The Islamic Republic is too weak to wage a conventional war on the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean it poses no threat.
How might Iran respond to the death of Qasem Soleimani? Ever since the Trump administration’s January 3 killing of Soleimani, the Islamic Republic’s top military commander, that question has been on the mind of policymakers in Washington and the American public at large.
Iran’s January 8 rocket attack on U.S. military bases in Iraq clearly constituted part of its response, but Iranian leaders quickly made clear that more retaliation is forthcoming. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself has said that, while the rocket attack was a “slap” at the United States, it was “not enough,” and the Islamic Republic will continue its opposition to the United States with the ultimate goal of driving America out of the Middle East altogether.
Doing so, however, is likely to prove difficult for Iran. As a recent analysis by CNBC notes, sanctions leveled by the Trump administration over the past two years have inflicted extensive damage on the Iranian economy. The country’s GDP shrunk by nearly 10 percent last year, and its exports of crude oil declined from a peak of 2.5 million barrels per day to less than 500,000 daily.
Domestic conditions, meanwhile, are deteriorating. Inflation is on the rise within the Islamic Republic and is now pegged at over 30 percent. So, too, is joblessness; nearly a fifth of the country’s workforce is currently estimated to be unemployed. Meanwhile, governmental expenditures have surged as Iran’s ayatollahs struggle to keep a lid on an increasingly impoverished, and discontented, population.
All of this, according to CNBC’s analysis, profoundly limits Iran’s ability “to fund a war” against the United States. But that doesn’t mean the threat from Iran is nonexistent. Iran still has the ability to “ramp up its aggression against the U.S.” through the use of its network of proxy forces in the region.
That network is extensive — and lethal. It comprises not only Iran’s traditional terrorist proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and the Palestinian Hamas movement, but also assorted Shiite militias in Iraq (the so-called “Hashd al-Shaabi”) and even Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Recently, it has also made use of the “Shi’a Liberation Army” (SLA), a group of as many as 200,000 Shiite fighters — drawn from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere — that has been trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and deployed to foreign theaters such as Syria.
Notably, these forces appear to have been thrown into chaos, at least temporarily, by the killing of Soleimani. Reports from the region suggest that Iraqi militias are “in a state of disarray” after the death of the Iranian general, and aren’t currently ready to strike U.S. or allied targets. Over time, however, we can expect Tehran to regain control and direction of its troops and weaponize them anew against the United States and regional U.S. allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. That is doubtless the top priority of Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, who has already commenced outreach to Iranian proxies in an effort to reinforce Tehran’s support for “resistance” activities.
Tehran likewise has another potent tool by which to target the United States: cyber warfare. Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has made enormous investments in its cyber-war capabilities and carried out a series of demonstration attacks on targets such as Saudi Arabia’s state oil company and various U.S. financial institutions to showcase its newfound technological prowess. In the wake of President Trump’s pullout from President Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal, Iran reshaped its cyber-activism against the United States, focusing less on offensive attacks and more on gathering information about potential policy from the notoriously opaque new administration in Washington.
But Tehran’s potential to do significant harm to the U.S. in cyberspace remains. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has warned publicly that Iran could carry out a cyberattack against critical U.S. infrastructure in the near future, with potentially significant “disruptive effects.” And so far, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department has articulated much by way of a strategy to deter Iran from carrying out such attacks, or to mitigate the damage they could do. (In the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, that lack of strategy has become a matter of growing concern on Capitol Hill.)
Perhaps the most compelling reason to expect an asymmetric Iranian response to Soleimani’s killing, however, is that asymmetric warfare plays to Iran’s inherent strengths. Ever since the regime’s grinding eight-year war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s — a conflict that Iran lost handily — its leaders have exhibited a strong penchant for military asymmetry over direct confrontation. This preference has only been reinforced by persistent Western sanctions, which have eroded the country’s conventional military capabilities and made the acquisition of spare parts and matériel considerably more difficult.
Soleimani was the regime’s principal architect of asymmetric war, and had devoted nearly a quarter-century to building up the Islamic Republic’s asymmetric potency. That is precisely why his targeted killing by the Trump administration represents such a significant blow to the integrity of Iran’s proxy network — and to the prudence of its time-tested asymmetric strategy. Going forward, Tehran may well have to rethink its approach, and could conclude that the potential costs of continuing its campaign of aggression against U.S. forces in the region are now simply too high. If it doesn’t, however, the very capabilities that Soleimani spent his career cultivating will remain the most potent weapons the Islamic Republic has to wield against the United States.
