A ten-point guide to how Tehran may react to Qassem Soleimani's demise.
Somewhere in Tehran, a team of strategists is sifting through options for Iran’s response to the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Each incendiary tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump further concentrates their minds. They will have two distinct aims: to avenge the general’s assassination -- and to be seen doing so -- and to advance Iran’s broader strategic objectives. Which of the options that they produce will Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately choose? Will he scale the ladder of escalation to war with the United States? Will he race to develop a nuclear weapon? What indicators have we gleaned so far that might penetrate the visceral anger and shed light on Iran’s strategic calculus?
Here are ten points worth bearing in mind as we consider what Iran might be thinking.
Iran knows what Soleimani was up to
In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 3 strike, President Trump tweeted, “Soleimani got caught!” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have all insisted that the slain general was actively planning an attack on Americans -- an attack that may have been imminent. Are they telling the truth? Or is this another misleading pretext used to rationalize an attack?
While Washington debates whether or not the attack was urgently required, there is no uncertainty about this question in Tehran. At least one party, the Iranians, knows the truth of what Soleimani was plotting. That means that Tehran knows whether Washington’s allegations have merit or not. This provides Iran with one of two conclusions about American intentions.
If Soleimani actually was planning imminent attacks on U.S. assets, then Tehran now knows that Washington has truly formidable intelligence capabilities, which is itself a deterrent. It also grasps that the United States is quite firm in defending its red line against such attacks.
On the other hand, if there were no specific attacks planned, then Tehran’s reading is more dangerous. Iran will know that the strike was untethered to a concrete threat against the United States, undermining any clarity about the actual U.S. threshold for using force. Emboldened by the apparent lack of serious intelligence capacity of the Americans, Tehran may well downplay Trump’s blustering tweets and be tempted to overreact.
Iran goes to great lengths to cloak its actions
There is an odd duality to Tehran’s provocations and its comments about them. Iran “categorically rejected” responsibility for a June 13 attack on two tankers in the Hormuz Strait. After a large-scale September attack on two Saudi oil installations, Iran had its Houthi proxies in Yemen take responsibility, which was completely implausible. Iran accepted responsibility for the June 20 downing of a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle, but Tehran insisted that the drone had flown into Iranian airspace. Iranian Vice President Eshag Jahanghiri even denied Iranian involvement in the Dec. 27 rocket attack on the K1 military base near Kirkuk that killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. soldiers. “That American officials see Iran as responsible for the attack in Iraq and use that as an excuse to bomb innocent people is a big lie. There is not a more peace-seeking nation than Iran,” he said, adding that “Iran will stand with an iron fist against any invaders.”
In an unusually direct response to Trump’s tweet holding Iran culpable for the K1 attack, Khamenei said the “Iranian nation deeply condemns the [U.S.] crime against Hashd Shaabi.” Khamenei added, “[if] the Islamic Republic decides to fight a country, it will do so quickly.”
On one hand, Iran vows to defend itself aggressively. On the other, it denies responsibility for actions that would make its threats more credible. While Iran’s dexterity with cat-and-mouse attacks -- a specialty of the late Soleimani -- has been widely noted, its underlying anxieties have not. Clearly, Iran is afraid of being exposed for its bellicosity. That suggests that Iran is wary of escalation and therefore likely can be deterred, even after the Soleimani strike. That also poses a serious dilemma for Tehran, given the need for a robust and visible response to the spectacle of its iconic leader being incinerated by an American drone.
Iran is reluctant to leave the JCPOA
If Iran wanted a reason to leave the multilateral agreement on its nuclear program, it certainly didn’t need to wait until the killing of Soleimani. Back in May 2018, when Iran was in full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trump administration unilaterally decided to pull out of the deal. The same held true when the administration applied punishing new sanctions against Iran this past April. It was only in the following month that Tehran began to take gradual steps toward restarting its nuclear program.
