In a speech broadcast on Iranian state television on Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tacitly acknowledged that his nation's missile strike on two military bases in Iraq housing US troops hadn't amounted to much of a retaliation for the killing of Maj Gen. Qassem Suleimani. "Last night, they were given one slap," Khamenei said. "Such military actions are not enough as far the importance of retaliation is concerned. What's important is that their corruption-creating presence should end."
The question now is: What else can Iran do to drive the US out of the Middle East, short of the all-out war that both Tehran and Washington have made clear they don't want? Few US actions have hit the Iranian leadership harder than the killing of Suleimani, who led the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that conducts military operations outside Iran. Though Suleimani's deputy, Esmail Qaani, is already serving in his place, the new commander is a stolid workhorse focused on Afghanistan, and he is considered to be a far remove from Suleimani's star quality or his predecessor's intimate grasp of strategic battlefields, such as those in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Beyond that, the Iranian leadership appears somewhat divided about the sort of retaliation needed—what would satisfy national pride as well as the throngs of angry Iranians, dozens of whom were reportedly trampled to death Monday at Suleimani's funeral procession—while at the same time not starting an open war with the United States, which would be an unmitigated disaster for Iran.
Whatever comes, the worst of it may not happen right away. In terms of US strikes on Iran, the only comparable moment was the April 1988 destruction of the Iranian navy by US strikes, followed by the July 1988 accidental downing of an Iranian airliner and its 290 occupants by the United States. In that case, it was eight years before Iran took its full revenge with the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US military personnel.
In today's scenario, serious retaliation may come sooner but not necessarily in days or weeks. Those who know Iranian strategic culture are fond of saying that Iran has a "long breath," meaning the Iranians are capable of tremendous strategic patience.
This is not always the case, of course. In October 2011, two Iranians were charged for plotting a car bombing at a restaurant in Washington, DC, to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The attack seems to have been a hasty retaliatory blow after Saudi Arabia crushed Iranian hopes of an Arab Spring uprising of Bahraini Shiites eight months earlier. That bungled plot, one of Suleimani's less illustrious ventures, was an embarrassing fiasco and might caution Tehran against a new hasty response.
But for Khamenei, who formed a close fatherly bond with Suleimani and viewed him as a paragon of soldierly virtues and a next-generation leader, his death is deeply personal. And the Islamic Republic is sending some unique messages this time. On Jan. 4, Iran took the unprecedented step of raising a red flag over the Jamkaran Mosque, near the regime's religious center at Qom. This important mosque is where the Persian Shiites believe their messiah, the Hidden Imam, reappeared one night during Ramadan.
For Shiites, red is the color of blood and revenge. It is the symbol of Imam Abbas, a courageous warrior who tried to fight the caliph Yazid's army even after his hands were cut off. (The only recognizable part of Suleimani to survive was his ring-bearing hand.)
If additional retaliation comes, Iran may be tempted to strike on or near the Feb. 11 anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which also happens to coincide with the 40th day of mourning for Suleimani, when Muslims memorialize the dead. If alerted US forces have demobilized, and if President Donald Trump is focused elsewhere, there could be an action intended to hurt but not goad America.
Indeed, Iran faces a major problem that could cause its leaders to think twice about Khamenei's pledge of "severe revenge." While national pride demanded a direct response, Tuesday night's missile strike apparently was designed to minimize casualties since Iran's leadership can ill afford a war with the United States, especially with its economy tottering under severe sanctions. (The missile strike was preceded by a warning to Iraq's government that was bound to be detected by the US and followed by Iranian statements that underlined Tehran's desire to de-escalate, for now.)
But that still leaves many options for retaliation open. In the near term, Tehran may look to its nuclear program for a distraction. The nuclear issue is, in many ways, smarter terrain on which to fight, dividing Trump from his European allies: To much of the world, America—not Iran—is at fault for withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Europeans and UN leaders cannot ignore the risk of a nuclear crisis. This drove Iran to announce its newest step back from JCPOA commitments, ending some restrictions on uranium enrichment capacity, storage of enriched material, and research and development.
Other options would include painful military strikes on allies such as Israel, partners such as Saudi Arabia, or US-leaning politicians inside Iraq. Deniable strikes would be preferable. Cyberattacks might be used, counting on Trump's track record of meeting lethal force with lethal force and using cyber-retaliation for lesser offenses. As Tuesday night's non-lethal strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq showed, Iran is quite capable of "aiming to miss," something it has turned into an art form when it wants to send a message to the world without triggering devastating retaliation.