The killing of Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian commander targeted by an American strike Thursday night, is the most consequential act taken against the regime in Tehran in thirty years—even if we don’t know what those consequences will be. One thing is clear: we’re entering a dangerous period, in which the conflict between the two countries could easily spin out of control.
Suleimani’s biography as a pivotal figure in Iran and the region is well known. Since the late nineteen-nineties, he was engaged in trying to remake the Middle East to Iran’s advantage, directing his proxies to kill or dispatch anyone who impeded his vision of an Iranian-dominated sphere of influence stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. He was remarkably successful, legendary even—certainly the most influential operative in the region in modern times. He was involved in sponsoring terrorist attacks, propping up despots like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, helping to assassinate at least one foreign leader—the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri—and killing hundreds of American soldiers along the way. In the latter years of the American war in Iraq, Suleimani’s militias deployed a particularly bloody weapon against U.S. soldiers—the “explosively formed penetrator,” or E.F.P.—which tore through the armor of U.S. military vehicles and wreaked havoc on soldiers and marines. It was no small irony that he died on the road to the Baghdad International Airport, where so many Americans soldiers and Iraqis died by ambush.
Suleimani’s death is a heavy blow to the Iranian regime. He was not just the central figure in the country’s foreign policy and military; he was also considered a pillar of the Revolution itself. Since 1979, Iran has regarded its defense against foreign enemies, particularly the United States, as central to its survival. Suleimani’s vision of the region was formed in the nineteen-eighties, during the Iran-Iraq War, which left more than a million people dead and for which the Iranians, not entirely without reason, blamed the U.S. and its allies. Suleimani, a veteran of that war, vowed that nothing like it would happen to Iran again, and he built the Quds Force—a wing of the Revolutionary Guard—into a small, mobile army capable of waging asymmetric warfare against the country’s enemies, including the United States. When I asked Ryan Crocker, a veteran American diplomat, what motivated Suleimani, he said that it was love of country—and also something more visceral: “Nationalism drives him, and the love of the fight.”
U.S. officials from previous Administrations have said that Suleimani did not live as a well-guarded recluse like Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan, and the military could have killed him; but the U.S. decided that it was not worth provoking a large-scale retaliation. “Suleimani was lucky,’’ Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, once told me. “It’s important to be lucky.” (Dagan died in 2016.)
Read Dexter Filkins’s 2013 Profile of Qassem Suleimani.
Suleimani has been replaced by his longtime deputy, but it’s not clear that any commander in Iran is his equal in guile or status. He was as skilled in diplomacy as he was on the battlefield, and as comfortable with diplomats as he was with front-line soldiers, whom he adored. And he had an especially close relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. “A guy like Suleimani—they don’t have any more like him,’’ John Maguire, a twenty-three-year veteran of the C.I.A. specializing in the Middle East, told me. Maguire is one of the few Americans ever to come to face to face with Suleimani. They met in Baghdad, in 2004, when Iraqi politicians were trying to broker a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. “He had a command presence,” Maguire said. “He walked into the room and you could feel him.”
In Iraq, Suleimani had four deputies, who helped oversee the Shiite militias who have, most recently, been leading demonstrations against the American Embassy. The leader of one of those militias, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, of Kata’ib Hezbollah, died in the same strike as Suleimani. Muhandis has a long record of attacking Americans, too, beginning with the bombing of the American and French Embassies in Kuwait, in 1983. Kata’ib Hezbollah—an organization backed, trained, armed, and directed by Suleimani—is responsible for the deaths of scores of American soldiers in Iraq. Ever since the Trump Administration walked away from the nuclear deal signed under the Obama Administration, the U.S. and Iran have engaged in a series of provocative acts. By killing Suleimani, the Trump Administration has risked a wider, more unpredictable conflict, which could flare in many places and in many ways. It’s hard to imagine that the Iranian regime won’t respond to the American strike—it will feel that it has to. But where, and how? Maguire told me that the Quds Force has long specialized in two tactics: hostage-taking and truck-bombing. But the Americans are so well fortified in Iraq (and across the Middle East), and the American military presence in Iraq is so robust, that it’s more possible that the Iranians, if they decide to retaliate, will do so elsewhere. “It’s a better bet that they will choose another place—somewhere where the Americans are not as well protected,’’ he said. Maguire told me that he is not convinced that the Iranians will respond right away, or even at all, because of the deep sense of shock of losing Suleimani. “It’s a body blow to the regime,’’ he said. The biggest danger, of course, is that the Iranians respond, and possibly miscalculate, and then the United States does the same. That’s how wars start.
