The US takes out Qasim Suleimani and everyone holds their breath for the counter-move from Tehran. What are the likely scenarios? We’ll get to that. First let’s clear out the clutter a little. Iran will now race for nuclear power. Iraq’s government will be pushed by Tehran to make US leave. You’d think, from the hysterical upswell of noise, that Suleimani was a figure comparable in stature to Ghengiz Khan. Let’s put that in perspective. Iran began massively to infiltrate Iraq with the toppling of Saddam, and to do so in a graduated ordered progression – initially through their consulate in Basra. Suleimani was one of several directing executives at the head of different Iranian bureaucracies. They operated coherently, though, because their plans dated back to the Iran-Iraq war with a view to preventing another. Saddam kept them in check. Their first task after Saddam: to push American occupation authorities into leaving doors open. Clandestinely Tehran supported Al Quaeda on the one hand, while publicly playing the white knight and arming Shia militias in order to resist AQ. In fact, they shaped and trained the militias to divide Iraqi society, then forced the US to depend on Shiites to suppress Sunni extremists. Meanwhile, their allies in Syria funneled Islamist fighters into Iraq to aid the Iranian plan by attacking US troops. (Readers will note that Assad later followed a similar strategy in his own country by abetting in the formation of ISIS.) Ultimately, both the US and the various Iraqi administrations governed the country with heavy reliance on Iran’s complaisance.
I spent quite a lot of time in and out of the Iraq as a journalist during those years (and since). Qasim Suleimani was nowhere to be seen or heard at first. Tehran’s game plan existed before him and will endure without him. To some degree his celebrity was a product of Iranian mythmaking in that the Quds Force (and IRGC) needed a heroic figure to feel good about – spending years far from home motivating reluctant Iraqis began to tell on the morale of Iranian operatives. Think about it. Why make military leaders vulnerable with exposure without some strategic purpose? Suleimani openly courted fame. As a result he constantly gave his enemies the chance of an easy propaganda victory by his elimination. It’s odd, though, that the Israelis never chose to take him out as he wandered around the war zones offering photo-ops and hugs across Iraq and Syria. Perhaps they didn’t think him as important as US did. Or they were biding time for the moment of maximum political gain. Since the State Department explicitly avowed that it had informed the Saudis and Israelis of the strike beforehand we can assume a level of ongoing dialog with them. And even perhaps with the Russians. There’s a whiff of something odd here – something that smells like a multi-level co-ordinated pay-off for various disparate sides.
Russia included. There’s no love lost between Russia and Iran, ostensibly strategic allies against the US in the region. For some years now Iran has chaffed at the implicit limits imposed on its imperial reach by Moscow. Not so much in Iraq as in Syria, particularly in any overreach that amounts to a threat against Israel. There’s a reason why Israel can strike any Iranian target it wants in Syria. The Russians won’t defend against it. Furthermore, only the Russians have the kind of on-the-ground intelligence against Quds force and Assadist military activity in Syria that Israel keeps striking with pin-point accuracy (yet never Suleimani). Tehran believes Moscow supplies Israel with intelligence. Iran, for its part, supplied Georgia with oil when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Lavrov’s loud and risible outrage about the killing of Suleimani shouldn’t fool anyone. Moscow gains instantly from any instability in the region through the spike in oil prices. Plus, hostilities between the US and Iran only place the latter further under Moscow’s control. This is no small matter for Putin since a supine Iran means he can re-exert Russian power down the Caucasus without Iran helping Azerbaijan, Armenia, or Georgia to resist. So we may be witnessing a tacit deal between the White House and Putin where Trump gets a pre-election boost and Moscow gets gradually to take back the Caucasus.
The last thing Tehran wants is the Russian Bear back on its borders as in the Soviet era. But it cannot hold out against Russia in the north and America on the warpath. Which rather limits Tehran’s options for carrying out a huge retaliation for the present. Any such action, it now must calculate, can lead to war with the US most likely in the form of a sustained air campaign that will leave the country in ruins. Quick, substantial retaliation without incitement – very tricky to pull off while tempers are running high. So what are its options? Short of preparing for total war, Iran might go for an anonymous attack on a civilian airliner in flight as some say happened in 1996 to TWA 800 off Long Island. There’s more than one problem with this. Any such incident can and will be attributed to Iran however slender the ostensible link, however anonymously done. Especially before Trump comes up for re-election. This applies to attacks on embassies, hostage-taking around the world or near Iranian waters, cyber-attacks, acts of terror on US soil or against US personnel anywhere. For now, I would wager that Tehran won’t undertake a highly visible incident against the US. But against US allies such as Saudi or Israel – that’s entirely possible.
If it wants to punish Trump, Tehran is in a bind because doing nothing against the US will aid Trump’s election prospects, and doing something will likely trigger major US reprisals that unify America behind Trump. Iran will wait. It will avoid triggering full-scale hostilities, which are more likely before the election, especially as that will increase Tehran’s dependence on Russia. Trump is not indiscriminately war-minded and Iran will possibly gamble that he won’t want a full-out fight after the election. So it will likely plan hostile acts for post-2020. Already the White House house has sent a subtle signal by publicly saying it’s not looking for regime change. In which country, a true cynic might ask. Conceivably, in neither. But if Iran makes a dash for nukes war will likely ensue anyway sooner or later to prevent it because nobody in the region or the world wants that.