Over the longer term, Iran is likely to mount its real and heavier response in the summer or fall, in the lead-up to the US presidential election. Such an attack might find Trump distracted and less willing to incur political negatives by appearing to invite war (unpopular with most Americans) and by threatening to drive up gas prices. The attacks might take the form of terrorist and military strikes on US bases and ships in the Persian Gulf and Bab el-Mandeb; proxy attacks on US diplomatic stations in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere; interference with shipping lanes; cyberattacks on air traffic control or major industrial plants; and terrorism attacks on the U.S. homeland—Iran can certainly do some of these actions and possibly all of them.
An evolving Iranian response
To figure out what moves Tehran might make next, it's useful to trace the evolution of its policy toward Washington. On Jan. 1, Khamenei made a statement that reflected Iran's usual policy against open conflict, a long-standing preference formed during the grueling eight-year war with Iraq. "We would not take the country to war," Khamenei said. "But if others want to impose something on this country, we will stand before them forcefully."
At the moment that Khamenei made this comment, Suleimani's proxies in Iraq had just killed an American contractor and suffered heavier than expected retaliation in the Dec. 29 strikes that killed 25 militiamen and wounded more than 50.
Even so, Iranians had not been killed at that point, leaving Khamenei in his comfort zone: fighting the Americans to the last Iraqi, Afghan, Lebanese, or Pakistani proxy. Will Suleimani's death (alongside four other Iranian staff officers) change Khamenei's calculus?
The last six months provide puzzling but potentially important insights into the Iranian regime's real objectives. One can identify three phases of escalation in Iranian-armed actions.
The first phase followed US sanctioning of Iran's oil sales in April 2019, whereon Iran began to fire drones at Saudi pipelines, attack an Emirati oil anchorage, harass tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, and finally launch a breathtakingly audacious cruise missile strike on the largest energy sites in the world in Saudi Arabia.
In this phase, Iran was careful not to kill Americans, only targeting U.S. drones on two occasions. Iran's motive seemed reasonably clear: to scare the world about cutting off Iranian oil and to indirectly pressure the United States to relent. The problem was that Trump did not respond. Iran seemed to recognize that and ceased the actions.
A new phase began with the October 2019 protests against Iranian-controlled governments in Iraq and Lebanon, which led to similar protests in Iran. From the outset, a pressured Iranian regime seemed to have genuinely believed that the United States had a hand in fomenting the protests, and this may have driven Iran to cross the US red line against harming an American. In November and December 2019, Iranian-backed strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq grew more reckless and finally killed an American on December 27.
As with the earlier provocative shootdown of a valuable US MQ-4 drone over Hormuz on June 20, 2019 – and now the January 7, 2020 missile strikes on US bases -, Iran seemed to have "costed in" some form of retaliation when it risked killing Americans in Iraq. Even the heavy US strikes on Iran's local proxy Kataib Hezbollah were tolerable to Tehran, but the unanticipated killing of Suleimani marked the outset of a new phase. Today, for the first time, the Iranian regime is not only being strangled by sanctions and threatened by uprising, but it is also deeply, directly, and personally wounded by a US strike.
Offsetting the deep anger inside the Iranian leadership is the recognition that Trump is alerted and in punchy form. Unlike in June, when he nixed retaliation for the lost US drone over collateral damage concerns, Trump is now threatening expansive retaliatory airstrikes on the Iranian mainland. The worm has turned once again.
Neither the summer's naval and missile actions nor the recent killing of an American have improved Iran's position at all. Open war initiated by Tehran would only ease Trump's domestic worries about the lack of an authorization for the use of military force.
In the end, despite the current rhetoric, it is even possible that Iran's main response might be nonexistent—as was the case despite its thundering at the United States for the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh, the highest-profile Iranian-backed commander to be killed until Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who also died in the Jan. 3 attack. We are still waiting almost 12 years later.
Showing the "long breath" for which it is famous, the Iranian regime may choose to do the minimum, knowing that in 2021 it gets either a second-term Trump (who is not vulnerable to reelection and who likes making deals) or a peacenik Democrat with four or eight years of running time.
Michael Knights is a Boston-based senior fellow of The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf states.