Even Iran’s just-issued announcement that it is now abandoning its “final limitations in the nuclear deal” is rife with ambiguity. Iran pledges to continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and will even return to the limits set on its nuclear program if sanctions are lifted. The contrast with the categorical U.S. repudiation of the nuclear deal could not be sharper.
Iran’s reluctance to leave the JCPOA suggests that there is a consensus among key decision-makers that the nuclear deal is fundamentally in Iran’s interest. Whether this is because Iran is desperate for the economic relief promised under the deal; because the United States remains alone in its walkout; because the expiration of some of the deal’s key restrictions is in sight; or for other reasons entirely, is not clear. Iran may yet move forward in pursuing full nuclear-weapons capability, but its behavior so far suggests this would be done only after a complete reassessment of its international and domestic position. Does Soleimani’s killing alone supply a reason for such a momentous shift?
It is not clear that Iraqis have turned decisively against the U.S.
On Dec. 27, following U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 members of the Iran-backed militia blamed for the rocket attack, Iraqis stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. But the emotional funeral on Jan. 4 for the founding Iraqi commander of the very militia that the United States attacked along with Soleimani generated only negligible efforts by protesters to enter the Green Zone where the U.S. Embassy is located.
This ‘dog that didn’t bark’ is significant. Having directed their ire at the U.S. Embassy after ordinary soldiers were killed, Iraqis would have been expected to redouble their fury at the same location after two revered commanders were slain. After all, this would be considered a second lethal violation of Iraqi sovereignty, and far more brazen. One would have expected ordinary Iraqis to at least mass in front of the Embassy compound, burn American flags, and denounce America.
The failure to do so suggests that the initial protest was staged by pro-Iran forces in Iraq. While many Iraqis, particularly Iraqi Shiites, may well be angry at the United States, their animus appears to be quite different from that vented against Iran in months-long protests. The latter demonstrations appear to be spontaneous. Indeed, even after repeated, lethal attacks by Iraqi security forces on protesters, Iraqis have continued to protest. Citizen protesters burned the Iranian consulates in Najaf and Basra.
While the protests can easily be turned on again, the respite suggests that at least for now, the Soleimani assassination has not singlehandedly changed Iraqi public opinion.
Even in Iraq’s parliament, attitudes toward the United States and Iran appear to have changed less than what is reported. The resolution demanding that U.S. troops leave was largely symbolic. Further, it passed without the votes of Kurdish or Sunni members of parliament. This is quite significant, suggesting that not just the Kurds but the Sunnis as well have deep reservations about a U.S. departure.
Completely incongruously, the resolution included an affirmative reference to the Strategic Framework agreement with the United States. If Washington is so odious, then why would Baghdad want a strategic relationship with it? Rather than proof of how anti-American attitudes have hardened after the strike on Soleimani, the resolution may simply be a case of the Iraqi parliament showing obeisance to Tehran in its hour of rage.
Iranians have condemned the killing of Soleimani
As expected, Iranians have widely, though not universally, condemned the killing of the legendary Soleimani. Advisers to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a leading opposition figure who is still under house arrest, labeled the assassination “an act of terrorism” and called Soleimani a “martyr.”
At the same time, Soleimani represented the hardline faction behind the recent crackdown in Iran that has seen as many as 1,500 Iranian protesters killed. The brutal repression prompted an unprecedented reaction from some officials, including a member of the Majlis who, breaking a taboo, compared the regime’s actions to those of the Shah.
As the bitterness over the Soleimani killing abates (and as President Trump begins to aim his provocative tweets elsewhere), anti-government fervor in Iran may return. Precedent suggests this is possible. Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic initially benefitted from national reaction to NATO bombing in 1999. Two years later he was in The Hague, having been deposed by a popular uprising.
The new sanctions that the Administration imposed in the spring also initially had a unifying effect in Iran, before melting into the recent anti-government public action. Can the Iranian regime sustain a state of permanent confrontation to cover its domestic failings?
