Iran will avenge Soleimani's death - the question is where and when

The controversy that broke out in the US after the operation has nothing to do with who was killed, but rather with who killed him.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani (photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani
(photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran will respond. The question isn’t if, but rather, when and where.
It is impossible to underestimate the significance of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. The leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Soleimani was responsible for all Iranian operations outside of Iran – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Gaza and beyond.
Any attack carried out by the Iranians for the last couple of decades – the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad, the bombing of the Saudi oil facility, the firing of Katyusha rockets into the Golan Heights, the war in Yemen and the arming of Islamic Jihad – all had Soleimani’s fingerprints. All were planned by him.
Israel wanted him dead for years. He was behind the arming of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria in 2012. Plots over the years against Israeli embassies and synagogues around the world all came from him.
The fact that the attack was carried out by the US – with secret Israeli involvement or not – is ultimately beneficial for Israel. The Jewish state gets to enjoy his removal from the stage but without being the first and most immediate target for Iranian retaliation.
This doesn’t mean that US President Donald Trump decided to kill him for Israel. Not at all. The attack against the US embassy in Baghdad this week pushed him to take action. Yes, he restrained himself after Iran downed an American drone in June and after it attacked the oil facility in Saudi Arabia in September, but on Thursday he had enough.
The controversy that broke out in the US after the operation has nothing to do with who was killed, but rather with who killed him. Anything Trump does these days is perceived as controversial: If he doesn’t respond to Iranian aggression, then he is weak. He responds, then he is endangering Americans and undermining Congress.

In reality though, Soleimani deserved to die and had deserved to die for many years. His elimination is a severe blow to Iran. Some Israeli officials compared it to assassinating the chief of military intelligence, the head of the Mossad and the defense minister all at the same time. That is how important he was for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Nevertheless, before carrying out such an operation there are a few questions  that military planners needed to ask and try to answer: What will the response be? How severe a retaliation will there be? Who will replace the person being targeted, and what response is in place to the response that will come?
In this case, the US knows there will be a response. Iran’s options vary – it could do anything from firing rockets at US bases in Iraq, mining the Persian Gulf or striking Saudi Arabia and Israel. It could also wait and try to hit a high-value target overseas, maybe an Israeli embassy or a US official.
Who will replace Soleimani is more complicated. While his deputy has reportedly been named as his successor, he is believed in some defense circles to be irreplaceable, similar to the effect the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military commander, had on the Lebanese group back in 2008. It took Hezbollah years to find someone to step into his shoes; ultimately, it had to divide his responsibilities among several officials.
Soleimani was far more than that. His close relationship with Khamenei and his powerful influence over every decision taken in Tehran – from the nuclear program to foreign policy – as well as his intimate familiarity with all ongoing operations around the world – make him very hard to replace.
For the coming days, weeks and even months the region will be on edge. Israel and the US will up security and defenses and increase intelligence gathering to try to preempt and thwart Iranian aggression.
If, however, Iran succeeds in carrying out an attack, the question is what will come next. Will a large-scale attack push Trump to again escalate and continue the new policy of being active and engaged in the Middle East, or will it have the opposite effect and make him consider – due to impeachment or the upcoming presidential election – that he should let it slide?
In time we will know.