How will Iran retaliate for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani?

Brace yourself Middle East...

Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias, 2017.  (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias, 2017.
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
It was a strike that will shake the Middle East.
The United States announced that on Thursday it had taken out Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, as well as Iraqi Shi’ite militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a strike outside Baghdad International Airport, which was previously Saddam International Airport.
Considered a military genius, Soleimani was appointed commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1997. Until a few years ago, he remained almost invisible to the public eye. But over the past few years, he has risen to international fame, as the man behind Iran’s regional aspirations and the country’s fight in Syria.
He was on a hit list: the joker in the hand who, like a cat with nine lives, survived multiple assassination attempts.
But his number came up only two days into the New Year.
And now the entire region is bracing itself for Iran’s retaliation to the deadly strike that took out the Islamic regime’s top military man.
According to Philip Smyth, the Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iran could “very easily” respond to what they see as America’s regional proxies, including the State of Israel and Saudi Arabia. “There are several possible Iranian answers” to Solemani’s assassination – including not doing anything for the time being in order to maintain some level of plausible deniability for anything they would do in the future,” said Smyth. “They’ve done it before. I’m a big fan of saying that the Iranians will respond on their own timetable. They are big fans of being patient.
“There’s always the potential of them not doing anything and waiting for the right time,” he continued. “They understand that we – the West as a whole – have a very low attention span. They also understand how domestic politics factors into it, too, and we can see another Gulf crisis. It really comes down to what they want to do, and how effectively they think it will play out for greater strategic gains.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, echoed Smyth’s sentiments. He told the Post that Iran has “exhibited an understanding of escalation dynamics and [has] been bested, in limited conflict in Syria, by Israel.”
But what if Iran does react in another way, more immediately? Well, he said, the country could inflict severe damage.
They can mine the Persian Gulf, fire rocket barrages on American positions in Iraq, attack Israel or Saudi Arabia directly or by their proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudis, Smyth said, “have shown the ease in which they can be attacked by the Iranians or Iranian-backed forces.”
Responses could also include targeting diplomats and other Westerners in the Middle East, specifically Iraq or Tehran.
“They could try to reignite their international terrorist apparatuses using Hezbollah and a variety of other actors, including the IRGC,” Smyth warned. “All of these can come to bear.”
And even if Israel isn’t the subject of direct retaliation, Taleblu warned, “Iran’s security apparatuses will look to continue the policy of carving a corridor to the Mediterranean.”
The men killed in the strike on Friday were irreplaceable.
“Power projection in the Levant – and holding a knife to Israel’s throat through the provision of money and munitions to terrorist groups on Israel’s borders – was part of Soleimani’s success,” Taleblu said.
“Post-Soleimani, the question is: What sort of cohesion to Iran’s myriad of proxies and partners will a new Quds force commander bring?” he asked. “The new Quds Force commander will look to build on this legacy, thus guaranteeing future flash points for conflict.”
Taking a loss like Soleimani, Smyth said, “does degrade certain aspects of power that he brought to the table,” but, “Muhandis is far more irreplaceable than Soleimani.”
As an Iraqi, he was “the model of what the Iranians are trying to develop in terms of having a proxy,” he said.
He noted that it will be “interesting” to see who replaces Muhandis and what transpires in terms of lower- and middle-level command structure.
“There could be a lot of changes,” Smyth said. “We’ve seen this with Hezbollah, when older commanders are killed and the younger guys who are less ideological crept into the groups – and this could lead to a longer degradation of these forces.”
While there are many people who can fill the gap, “It’s hard to replace old-school commanders, who have the knowledge base and loyalty of people who are fighting with them,” Smyth concluded.
Although it won’t be easy for Iran to find replacements, they will find the appropriate response to avenge their deaths.
The entire Middle East should brace itself.