President Trump said on Friday, as he has previously, that the U.S. is not seeking war or regime change in Iran. Yet, since taking office, the Trump Administration has made regime change its implicit policy. By pulling out of the Iranian nuclear accord and imposing crippling sanctions on the country, Trump’s advisers have wagered that they can bring the regime down. By killing Suleimani, the Administration has taken the fight directly to its leadership.
Revenge is not a strategy.
Few tears will be shed in many parts of the world for Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, whose Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ruthlessly spread Iranian influence and contributed to the deaths of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians, as well as hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq, over the past decade and a half.
But revenge is not a strategy, and the killing of General Suleimani is a major — and incredibly risky — escalation with Iran, a pivotal country of some 80 million people that has been largely estranged from the United States for 40 years. It will cause more instability and the loss of more innocent lives. Any chances for American diplomacy with Iran are dead for the duration of the Trump presidency — if not longer. Instead of one nuclear proliferation crisis, with North Korea, there will most likely now be two, as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal completely collapses. The Sunni fundamentalists who killed Americans in their homeland — something Iran has not done so far — will rejoice. Russia and China will be happy to see the United States mired in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
It is important to remember who began this spiral. In May 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor at a time when Iran was in full compliance with it. When he did so, the Quds Force and its associated militias in Iraq were fighting the Islamic State in indirect coordination with the American military. The Persian Gulf was quiet.
For a year after the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the status quo prevailed. Then in April 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced what amounted to an embargo on the export of Iranian oil. Shortly afterward, Iran moved from “strategic patience” to resistance and retaliation: first against oil tankers, then against an American drone and in September against Saudi oil facilities. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias started lobbing rockets into the Green Zone and other locations where Americans are based. On Dec. 27, rockets killed an American contractor in Kirkuk, and the United States retaliated with strikes that killed two dozen militia members in Iraq and Syria. Iran-backed militias responded with an attempt to break into the American embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve.
The Pentagon says the decision to kill General Suleimani — and with him the Iraqi commander who oversaw his country’s Shiite militias — was made because General Suleimani was planning more attacks on Americans. But the killing will almost certainly lead Iran to retaliate at a time and place and with a means of its choosing. (Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted early today: “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.”) American diplomats and military personnel around the world now need to be even more on guard; civilians could also be targets or collateral damage.
To anyone who has closely followed the rare ups and more-frequent downs of United States-Iran relations for many years, the current situation is tragic. It is also clearly the product of a series of strategic blunders. Few may remember that after the Sept. 11 attacks, General Suleimani worked indirectly with the United States to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan and that Iran was the lone Muslim-majority nation to express popular sympathy for the United States. Despite this and Iranian diplomatic assistance in creating a post-Taliban government, President George W. Bush declared Iran part of an “axis of evil.”
General Suleimani became an enemy after the United States invaded Iran’s other neighbor, Iraq, rebuffed an Iranian offer for wide-ranging negotiations and gave protection to the Mujahedeen Khalq, a ruthless opponent of Iran that had been nurtured by Saddam Hussein. Of course, in toppling Mr. Hussein, the United States opened Iraq to deep penetration by Iraqis sheltered and groomed by Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iran became the pivotal player in Baghdad, taking advantage of free elections, which predictably brought to power successive governments sympathetic to Tehran.
Benefiting from its new access to Iraq, Iran gained a land route to Syria where the Quds Force organized the ground forces that, along with Russian air power, kept Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Hussein’s evil twin, in power through eight years of civil war. They worked in tandem with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s first and most successful regional partner.
Killing General Suleimani will not destroy this network of partners and proxies, but it will give them a celebrated new “martyr” to avenge. Both Lebanon and Iraq will experience more violence; the American presence in Iraq will become increasingly untenable; the biggest beneficiaries will be Sunni fundamentalists like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which will be thrilled to see their two biggest enemies coming to blows.
Meanwhile, the 2015 nuclear deal, which was hanging by a thread, will collapse. Iran was preparing to announce new steps out of the deal on Jan. 5. Instead of another incremental measure, Iran might take the North Korea route and announce that it is quitting the Nonproliferation Treaty and expelling inspectors. An Iranian rush toward a bomb would incentivize others in the region, like Saudi Arabia, to acquire nuclear weapons and raise the prospect of a pre-emptive military strike on Iranian facilities by Israel or the United States, adding to the chances of an all-out war.
