Colin P. Clarke, a research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague and the author of ‘After the Caliphate’
In a rare move, on 17 January, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered the Friday sermon at Tehran’s Grand Mosalla, the first time he spoke at such an event in eight years. Khamenei lionized Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)- Qods Force, assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in early January. Reading between the lines of Khamenei’s sermon, the impression one is left with is not one of conciliation or de-escalation. On the contrary.
THE PATH TO ESCALATION
Soleimani’s death could lead Iran to become more active than ever in working through its network of proxies, sometimes referred to as the Iran Threat Network—to include terrorist organizations, armed militias, and foreign fighters—to destabilize the Middle East and extend Iranian influence abroad. As such, in the long run, the Soleimani strike could significantly undermine U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. Despite the past two Washington administrations wishing to extricate the U.S. from the region, neither has managed it. The Trump administration has deployed 14,000 more troops to the Gulf in just the past several months.
While Soleimani’s death is indeed a significant blow to Iran and the IRGC-QF, his absence will not prevent Iran from continuing to wage a campaign of terrorism and violence to intimidate Tehran’s adversaries and achieve the leadership’s objectives. Any time a master strategist on the level of Soleimani is taken off the battlefield, the organization will suffer. However, over the past four decades, Iran has constructed a sophisticated and vast apparatus capable of projecting Iranian power. Accordingly, unlike other states in the region including many of its adversaries, Iran successfully built a “highly sophisticated intelligence operation geared toward producing and maintaining proxies,” as Hassan Hassan noted recently in Politico.
At the time of his death, Soleimani was already well on the way to realizing his vision—a network of Shia foreign fighters, rebels, and militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen—willing and able to conduct attacks throughout the region against a diverse array of potential targets. Iran supports proxies in the Middle East through funding, training, and equipping them, while also ensuring they are available as an extension of Iranian foreign and security policy. This means that Brig. Gen. Ismail Qaani will step into a role that his predecessor had been cultivating, lessening the burden by assuming ready-made infrastructure, networks, and institutions of transnational terrorism.
And while it remains essential to understand that not all of Iran’s proxies are created equal, indeed there are varying levels of command-and-control at play, Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Iraqi Shia militia are diverse in geographic scope and military capabilities. This means that Iran has a palette of options in how it could seek to continue retaliating against U.S. interests, where, and when.
The killing of Soleimani is also likely to exacerbate the issue of sectarianism and could result in building pressure that ultimately leads U.S. troops to leave Iraq. In no uncertain terms, a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq would be a boon to the Islamic State, which could seize the opportunity to regenerate its networks. In turn, Iran will feel threatened by resurging Sunni militarism and likely move to redouble its efforts at supporting Shia proxy forces.
There is little doubt that Iran’s response to the Soleimani killing will not be limited to its ballistic missile strike on two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops. Iran will continue to conduct attacks and rely on its asymmetric capabilities to demonstrate that it remains undeterred by Washington’s brazen move to neutralize Iranian influence. Tehran has several options.
WHERE TEHRAN CAN STRIKE
Despite suffering significant losses in terms of manpower during Syria’s ongoing civil war, Hezbollah has also gained valuable battlefield experience fighting in diverse terrain against a multitude of adversaries, including the Islamic State. Even against the backdrop of ongoing protests in Lebanon, Hezbollah remains popular, especially in Beirut and its surrounding environs and among Lebanon’s Shia Muslims.
The so-called “Party of God” is a true hybrid, an organization that wields political power while retaining a well-armed and trained militia with global reach. As Hezbollah has demonstrated in the past, with attacks in Latin America and Europe, and foiled plots ranging from Cyprus to Thailand, the group can strike at a time and place of its choosing and can do so in spectacular fashion. Israel hit Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in September, including a Hezbollah media office, and the Israelis will not hesitate to go on the offensive if they feel threatened by Iran’s most powerful proxy.
Iran’s image in Iraq has suffered considerably since the Soleimani strike, and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile strikes on Iraqi soil. Still, Tehran maintains significant influence over a range of Iraqi popular mobilization forces (PMF), including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia responsible for the missile strike that touched off the recent round of conflict between the United States and Iran, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a group recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by Washington.
Of all Iranian proxy groups, the Houthi rebels in Yemen operate with the most autonomy. They are also among the most militarily capable, as demonstrated by the Houthis sophisticated weaponry, including unmanned aerial systems and a range of ballistic missiles. The September 2019 missile attack on Saudi energy infrastructure at Abqaiq and Khurais also demonstrated Iran’s ability to operate ambiguously. The attacks were initially blamed on Houthi rebels but were later shown to have originated on Iranian soil.
In Syria, Iran has been growing a legion of Shia foreign fighters to help prop up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Asad. While both the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zaynabiyoun were recruited and trained to fight specifically in Syria, there is a possibility that these militias could be deployed for operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to help Iran further its objectives in South Asia. Another option would be to send the militants to other battlefields where the Iranians are fighting or backing proxy groups, including Iraq and Yemen.
The Middle East, long a volatile region plagued by instability, remains a veritable powder keg. With the help of Russian airpower, special forces, and mercenaries, Asad is closer than ever to recapturing the lion’s share of Syria and winning the civil war. This will provide Tehran with access to what many have labeled a “strategic land bridge” stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon.
Through proxy attacks against the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Iran has proven its willingness to push the envelope and bring the region close to the brink of war. Iran’s “playbook” is designed to avoid conventional conflict with more capable military powers, particularly the United States, although Tehran could seek to target U.S. allies. In the wake of the Soleimani killing, Iran threatened the United Arab Emirates. But there is a serious concern that once escalation begins in earnest, as witnessed with the killing of Soleimani, it may be difficult to find an off-ramp and diffuse tensions.
Former CENTCOM commander David Petraeus argues that the killing of Soleimani may have helped the U.S. reestablish deterrence in the Middle East. Yet with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, as tenuous as ever, Iran may interpret the Soleimani killing as a sign that it needs to exert more overt strength against its adversaries.
To achieve this, Tehran could activate its network of proxies to conduct attacks against the U.S. and U.S. interests, increasing the chances for a broader conflagration plunging the region into further chaos.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.