Is Iran’s Quds Force poised to respond?
News of the recent assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist and a senior official within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has once again raised the specter of direct confrontation between Iran, Israel and the United States. For the past year and a half, tensions with Iran have crested and waned based on a variety of events in the region, including the late 2019 attack in Iraq that killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s unconventional warfare arm known as the Quds Force.
Outside of a small group of Iran experts and counterterrorism analysts, public knowledge about the IRGC Quds Force was limited until the mid-to-late 2000s, when reports emerged about the extent of the organization’s involvement with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shia insurgency in Iraq. Since then, additional analyses have highlighted the extent of the Quds Force’s role in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen in supplying weapons, training, expertise, money and recruits to advance it’s security interests in these countries and build a long-term foothold for Iran to leverage.
Now, almost a year after the attack against Soleimani, a similarly audacious attack against a highly respected figure in Iran’s security establishment like Fakhrizadeh again raises the potential of an Iranian response. Much like in the aftermath of the attack against Soleimani, senior Iranian officials from the IRGC, its intelligence service and other security elements warned of revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s death. Apart from this public rhetoric, it is very likely that Soleimani’s replacement in the IRGC Quds Force – General Esmail Ghaani – has already explored options against either Israel or the United States for the supreme leader’s final approval. News reports also suggest that Ghaani recently consulted with Hezbollah leaders and visited Iraq to discuss options with Iran-backed militias and other proxy forces there, which were part of the chain of events in late 2019 that led to the strike against Soleimani at Baghdad Airport.
The Quds Force has already demonstrated a capability to coordinate with proxy groups in Iraq to harass, intimidate or even conduct direct attacks on U.S. forces, personnel or bases there. And despite the planned U.S. drawdown from 3,000 personnel to 2,500, there are still several targets that the Quds Force could pursue. The Quds Force’s relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon stretches back decades, and there is also the potential for operations against Israel — although Israel would likely retaliate in a strong fashion, opening up the prospect for a wider cycle of conflict that would be difficult to control, at least early on.
Another option would be to attack the small U.S. footprint in Syria given Iran’s presence there and collaboration with the Assad regime. But like in the Iraq example, operations against the U.S. military or U.S. interests linked back to Iran would trigger a significant U.S. response — as indicated by statements from the head of U.S. Central Command in recent interviews.
Beyond the operations in the Middle East, there is the potential for the Quds Force to consider attacks against U.S. or Israeli targets in other parts of the world. A botched plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States in 2011 and attempted attacks against Israeli officials in Asia in 2012 suggest that the Quds Force will look outside its core sphere of interest to pursue operations, although it may lack the capability to be effective the further it strays from the region.
As history has shown with Iran, any action the supreme leader takes will be deliberate and balance operational considerations about possible targets with the potential military, political, diplomatic and economic consequences if attacks are indeed carried out. Currently, among the considerations the supreme leader must weigh is the necessity and impact of an Iranian response —balanced against the potential for a reduction in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and a new diplomatic approach with the incoming Biden team.
As a result, now is the time to publicly signal through official statements and quietly reinforce through diplomatic channels strong U.S. resolve that any Iranian attacks will be met with swift consequences. The U.S. must also make sure that it has the appropriate capabilities in place to detect, deter and respond to any Iranian attacks, whether coordinated or led by the Quds Force or other parts of Iran’s security apparatus.
Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and had over 20 years professional experience in Washington, D.C. on national security issues, including senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.