The economic status quo for Iran has not changed
Iran’s concealed acts of sabotage, as well as the direct strike on the K1 base by its proxies, are primarily in response to the unilateral imposition of sanctions by the United States. Those sanctions have inflicted severe economic hardship on Iran. Indeed, the spark for the protests was a hike in the price of fuel, necessitated by outside economic pressure.
Soleimani’s assassination has shaken the Middle East and the world, but the economic facts of life for Iran have not changed. It remains under unilateral U.S. sanctions that have left it effectively unable to sell its oil, decimating its economy. Iran has to calculate whether it has nothing to lose by an attack -- or whether it has everything to lose, incurring further isolation, damage to infrastructure, and potentially additional sanctions if other countries follow the U.S. approach.
Tehran faces opprobrium, but it is not a ‘cornered animal’
Tehran already enjoyed strong support from Russia and China, as well as from the Europeans, after Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. Brussels and key capitals in Europe have tried unsuccessfully to create a way for European companies to trade with Iran without running afoul of U.S. sanctions. China even conducted joint naval exercises with Iran last month, a clear symbolic gesture of support.
When it comes to Tehran’s own military actions, that support evaporates. Berlin, Paris, and London did not hesitate to condemn Tehran “in the strongest terms” for the September attack on Saudi oil installations. “It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack,” the three capitals declared in a joint statement. As a big oil importer, China has no interest in a conflagration in the Gulf, nor does Russia generally want one, even though it benefits from higher oil prices.
After the Soleimani killing, the politico-military dynamic remains in place: Iran enjoys a degree of international understanding about its hardships, but risks losing it if Tehran undertakes military action. French President Emmanuel Macron has been frenetically working the phones with Iran and other parties in an effort to gain restraint. Tehran continues to receive senior foreign officials, including from Arab countries such as Qatar and Oman. The United Arab Emirates also trades and communicates with Iran.
In other words, Iran is wounded, and it is warned, but it is in no sense a “cornered animal” that must strike out.
There is still a deal to be negotiated between the U.S. and Iran
Tehran was already furious at Trump for reneging on the nuclear deal, even before the Soleimani hit. But a deal can still be reached. As is his wont, President Trump has repeatedly expressed willingness for a high-profile meeting with his Iranian counterpart. As recently as mid-September, after the attack on Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also proposed negotiations with the United States.
Several mediators, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and senior Omani officials, have conveyed messages and made appeals. These efforts will not bear fruit in the frenzy of the moment, but they shouldn’t be forgotten.
The Iranians are shrewd negotiators who know that Trump is easily outmaneuvered in high-stakes settings, as shown by the American president’s encounter in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Spectacle is not the preferred Iranian approach, but Tehran may be led to see its interests served by a direct encounter with Washington.
Soleimani is not around to influence domestic Iranian politics
In the wake of his assassination, attention has focused on the operational impact of Soleimani’s absence at the helm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds force. But the legendary commander was also a powerful hardline voice within Iran. His departure injects not just an operational void that may or may not be filled, but a highly uncertain dynamic in domestic power politics. It is at least worth considering whether more pragmatic, less dogmatic factions in Tehran may emerge now that Soleimani is not there to oppose them.
Will Soleimani’s demise shake Pyongyang?
Trump apparently had the Benghazi assault in mind when he ordered the strike on Qassem Soleimani. But it was a prior development in Libya, in 2011, that had broader international impact. The ignominious death of Moammar Qadhafi -- who had given up his nuclear program -- accelerated North Korea’s determination to produce nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un has surely taken note of the assassination of the high-profile Soleimani. How the North Korean leader will process the Soleimani hit -- by further intensifying his nuclear program, by restraining it, or perhaps neither -- is worth considering.
Mr. Joseph is senior fellow and adjunct professor in Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has served in senior positions in U.S. and international missions in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and for a dozen years in the Balkans. The views expressed are the author's own.