Iran Can Play the Long Game
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File
Iran Can Play the Long Game
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File
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Iran responded for the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani exactly as they said they would, with an overt military strike against a pair of American military targets. While the strike was perfunctory and mostly painless for the United States, we should not assume that Iran’s retaliation is over. There is a variety of means over time that Iran can employ to extract real vengeance for Soleimani’s death. Tehran could inflict real harm on the United States and its interests in the years to come. 

Iran’s meek response did not likely satisfy the desire for revenge felt by so many outraged Iranians, especially those among Tehran’s most senior leaders. Further, Soleimani’s killing has probably affected Iran’s internal politics. Iranian hardliners were already ascendant as a result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and impose crippling sanctions on Iran. Soleimani’s killing will accelerate their rise.

Soleimani’s death has probably changed Iran’s strategic perspective in significant ways, some of which have already manifested themselves since the killing. Trump’s eagerness to take credit for the strike -- which backed Iran’s leadership into an unnecessary corner and forced them to retaliate overtly --undoubtedly reinforced Tehran’s perception that he is naïve and reckless, and therefore a dangerous threat to Iran.

The demands of honor (barely) satisfied, we should expect Iran to go back to its preferred, covert modus operandi. In particular, we should expect Iran to pursue at least four courses of action, both to extract far more meaningful revenge for the Soleimani killing and to pursue their interests in the new strategic circumstances created by the American strike.

The months ahead

First, we should be prepared for the Iranians to mount additional terror or cyberattacks against the United States and its allies throughout the region, and possibly elsewhere in the world. Iran has powerful terrorist muscles and a budding cyberwar acumen. These attacks may take considerable time to pull off.

We should not be surprised if more American (or American-allied) targets go boom or go dark in the months ahead. Iran will assume that Washington will figure out the perpetrator of these attacks and the reasons behind them, but it will be much harder for the United States to respond with the same impunity it could reserve for a massive Iranian military attack.

Second, we should expect the Iranians to keep pressing their Iraqi proxies and allies to evict American troops from Iraq. The Iranians have wanted U.S. forces out of the Middle East for 40 years, but before the Soleimani killing there were those in Tehran -- possibly including Soleimani himself -- who were arguing that a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq served Iran’s immediate interests. That debate seems over. Tehran is pushing hard to get American troops out of Iraq, having concluded that their presence there could spark additional crises and is just too dangerous for Iran.

Moreover, if U.S. troops are sent packing from Iraq, it will become effectively impossible to maintain an American military presence in Syria. Forcing the U.S. out of Iraq and Syria would be a huge victory for Iran and real revenge for the death of Soleimani.

Third, Iran will almost certainly continue to mount attacks against America’s Gulf Arab allies. Tehran has had tremendous success in attacking Saudi and Emirati oil-export infrastructure. The consistent non-responses from the Trump administration are driving a wedge between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council states and are a huge victory for Tehran.

Nuclear fallout?

Last, the Iranians may decide to restart their nuclear program in earnest, having now laid out the diplomatic basis for doing so.

The Soleimani killing, Trump’s wild rhetoric around it, and the humiliating reminder that they cannot challenge U.S. armed forces have no doubt reminded Iran’s leaders of their own military weakness. This is giving ammunition to the many Iranian hardliners who have long wanted a nuclear weapon as the only way to prevent the United States from inflicting such humiliations on Iran.

A critical element in Iran’s decision to accept the 2015 nuclear deal was their conviction that the United States, then led by Barack Obama, had zero interest in attacking Iran and therefore a nuclear deterrent was not needed. Trump’s conduct is likely to have reversed that Iranian perception, leading America into very dangerous times.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council. The views expressed are the author's own.