Analysis: Implications of the Soleimani killing
By ALEX GRINBERG
The liquidation of the Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani is an achievement for the US, yet it is not a game changer. Quds Force deputy commander Esma’il Ghani has been appointed commander. He is well acquainted with his boss’ vision and will likely go the same path, namely multiregional command and military diplomacy. Naturally ideologically he is not different from Soleimani.
We believe that the priority of the regime in the days to come is not to retaliate against the US but rather to exploit Soleimani’s death in order to foster national ideological cohesion in Iran, particularly needed now - against the background of the worsening socio-economic situation and recent brutally suppressed protests. Soleimani fits a category of Iranian fighters who with whom many Iranian patriots can identify, there is no need of Shi’ite devotion to respect Soleimani. Long and exaggerated mourning ceremonies will take place and the regime will focus on Soleimani as Iran’s national hero rather than as the imposer of Shi’ism in the Middle East. One should bear in mind that although not all the Iranians mourn Soleimani, national patriotic feeling in Iran remains strong. One of the images of Soleimani was also his fight against ISIS which is a consensus among Iranians. It is another question that such PR manipulations would not change much on the ground.
An Iranian retaliation could take place in various theaters. Probably Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i will refrain from an action that will turn out to be too costly for Iran.
Iran faces a dilemma: the retaliation must fit the magnitude of loss inflicted to Iran, yet Iran must consider a further American tit for tat action. This is particularly valid given the Iranian comprehension that the US is indeed capable of doing “mad things” as well. We cannot confidently know what Iranians exactly think, yet their behavior clearly demonstrated a feeling of impunity: they were confident that neither Israel nor the US would dare to “cross the red lines” such as Soleimani’s killing.
Analysts should beware of simplistic analysis, namely direct extrapolation of the Iranian behavior of the eighties on the reality of the Middle East in 2020. Such an extrapolation would lead to the conclusion that Iran will likely launch terrorist attacks against American troops and even American targets across the board as it was in Lebanon after the Islamic Revolution in Iran during the eighties.
This time, Iran’s logic might be different, in line with more recent and more rational patterns. Yet Iranians may also err in their calculations of risks, more precisely in the calculation of the adversary’s capacity to take risk, as it was the case with Soleimani’s liquidation. The Quds Force commander urged rocket attacks against the US troops that resulted in the death of an American citizen, he also urged to organize violent manifestations in front of the American embassy in Iran while being confident that America wouldn’t dare to hit him directly, all the more since the afore-mentioned actions were carried out by pro-Iranian militias and not directly by Iran itself. But he was mistaken.
Overall, in the short run, Iranian retaliation will likely express in the activization of anti-American activities in Iraq and possible attacks against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
Lebanon and Syria
As mentioned, no substantial change in tactics and strategy of Hezbollah vis-à-vis Israel is expected. Launching an attack against Israel is too important and will depend on Khamene’I’s decision, the latter is known for being risk-averse. Hitting American targets in Lebanon would not be profitable for Hezbollah because the US supplies weapons to the Lebanese military which means exports of arms to Hezbollah. Hezbollah could launch an attack against Israel or target Israelis abroad, yet such an action entails heavy risks for the Shi’ite group:
The Lebanese population is declaratively wary of a war with Israel. Hezbollah would have to invent genuinely good pretexts to explain why it dragged Lebanon into a devastating war without an Israeli provocation but wholly upon the initiative of Hezbollah or Iran. Targeting Israeli civilians is a pattern of Hizbollah yet it would hardly represent an adequate response to the death of the Quds force commander; even worse- it such an action is carried out within a short time span since the death of Soleimani it will represent Hezbollah as a criminal terrorist organization that openly targets civilians, therefore it will prove that PM Netanyahu and in general Israel’s security establishment are more than right. Finally, the attack was openly and declaratively American. Although everything is possible it is hardly believable that the Iranians will undertake a spectacular retaliation against Israel following Trump’s taking credit for the operation. At any rate, a retaliation against Israel could be confined to rocket attacks or to attacking Israeli tourists abroad. But even in that event, such operations require much time for gathering intelligence and preparation. However, Quds Force in Syria will continue deployment and building secret bases for its precise missiles. Soleimani’s death is of little significance in that regard.
PMU will activate its attacks against American troops, yet they can hardly be effective in terms of imposing on the US a new geopolitical reality. Most of Iraqi Shi’a is not in PMU and Iran’s pocket. Yet, the current situation in Iraq is dangerously reminiscent of Lebanon: the Iraqi state hardly exists, the central government doesn’t wield real power, whereas the country is ruled by the strongest militias. This situation was intentionally created with the help of Soleimani but his participation or disappearing does not substantially turn the tide. The situation is very dangerous for the US interests by its own virtue without connection to the personality of Soleimani. The danger in the short run consists in the possibility of direct confrontations between PMU and American troops, by contrast to the situation before Friday, January 3 when the attacks were “symbolic” and remained confined to the launch of rockets on American bases.
Houthis in Yemen could launch new attacks against Saudi Arabia and the IRGC could launch another attack on Saudi strategic assets. Yet it is difficult to figure out a “retaliation” against Saudi Arabia that would be substantially new. Currently both parties of the conflict in Yemen are maintaining relative truce and it is not an Iranian interest to derail it currently.
Afghanistan and Somalia
Quds Force has good relationship with Taliban in Afghanistan. Although Iran does not control Taliban, the latter can carry out missions on behalf of Iran. Isma’il Kaani coordinates Quds force’s activities in Afghanistan upon Khamenei’s direct order. Taliban could attack the US troops in Afghanistan. On the other hand, US troops are aware of such a possibility.
As Iran has some leverage on Shabab in Somalia (through whom it transfers weaponry to Yemen) , the latter also could be able to launch attack on American targets. The common denominator of both theaters is that it would be hard to establish a clear link between the perpetrators and Iran, unlike in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.