Changes the Rules
The killing of General Soleimani, the leader of the Qods Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is not an isolated incident. The press is obsessed with the timing of the strike, what specific acts Soleimani was planning, and the precise intelligence relied upon in launching an attack against him. They are missing the point entirely.
Soleimani killed Americans by the hundreds and wounded them by the thousands over a span of years. He was a legitimate military target and should have been killed long ago. There was no necessity to justify his elimination by reference to some specific impending action.
Soleimani paraded around the region like a rock star. He delighted in being seen on the “battlefield” and flaunting his apparent invulnerability. Finding him was not an issue. He was hard to miss.
The decision, then, to kill Soleimani was not tactical or operational. This was not a case of a window of opportunity. This was a political decision and killing Soleimani was intended to send a message to Tehran and its allies that the rules of the game had changed. The United States, which has turned a blind eye to Iranian activities inside Iraq for years, will do so no longer. Iran will now be confronted head on, and its growing influence no longer tolerated.
The American refusal to give any serious response to the vote in the Iraqi Parliament for the withdrawal of US troops echoed the same message: “We are not leaving.” We will not stand by and watch while Iran transforms Iraq into a client state.
The Lessons of Iran’s Declared Response
Likewise, the form the Iranian response to the killing of Soleimani took tells us a great deal. Iran has for decades largely avoided situations in which its conventional forces have directly confronted the American military. Yet, in this situation, the Iranians launched ballistic missiles from Iranian territory at US troops in Iraq. No matter how carefully calibrated, such an attack subjected Tehran to the risk of massive American retaliation. The ayatollahs could have awakened the next morning to find their air bases and missile batteries obliterated.
Why take the risk? Why deviate from the game plan? Why not simply allow Hezbollah and other proxies to respond in due course?
The answer lies not in a military calculus but in a domestic, political one. Iran is being crushed by US sanctions. Its populace, already disenchanted and uneasy after forty years of oppression has been pushed to the breaking point by rising prices, rising unemployment, and the obvious incompetence of the corrupt regime in Tehran.
For months the ayatollahs have confronted this rising tide of discontent. They have murdered thousands of their own people in the streets. They have jailed only God knows how many thousands more. Still, the anger persists.
The killing of Soleimani was a massive loss of face. It exposed not only to the world but to the regime’s domestic opponents the impotence of a brutal dictatorship prone to thundering on about its power and its ability to stand up to the United States. The ayatollahs looked weak. Their opponents abroad and at home were emboldened.
Only some overt action against the United States would do. There had to be at least the appearance of a meaningful conventional response to the killing of Soleimani. The alternative was to signal to the people of Iran that now was the time to strike and to end forty years of oppression.
So, missiles were fired, but aimed at locations where American casualties would be minimal or non-existent. And, then the architects of the attack hunkered down, terrified, praying that President Donald Trump would understand the deliberate weakness of the response and not escalate further. In the end, that calculus paid off, but not before the frightened crew of an Iranian missile battery near Tehran, thinking they were under attack, killed everyone on a Ukrainian airliner.
Waiting For Iran’s Real Response
President Trump has stepped back. The Iranians have as well. The dust is clearing. But this is far from over.
In Tehran, the regime will now revert to its familiar playbook. The real response to the killing of Soleimani will come in the future.
Inside Iraq, Iranian proxies will ramp up their attacks on US personnel and US facilities. The Qods Force will seek its revenge for Soleimani’s death in rocket attacks, roadside bombs, and targeted assassinations. As the battle for control of Iraq heats up, the targets of these attacks will include not only Americans and American installations, but anyone and anything that is associated with support for the continued US presence in Iraq.
Iranian actions will not be limited to Iraq. Tehran long ago signaled its willingness to use proxies and other “deniable” means to strike Saudi Arabia directly. There is every reason to think that this type of action will continue and escalate. We must also assume that at some point the Iranians will make good on their repeated threats to strike the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states as well.
In preparing for such attacks, we should understand the range of options open to Tehran. Strikes may take the form of drone or missiles attacks like those launched against ARAMCO in September 2019. They may also take the form of sabotage or even of cyber-attacks on key oil facilities. Bahrain was recently the target of an Iranian cyber-attack of limited scope. That may well have simply been a dry run for a follow-on attack of much greater magnitude. A nation increasingly focused on the business of Islamic finance can ill afford to find all data deleted from key databases or that all funds at major institutions have simply vanished.
Iranian actions will not be limited to the Middle East. Iran’s terror network spans the globe. Hezbollah operatives arrested in the United States in recent years have been found to be preparing plans for attacks on targets from the Empire State Building to the Panama Canal. These were not theoretical studies. These were operational casings in preparation for real world attacks.
We have, for the moment, stepped back from the prospect of a conventional war between the United States and Iran. But the broader conflict remains unresolved and will likely intensify in the months ahead. As the United States seeks to counter Iran’s efforts at colonizing Iraq and as the pressure of sanctions and domestic discontent builds in Tehran, the likelihood of the ayatollahs lashing out will only increase.
For forty years, the theocratic regime in Iran has oppressed its people and spread terror throughout the region. It now finds itself increasingly threatened by forces both inside and outside its borders. It may prove to be a time for desperate action by the ayatollahs. It is most certainly a time for sober reflection by us all.
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