What more can we expect from Iran without Soleimani?
Early Wednesday, Iran fired 15 ballistic missiles at two American bases in Iraq. Only 11 missiles reached their targets, hitting open areas and reportedly resulting in neither casualties nor major damage. Iranian state television, however, claimed the strikes killed 80 U.S. military personnel. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei boasted the attack amounted to a “slap in the face” to the U.S. in response to the Trump administration’s killing of the country’s second-most powerful man, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“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,” Iran’s top diplomat, Javad Zarif, tweeted.
Usually hiding behind deniability, this is Iran’s most direct attack on America since the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran. Wednesday’s strike stands in stark contrast to the Abqaiq attack, a military operation exhibiting Iran’s abilities to strike with precision and intent.
Iran carefully calibrated a way to claim it has taken revenge while avoiding major damage and Trump’s red line of American casualties. Both sides appear to have reached a reasonable point of “satisfaction”; Iran can save face, bragging domestically about killing American soldiers while U.S. officials do not flaunt the incompetence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Further escalation could be avoided since each side made his point.
For Iran, it was a message of deterrence, showing the Islamic Republic is not shy of using its long-arm capabilities in light of America’s soft spot for casualties. It also signaled to Israel that it should stay out of this fight.
The strike tests U.S. willingness to further escalate. The question remains: What, if anything, does Iran have in store as further steps of retribution? Any additional steps Tehran takes to avenge the death of the Quds Force commander will expose Iran to great risks militarily, economically, diplomatically and internally.
With the killing of Soleimani, America made a choice to engage Iran, which may respond with terrorism, nuclear escalation, or low-intensity paramilitary attacks. Yet all of these pose high risks for Tehran, with a low likelihood of success.
To avenge Soleimani’s death, Tehran needed to take credit for a reprisal attack. However, it risks more sanctions at a time when it faces immense pressure at home with anti-regime protests. At the same time, Iran’s ability to retaliate using its proxies is diminished without Soleimani. The Washington Institute found that the IRGC “would lose a unique coordinating capability and its most important totem” with his departure.
Without Soleimani’s vision and influence, Iran’s proxies are even more clumsy and uninitiated. The Quds Force and its agents have botched many operations in the past, including the 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, the 2012 plan to attack U.S. and Israeli targets in Kenya, the 2017 arrest of spies staking targets in Germany, and the 2019 guilty pleas of Iranian agents who spied on U.S. targets. Soleimani failed to send rockets effectively into Israel from Syria on three occasions. Iran’s successful aggression of late — the attacks on Saudi oil fields and a U.S. drone — were implemented by the IRGC air force and its commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, and not militias. Iran-backed militias in Iraq can do limited damage as well. Their bases and infrastructure can be targeted easily by the United States.
Another retaliatory option for Tehran is to resort to mega-terrorism. Such acts could include downing a plane with Americans and/or Israelis — a parallel to Soleimani’s killing by the Baghdad airport. Alternatively, Iran may dust off its plans to assassinate “soft” American targets or diplomats, mostly in third-world countries where counter-terrorism scrutiny is scarce. We may have seen signs of this before, when Pakistanis were recruited in Europe and the Far East for covert operations.
Indeed, on Sunday, three Americans were killed when al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab forces attacked a military base used by U.S. troops in Kenya. Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda are indebted to Iran for its support over the years. Nonetheless, mega-terrorism is difficult to implement in a post-9/11, post-ISIS security environment. Israel and the U.S. should watch for the potential of these scenarios and extensively reexamine security measures for foreign officials and institutions.
As for the nuclear card, Tehran announced it no longer will abide by restrictions on uranium enrichment under the 2015 nuclear deal. It was likely to take such an action notwithstanding, having dialed down compliance since May 2019.
Iran already has used the U.S. strike to galvanize its Iraqi allies to force American withdrawal. On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for expulsion of U.S. troops. The resolution, however, doesn’t delineate a clear timeline or process and, despite intimidation from Kata’ib Hezbollah and parliament orders to attend, most Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers refused to partake in Sunday’s session. Many Iraqis understand the importance of U.S. assistance in the fight against ISIS and appreciate America as a counterweight to Iranian hegemony. It’s hard to imagine that the people of Iraq, who have protested against Iranian interference since October, would suddenly want to avenge the death of the man who helped direct the brutal crackdown against Iraqi demonstrators, resulting in over 450 deaths.
We can expect Iran to continue what it has been doing: Deploying low-intensity attacks against soft targets largely in third-world countries, without risking open war. Iran’s Islamist theocracy may be ideological, but it is not suicidal. It also is likely to increase low-level clashes by militias in Iraq, to render American presence more costly and possibly intolerable. But Iran will be patient, because a failed retaliation is worse than no retaliation.
Iran realizes that other countries will not rally behind it. China and Russia so far have shown no appetite for entangling in this conflict, which means Tehran is at it alone, except for its proxy militias. While Soleimani’s death is a major tremor, setting the stage for a more precarious and combustible Middle East in the foreseeable future, in the long term, without Soleimani, Iran’s playbook is significantly downsized.
Eyal Tsir Cohen is a visiting fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution in Washington. He is on leave from the Israeli prime minister’s office, where he has served for 30 years in various senior positions.
Eliora Katz is a public policy fellow at The Fund for American Studies. Follow her on Twitter @eliorakatz.