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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
SalamPix/ABACA Iranian mourners carry a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei General Qasem Soleimani, during the funeral procession in the capital on Monday.

Opinion Iran's shrewdest retaliation for Soleimani assassination is political, not military

Tehran will want to ensure its response does not bring further cost to the nation, writes Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics.

HOURS AFTER THE US military assassinated Major General Qassem Soleimani last Friday, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledged “crushing revenge”.

President Hassan Rouhani, once framed as a centrist in Iranian politics, followed suit, saying: “Washington will pay a heavy price.”

So did Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, saying the Islamic Republic would “exercise its legal right” to respond to the killing “in the right place, at the right time, and in the manner that it sees fit”.

supreme-leader-khamenei-visits-the-soleimani-family Balkis Press / ABACA/ABACA/PA Images Iranian Revolution supreme leader Ali Khamenei during a visit to the family of Qassem Soleimani. Balkis Press / ABACA/ABACA/PA Images / ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

As Soleimani was one of its leading military and political officials, the Iranian regime cannot leave the American attack unanswered.

At the same time, Tehran will want to ensure that its response does not bring further cost and – amid US sanctions which have contributed to economic crisis – isolation.

So how does the Islamic Republic proceed?

The military options

The regime has the military capability to strike US bases and personnel.

Through the Iraqi militia whom it supports, Tehran could back attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria, as it has done since soon after the US war to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003. But such attacks risk a more punishing US response.

Indeed, Soleimani’s assassination was prompted by the 27 December rocket assault, allegedly by the Iran-supported Iraqi militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, which killed an American contractor and wounded four US troops.

Trump crossed the line

The Trump administration has crossed a red line in its operations.

Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama had each rejected proposals to kill Soleimani.

In June, Trump cancelled US airstrikes inside Iran as warplanes were in the air, instead pursuing a photo-opportunity face-to-face meeting with an Iranian leader.

The restrictions on attacks have been lifted and Trump’s desire for a high-profile summit has been replaced with his Twitter threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites.

So Iran cannot count on a limit to Washington’s response.

Nor can it expect that Israel’s military and intelligence establishment will continue, as it has since 2012, to keep Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from ordering airstrikes inside the Islamic Republic.

Other responses also pose a risk

Similar risks come with Iranian cyber-operations, which have previously targeted US and Saudi interests.

Tehran would be battling a US which has been pursuing cyber-assaults since it put the Stuxnet virus into Iranian computer systems in 2009.

Iran could encourage allies such as the Houthis in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to pursue attacks.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called on Sunday for strikes on “all the US military bases in the region, their warships, every single general and soldier in our lands”.

But Hezbollah would be risking the resumption of conflict with Israel, and any Houthi operations would jeopardise efforts for a Yemen ceasefire including a Saudi-led coalition.

Tehran could also return to threats to cut off the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes.

However, any resumption of Iranian attacks on shipping would likely be met with the US strikes that Trump held up in June, and Iran also risks antagonising potential trade partners by hindering their vessels and oil supplies.

The political options

So Tehran’s steps now will be political. Iran has encouraged the Iraqi parliament and outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul al-Mahdi to demand the expulsion of US troops from the country. Mahdi drafted the bill, which was approved by legislators on Sunday.

But there is no timetable in the measure or any plan of action if the Americans refuse to leave.

And Iran also faces the Iraqi public, who in mass protests against the government have criticised Tehran as well as Washington.

Having suspended some of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran announced that it is suspending other requirements.

It can now return to its pre-2015 level of enrichment of 20% uranium and, with the installation of advanced centrifuges, potentially enriching to the 90% grade needed for nuclear weapons.

Iran is unlikely to move soon for “breakout” capability in nuclear weapons. Instead, the suspension of its commitments is Iran’s leverage with European states: “You can’t trust the US Government.

Work with us to bypass sanctions and we’ll return to the deal.” In areas such as Lebanon and Yemen, the political rather than military route also appears the most effective response.

Hezbollah, having expended much of its personnel and resources in the Syrian conflict, can try to mobilise anti-American opinion to bolster its position in the ruling Lebanese coalition.

The Houthis, who still hold Yemen’s capital Sana’a as well as much of the country after almost five years of facing the Saudi-led coalition, can pursue legitimacy through a UN-brokered process.

Tehran’s tightrope; Washington’s confusion

The challenge for the Islamic Republic is that even the political steps walk a tightrope. They could sway Europe, as well as the Middle East, to work with Tehran.

But they could also antagonise European powers, and possibly Russia and China, who as signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement are still committed to its terms.

That would add to Iran’s economic isolation as it faces such crisis over employment, trade, and inflation.

But if the outcome is far from clear, at least there is clarity on what Iran is seeking.

In the US, the same agencies which planned Soleimani’s assassination have not prepared for the aftermath.

Trump, having tweeted an American flag in response to Soleimani’s assassination, is now reduced to his threats of cultural destruction and all-caps declarations: “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who led the push for the killing, spent Sunday blaming the Obama administration for America’s problems and dismissing the Iraqi vote to expel US troops.

With its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, its comprehensive sanctions and now its assassination of Soleimani, this Administration has rolled the dice for regime change in Iran.

As regime change did not materialize and as sentiment across the Middle East turned against the US, it is apparent that there is no Plan B – no diplomatic path, no effective cooperation with allies, and no military option unless Iran provides an opening by attacking American troops.

Meanwhile, millions of people gathered across Iran from Sunday to Tuesday to mourn Soleimani.

And while Tehran’s emphasis was on political measures, the recurring message was of defiance.

In the words of Soleimani’s daughter Zeinab, “The families of the American soldiers in western Asia…will spend their days waiting for the death of their children.”

Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor of EA WorldView.


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