But the biggest losers will be the long-suffering Iranian people. The Iranian regime will not fall but will be more ruthless than ever, seeing American plots against it around every corner. The regime will outlast President Trump, and so, unfortunately, will the devastation caused by his actions.
An interview with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s chief of staff.
“We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit.”
So says Gadi Eisenkot about the Jewish state’s undeclared and unfinished military campaign against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. For his final interview as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces before he retires next week, the general has decided to claim responsibility and take at least some of the credit.
Eisenkot’s central intellectual contribution in fighting that campaign is the concept of “the campaign between wars” — the idea that continuous, kinetic efforts to degrade the enemy’s capabilities both lengthens the time between wars and improves the chances of winning them when they come. He also believes that Israel needed to focus its efforts on its deadliest enemy, Iran, as opposed to secondary foes such as Hamas in Gaza.
“When you fight for many years against a weak enemy,” he says, “it also weakens you.”
This thinking is what led Eisenkot to become the first Israeli general to take Iran head on, in addition to fighting its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. And it’s how he succeeded in humbling, at least for the now, Qassim Suleimani, the wily commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which has spearheaded Tehran’s ambitions to make itself a regional hegemon.
.. “We operated under a certain threshold until two-and-a-half years ago,” Eisenkot explains, referring to Israel’s initial policy of mainly striking weapons shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. “And then we noticed a significant change in Iran’s strategy. Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. They built intelligence bases and an air force base within each Syrian air base. And they brought civilians in order to indoctrinate them.”
By 2016, Eisenkot estimates, Suleimani had deployed 3,000 of his men in Syria, along with 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and another 11,000 foreign Shiite troops. The Iranian funds flowing toward the effort amounted to $16 billion over seven years. Israel had long said it would not tolerate an Iranian presence on its border, but at that point Syria had become a place in which other countries’ declaratory red lines seemed easily erased.
In January 2017 Eisenkot obtained the government’s unanimous consent for a change in the rules of the game. Israeli attacks became near-daily events. In 2018 alone, the air force dropped a staggering 2,000 bombs. That May, Suleimani attempted to retaliate by launching “more than 30 rockets toward Israel” (at least 10 more than what has been previously reported). None reached its target. Israeli responded with a furious assault that hit 80 separate Iranian military and Assad regime targets in Syria.
Why did Suleimani — the subtle, determined architect of Iran’s largely successful efforts to entrench itself in Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon — miscalculate? Eisenkot suggests a combination of overconfidence, based on Iran’s success in rescuing Assad’s regime from collapse, and underestimation of Israel’s determination to stop him, based on the West’s history of shrinking in the face of Tehran’s provocations.
“His error was choosing a playground where he is relatively weak,” he says. “We have complete intelligence superiority in this area. We enjoy complete aerial superiority. We have strong deterrence and we have the justification to act.”
“The force we faced over the last two years was a determined force,” he adds a little scornfully, “but not very impressive in its capabilities.”
Eisenkot seems to feel similarly about Hezbollah and its longtime leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The group had devised a three-pronged strategy to invade and conquer (even if briefly) at least a part of Israel’s northern Galilee: building factories in Lebanon that could produce precision-guided missiles, excavating attack tunnels under the Israeli border and setting up a second front on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
So far, the plan has failed. The factories were publicly exposed and the tunnels destroyed. Israel continues to attack Hezbollah positions on the Golan, most recently last month against an intelligence position in the village of Tel el Qudne (also previously unreported).
“I can say with confidence that as we speak Hezbollah does not possess accurate [missile] capabilities except for small and negligible ones,” he says. “They were hoping to have hundreds of missiles in the mid- and long-range.”
That means Hezbollah is unlikely to soon start another war with Israel. Suleimani has pulled his forces back from the border with Israel and withdrawn some altogether. The resumption of U.S. sanctions has also put a squeeze on Iran’s ability to finance its regional adventures. Israel also thought it had won a reprieve of sorts when John Bolton indicated the U.S. would not quickly withdraw from Syria, thereby obstructing Iran’s efforts to build a land bridge to Damascus, though that reversal seems to have been reversed yet again.
Iran may now turn elsewhere. “As we push them in Syria,” Eisenkot says, “they transfer their efforts to Iraq,” where the U.S. still has thousands of troops. Thanks to Gadi Eisenkot, at least we know the Iranians aren’t invincible.