Iran has signaled a desire to avoid full-out war with the United States. But the conflict between the two nations remains, and Tehran has other options.
President Donald Trump’s assassination of the second most powerful man in Iran has eliminated a formidable U.S. enemy, but it could set off a spiral of revenge and possibly a war that no one wants.
The risks of all-out confrontation with Iran had deterred previous American leaders from targeting Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the right-hand man of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the architect of a remarkable expansion of Iranian-Shi’ite regional power in the last two decades.
The United States unwittingly abetted Iran’s ambitions by toppling two of its enemies, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 put U.S. forces on Iran’s doorstep, while miring them in costly military occupations.
Soleimani, as chief of the elite Quds Force for foreign operations, pushed into the vacuum, weaving a web of Iran-friendly militias, proxies and political movements that stretched from Pakistan to Lebanon.
Syria, an Arab ally of Iran since 1980, had long been central to Iranian strategy, so when rebels imperilled President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Soleimani held them off with Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and a multi-national array of other Shi’ite militias — at a fearsome cost in human lives.
He travelled freely in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as his power and reputation grew, and on occasion negotiated indirectly with Washington over Afghanistan and Iraq.
The United States even provided air cover to Iraqi Shi’ite militias, mobilised by Soleimani to fight against Islamic State, after the Sunni jihadi group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014.
But Soleimani fatally miscalculated the impulses of a president imbued with a deep hostility to Iran — and perhaps with shallower motives linked to his impeachment and his re-election campaign.
For all its regional clout, Iran is only a medium-sized power on the world stage, with an oil-based economy crippled by U.S. sanctions. It cannot win a direct military showdown with the United States, but neither will it bow to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
After emotional mass mourning for Soleimani, Iran early on Wednesday fired ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. There was no immediate word on casualties. Khamenei described the attack as a “slap in the face” for America. His foreign minister said Iran was not seeking “escalation or war”.
Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.
We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 8, 2020
All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020
The limited response indicated Iran’s desire to avoid full-scale war and offered the United States a chance to call it quits.
The underlying conflict remains, however, and miscalculation by either side might ignite a war anyway. Tehran has other options to show defiance and advance its interests.
Risks to U.S. interests
Iran may use asymmetric warfare, perhaps involving proxy attacks on U.S. nationals, embassies or other assets around the Middle East. It could stage cyberattacks or arrange strikes against Gulf oil targets.
Tehran has threatened before to close the Strait of Hormuz, conduit for two-fifths of world oil exports. Such a move could spark a heavy U.S. military response and send oil prices soaring. With anti-American sentiment back on the boil across the region, angry Shi’ites might also attack U.S. interests on their own initiative.
Nuclear deal unravels
After Soleimani’s death, Iran announced it would disregard the civilian nuclear constraints agreed in a 2015 international deal that Trump renounced in 2018. But it said it could reverse the move if Washington lifted sanctions.
The assassination all but wrecks diplomatic efforts to salvage the agreement, which had averted any immediate assault by the United States or Israel on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Now those two countries face the same dilemma again: allow the Iranian programme to proceed or go to war. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Setback for protesters
In recent months, Iranian influence had come under unprecedented challenge from anti-government Shi’ite crowds in Iraq and to some extent from peaceful protests in Lebanon, where Hezbollah plays a key political role.
At home, the Iranian authorities had violently confronted demonstrators angered by economic hardship and the diversion of resources for Iran’s drive to assert itself in the region.
Anger could eclipse nationalist fervour in Iraq.
The killing of a man many Iranians view as a national hero –— and others as the ruling system’s chief enforcer — may temporarily mute domestic unrest, while Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites and other targets if Tehran retaliates has enraged Iranians across the political spectrum.
Similarly in Iraq, popular anger over the U.S. drone strike that incinerated Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi Shi’ite militia leader, may for a while eclipse the nationalist fervour previously directed against the Iraqi government for its perceived incompetence, corruption and subservience to Iran.
Already the Iraqi parliament has demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops, prompting Trump to threaten the country, supposedly a U.S. ally, with “sanctions like they’ve never seen before”. Washington has evacuated embassy staff in Baghdad and told its nationals to leave.
Soleimani’s killing may thus help to kick away the remnants of U.S. influence and military presence in Iraq in what would be a humiliating outcome of the 2003 invasion and its chaotic aftermath. It is hard to see what purpose would be served by hanging on.
Islamic State revival
Some Iraqis may feel queasy about a U.S. pullout, not only for fear of losing a counterweight to an intrusive Iran but also because of the risk of an Islamic State comeback.
The IS “caliphate” once stretched across vast tracts of Iraq and Syria, territory it had lost even before a U.S. air strike killed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October.
Prospects for an IS resurgence rose after Trump suddenly drew down U.S. troops in northern Syria last year, abandoning Kurdish allies who had fought hard against IS and who then came under attack from Turkey. Many IS captives escaped from Kurdish jails during the fighting.
U.S. forces have suspended operations against IS in Iraq due to the fallout from Soleimani’s killing.
Last year when Iran was lashing out over U.S. sanctions, Trump surprisingly stayed his hand after suspected Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping, Saudi oil facilities and a U.S. military drone.
Nervous U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began exploring diplomatic options to reduce tension with Iran. Iraq’s prime minister has said he had planned to meet Soleimani on the day he was killed to hear Iran’s response to Saudi proposals for détente.
The UAE abandoned the Saudi-led war against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even the Saudis began talking to the Houthis on how to calm the conflict.
Soleimani may have had much blood on his hands at home and abroad, but the assassination of such a potent figure narrows the window for regional as well as nuclear diplomacy. It also further exposes the incoherence of U.S. strategy, if any, in the Middle East.
(For other News-Decoder stories on Iran, click here.)
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency, he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.