Washington and Tehran have entered uncharted territory after the United States killed Iran’s most powerful general.
Iranian leadership has already threatened “harsh retaliation” over the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force and was considered the architect of Iran’s proxy and shadow wars.
Experts say Iran might not act right away, instead playing the long game. And when it does act, it may be an asymmetric response, such as a cyberattack.
But President Trump’s order to kill a man who was revered by many in Iran and was seen as the second most powerful official behind only the supreme leader has upped the ante in an increasingly dangerous faceoff between the United States and Iran.
“For a whole host of reasons, at a time when the U.S. has in their eyes virtually declared war on them with the killing of Qassem Soleimani, they can’t afford not to react,” Robert Malley, who served in the Obama administration, said of Iran.
“Even though we may not know the when or the what or the where, it’s clear that there will be an Iranian response. And that’s where the notion of deterrence really falls flat because Iran will respond, at which point one imagines that the U.S. will want to respond as well,” he said.
The Pentagon announced Thursday that it killed Soleimani in an airstrike in Baghdad, saying that it was a “decisive defensive action” against someone who was “actively developing plans” for attacks.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed Friday in interviews on CNN and Fox News that Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat.
The strike represented a major escalation in the ongoing tit-for-tat that started when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Most recently before the Soleimani strike, a rocket attack in Iraq the United States blamed on an Iran-backed militia killed a U.S. contractor, leading to retaliatory U.S. strikes on the militia, which in turn led to supporters of the militia storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The United States and Iran have appeared to be on the brink of war several times since the summer, most closely after Iran shot down a U.S. drone and Trump came within minutes of launching a retaliatory strike on Iran.
But killing Soleimani appears to have brought the two countries closer to military conflict than ever before.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley defended the U.S. strike against Soleimani, saying the risk of inaction was greater than the risk of action.
“Is there risk? Damn right there’s risk,” Milley told a small group of reporters Friday, according to The Washington Post. “But we’re mitigating, and we think we’re taking appropriate mitigations.”
Pompeo worked the phones Friday, calling counterparts and leaders in China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan to assure that the United States “remains committed to de-escalation.”
But the likelihood of de-escalation now appears low, with warnings of Iranian retaliation coming quickly after the U.S. strike.
“The messaging that’s coming out of the administration is highlighting the potential for de-escalation, but truthfully no one in the administration thinks that’s actually what is going to happen,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative who previously worked on Gulf affairs for Trump’s National Security Council.
“None of the planning is focused on de-escalation, but they feel like they need to message on that to make it clear they’re open to those options so that were there any incentive on Iran’s part to seek to de-escalate, the U.S. would be open to it,” she continued. “Again, no one thinks that’s what they’re going to choose at this point.”
As news broke of the strike Thursday night, Chris Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, retweeted a summer statement on Iranian cyber security threats.
By Friday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad warned Americans to leave Iraq immediately, and other U.S. embassies in the region, including in Pakistan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, issued security alerts.
The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, said Friday there were “no specific, credible threats” to the U.S. homeland, but that it “continues to monitor the situation.”
In addition to the possibility of a cyberattack, experts and lawmakers have warned about the possibility that Iran’s proxy forces in the Middle East could step up attacks on U.S. and partner forces, with Iraq the most likely front.
“In the hours after Suleimani’s death, one thing is clear: Iran will respond,” Henry Rome, Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group, wrote in a note to the firm’s clients. “Iranian leaders are proud and quite risk acceptant. We expect moderate to low level clashes to last for at least a month and likely be confined to Iraq. Iranian-backed militias will attack U.S. bases and some U.S. soldiers will be killed; the U.S. will retaliate with strikes inside of Iraq.”
There’s also the possibility Iran and its proxies target oil tankers and infrastructure in the Gulf, attack U.S.-ally Israel or target U.S. interests in South America and Africa, where Iran-backed Hezbollah operates.
Iran, which has been breaching the limits of the nuclear deal one-by-one in an effort to get sanctions relief, previously set an early January deadline for its next step — raising the prospect that a nuclear deal collapse could be one of the first consequences.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official who focused on Iran-backed militias in Iraq, said Friday that Iran could retaliate in many ways, including attacks against U.S. diplomats and service members, attacks on U.S. allies and partners in the region or targeted attacks in the West.
“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Soleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation, and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict? The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means,” she said in a statement. “It is critical that the administration has thought out the moves and counter-moves this attack will precipitate, and is prepared to protect our diplomats, service members, and citizens serving overseas.”
Even Trump supporters have warned of the potential for Iran to retaliate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said he was briefed on the Soleimani operation beforehand when he was at Mar-a-Lago at the beginning of the week, said Friday on “Fox and Friends” that Iran will “come after us with a vengeance if we do not reset the table pretty quickly” as he advocated targeting Iran’s economy and oil infrastructure.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Friday that the United States “must be fully prepared for whatever actions Iran may take after the death of Soleimani’s and Iran’s proxy militia leader in Iraq.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said 2020 was already poised to be a flashpoint for U.S.-Iran relations. Following Soleimani’s death, he added, Iran now faces a choice.
“Iran may want to have a massive retaliation,” he said. “Iran may want to exact revenge. But how do you go into battle without your most prominent general? That raises something of a question. Moreover, how does Iran respond in a way that doesn’t invite more kinetic ruin.”
“This is a historic moment in U.S.-Iran relations,” he added.