Iran options seem narrow when it comes to avenging the general

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(Bloomberg) – Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has threatened "severe retaliation" against the United States for the murder of the country's most prominent military commander, but he may have limited action.

While Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told state television that the Islamic Republic's response could be "anytime, and any means," US sanctions have affected his country's economy. Any action that would trigger a conventional war with the United States would severely disadvantage Shiite Muslim power.

Protests against the government have also questioned the regime's dominance in Iraq, Lebanon and at home. Now the Iranians in Al-Quds commander Qassem Soleimani have lost exactly the man they would have relied on to find an effective answer.

Tehran's strategy since President Donald Trump's resignation from the key nuclear deal in 2015, which had promised rapprochement between Iran and the West, suggests that possible retaliation is likely to be measured. It must be important enough to reflect Soleimani's stature, but not enough to trigger an unbridled conflict with the world's military superpower. Such controlled reprisals could include a strike against diplomatic personnel or cyber attacks.

"I don't think the US or Iran want a full war," said Sir Tom Beckett, former lieutenant general of the British Army and now executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East. "The US had to reaffirm its readiness to take military action alongside its campaign to exert maximum economic pressure." The bigger question is whether the removal of Soleimani, a national hero of many Iranians, turns out to be part of a wider strategy.

The United States and Iran are practically at war. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Soleimani's approach to challenging American power has been to gather and strengthen Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. He used it to pursue a hybrid war against the United States and its regional allies on market terms without triggering a direct response from Washington.

The Trump administration plans to send around 2,800 troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait to further deter Iran. The new US contingent will join some 700 troops deployed to Kuwait as part of the division's responsive "standby battalion" earlier this week, according to two US officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the deployment , Around 60,000 people were already employed in the United States.

Game changer

Successive governments under George W. Bush and Barack Obama have decided not to risk escalation despite Soleimani's responsibility for the deaths in the United States. Iran now has to weigh the risk of a decisive reaction. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said an hour before the drone attack in Baghdad: "The game has changed."

Despite the strong threat from Khamenei, Iran is unlikely to resort to a maximum option, such as a missile attack on American bases in Bahrain or elsewhere in the Gulf. According to analysts, this would invite suicide.

"This is an extremely dangerous moment, but as always in Iran, we should beware of hyperbolic predictions," said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "Tehran is well trained to align retaliation with its real interests, which ultimately affect the survival of the regime, and to fight reprisals with care and precision."

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Soleimani has performed these calibrations in the past. Soleimani was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and headed the Revolutionary Guard Corps elite unit, which specialized in unconventional warfare and overseas operations.

They included a series of targeted attacks on Gulf oil tankers last year that culminated in a bold attack on a Saudi oil factory. No deaths were reported in any of the attacks, and neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia had an answer.

Militia Network

Soleimani's militia network appears to have triggered his death. They shelled a US base in Iraq, killed a US contractor, and then stormed the US embassy in Baghdad, reminding them of the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the US had attacked Soleimani because it had information that he was planning to use to further attack US personnel.

These militias remain the most effective and useful military tool available to Iran. Soleimani's deputy, who quickly became the new Quds Force Chief, said the group's strategy will not change.

According to British military strategist Beckett and others, the question is where and at what level Khamenei will strike – with a single dramatic action or several small attacks that would make it difficult for the United States to escalate again.

"Iranian leaders are unlikely to hit blindly," said Maloney. "Instead, they will give themselves the short-term opportunity to stir up nationalism and wait for the best opportunity to harm US interests and allies."

Not Sarajevo

Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory firm, said Friday that Iran's immediate response would likely result in mild to moderate clashes in Iraq, with Iranian-backed militias attacking US bases, harassing Gulf shipping again, and other strikes around the world that might be difficult to accomplish. A cyber attack is an option that Iranian officials are almost certain to think about, according to some experts.

Zarif said on Friday that the aftermath of the US's murder of Soleimani will be "far-reaching" and will not be in the hands of Iran due to the general's widespread popularity in the region.

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Unlike the political assassination in the Balkans that sparked World War I, Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for security in the Middle East at the London-based IISS, said the consequences of the Thursday assassination would be far less widespread.

"This is not a Franz Ferdinand moment," said Hokayem. "It's a turning point at best. Hundreds of thousands have died in the region in the past 10 years, including from Soleimani. The US and Iran are already at war."

(Updates with Zarif's comment, U.S. troops will be deployed from paragraph 2.)

– With the support of Lin Noueihed, Glen Carey and Polina Noskova.

Contact the reporter about this story: Marc Champion in London at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

Contact the editors responsible for this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net, Rodney Jefferson

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