Iran faces dilemma in avenging general's death: To strike back without starting a war

WASHINGTON — Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, vowed to exact “severe revenge” for the Thursday night U.S. airstrike that killed the country’s most famous general, but the Iranian regime will have to walk a fine line to respond strongly without provoking a war with the United States, former intelligence officials familiar with the region said Friday.

Qassem Soleimani headed the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, which combines intelligence gathering, covert action and special operations. He died when a U.S. missile struck his vehicle near Baghdad International Airport. Also killed in the airstrike, which hit two vehicles, was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iraqi Shiite militia group Kataib Hezbollah, along with several other Quds Force and militia members.

Soleimani was a charismatic leader who for 20 years had played a key role in orchestrating Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly with regard to its use of proxy militia forces such as Lebanese Hezbollah, numerous Iraqi Shiite armed groups and the Houthi militia in Yemen. He directed the killing of more than 600 U.S. troops during the Iraq War by Shiite militias using a particularly lethal sort of roadside bomb called an explosively formed penetrator. More recently, he commanded Iran’s military efforts to shore up its ally Bashar Assad in the Syrian war. “He was the most famous intel figure on the planet,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA operations official.

A boy carries a portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in the U.S. airstrike in Iraq, prior to the Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Friday Jan. 3, 2020. (Photo: Vahid Salemi/AP)

But that fame has now put the Iranian regime in a bind, according to Norman Roule, who was the national intelligence manager for Iran until 2017. Because of Soleimani’s iconic stature, it will have to be seen to strike back itself, rather than merely through proxies, he said. But Iran must do so with enough “implausible deniability” to avoid giving the United States an excuse to launch a war that could lead to the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Iran will also want to avoid antagonizing Europe, China or Russia in its response, Roule said.

So the regime will have to pick and choose carefully among its panoply of weapons. “Iran has many cyber, drone and missile tools and may decide to employ all of them at some point,” Roule said. “Iran’s proxies will want to show that they are loyal to Iran, but the ease by which the U.S. killed Soleimani and struck Kataib Hezbollah targets will make them wonder how quickly Washington will be able to locate and kill them following any attack on U.S. interests.”

A burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, early Friday, Jan. 2, 2020. The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. military has killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump. (Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office, via AP)

Despite speculation that Iran or its proxy Hezbollah will retaliate by launching terrorist attacks against U.S. or allied targets, Roule said that was unlikely in the near term, in part because a terrorist attack on a specific individual or facility requires a significant amount of preparation. “Iran will need to identify a target and understand its security profile,” he said. “If it is a person, it will need to understand the target’s pattern of life. Iran will need to locate weapons and prepare an egress plan for its people. The complexity and resource demands of such an operation make it difficult to undertake [at short notice] unless such an operation had been developed prior to Soleimani’s death.” 

And Tehran has to come up with a plan without the person who was best able to devise and execute one: Soleimani himself. “The Iranians are in a hard spot because the person they need to manage and execute a response is a guy like Soleimani,” said Douglas Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and longtime former senior CIA official. “That’s the trick box the Iranians are in: The individual they need to respond at this point is dead.”

Less than 24 hours after the strike, the Middle East appeared to be teetering on the brink of war. Royal Jordanian Airlines suspended its flights to Baghdad. The Defense Department followed up its recent deployment of a battalion from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division by announcing Friday that it would deploy the rest of the 82nd’s division ready brigade — a total of about 3,500 soldiers. Other reports indicated that 1st Ranger Battalion departed its home post of Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia en route to the Middle East.

The State Department meanwhile appeared to send mixed messages to U.S. citizens in Iraq Friday. Pompeo told CNN that killing Soleimani had made Americans “safer in the region.” But the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad advised all Americans to avoid the embassy and “depart Iraq immediately.” Seemingly anticipating a shutdown of commercial air traffic in and out of the country, the embassy told Americans they should leave via airline “while possible,” and otherwise should depart over land. 

“Iranians, to feel they have avenged Soleimani’s death, will strike first at elements of American government,” said Wise. “This is a strike by the American government, and they’re going to want to strike back at the U.S. government first.”

Foreign employees of oil companies are seen leaving Iraq at the airport of Basra, Iraq January 3, 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

But that attack may not come in Iraq or even in the Middle East, according to Wise. “The Iranians will strike at soft targets, say, an individual working at a U.S. embassy getting in or out of their car in some embassy in South America or Africa — they’ll go to soft targets at the edges of the U.S. empire.”

A former CIA official with knowledge of Iran and terrorism also predicted that the Islamic Republic was more likely to target U.S. government facilities far from the Middle East. “If they want to hit military facilities in Iraq, Kuwait, Doha, Jordan, all of that area is going to be on heightened alert,” the former CIA official said. “But I don’t know if we’re going to be on such high alert in Lima, Buenos Aires, Asunción, Malaysia, West Africa and Europe — places where there is a known Hezbollah presence, but we may not be able to step up security procedures for all embassies everywhere and expect the same level of protection.”

Retired Army Col. Chris Costa, the executive director of the Spy Museum, cautioned that Iran might take its time before retaliating. “Short term I suspect we’re going to hear threatening rhetoric, but Iran can seek revenge on their own timetable,” he said.

A former State Department official who specialized in Iraq and Iran warned that Iran’s response was unlikely to be a simple case of tit for tat. “What comes next will not be a single strike,” the former State Department official said. “The worst move we can make is to underestimate Iran.”

Read Full Story