By Madison Scholar, CIB Alumni, currently living in Europe
Analytical Question: How will Iran respond to the death of Qassem Soleimani? | Date: 4 February 2020
It can be stated with moderate confidence that Iran will attempt to push US forces out of Iraq by continuing to sporadically attack US bases in the region. It can also be stated with moderate confidence that there will be an awakening of some form of sleeper cells, to include cyber, who will target US interests in the future. In response to an Iran-backed Iraqi attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, President Trump issued an airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani on 3 January 2020. Soleimani was one of Iran’s most revered military leaders, serving as Major General at the time of death. This poses the question of how Iran will respond as they vow to avenge the death of their leader. This report seeks to analyze possible outcomes in order to predict Iran’s next move. We must take in consideration multiple factors, to include Iran’s relationships with neighboring countries, possible US security vulnerabilities, and the rising threat of cyber warfare.
In 2015 the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany (P5+1) struck the Iran Nuclear Deal, in an effort to check Iran’s intentions to build nuclear weapons (BBC 2019). The deal comprised of Iran limiting its nuclear capability in exchange for the removal of various economic sanctions (BBC 2019). In May 2018, US President Donald Trump removed the US from the deal because the administration believed it was ineffective in stopping Iran’s production (BBC 2019). Although the US left the deal, the other five countries continued to uphold their obligations (BBC 2019). On 5 January 2020, Iran announced the end of its commitment to the nuclear deal as a response to the Soleimani assassination (Burman 2020).
As far as Middle Eastern relations go, the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran escalated throughout 2019. Israel has carried out multiple air strikes in an attempt to contain the transfer of precision missiles, drones, and other weapons to Iran’s allies in the surrounding region (Halbfinger 2020). Accusations of Iran creating an arms supply from Iran to Syria and Lebanon have proven to be accurate despite denials by Iranian officials (Halbfinger 2020). Saudi Arabia has also been an antagonist of Iran in the past, as it is the world’s top oil producer and has a major effect on the global economy. The last attack on Saudi occurred in September 2019, when drone strikes coming from Iran-backed Houthi rebels targeted two large oil plants, therefore disrupting the worlds energy supply (Hubbard et al 2019). Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are close allies of the US, with US foreign policy often being reciprocate to its allies’ needs, especially Israel.
As the world awaited Iran’s immediate response to the death of Soleimani, Brigade General Abolfazl Shekarchi of the Iranian armed forces told news sources that, “the Islamic Republic of Iran refuses to take any emotional and hasty action […. W]e are the ones who set the time and place of our reciprocal response” (Sly 2020). Soon after these statements were made, US officials announced that they were able to intercept Soleimani’s plans of a “big attack”, which would have potentially killed hundreds of Americans (Riley-Smith 2020). As chaos continued, another attack on US troops based in western Iraq was carried out on 8 January, with the US reporting no casualties (Staff 2020). On the contrary, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) falsely reported that over 80 troops were killed and over 200 were wounded in the same missile strike (Staff 2020). Iran warned that it would target Israel and Dubai if the US retaliated (Staff 2020). In a crucial turning point from a potential war, President Trump addressed the nation the following morning, announcing that the US would be standing down in an effort to de-escalate rising tension (Manson and Politi 2020).
A few days later, a Ukrainian commercial aircraft carrying 176 civilians onboard was shot down over Iran, killing all passengers (Al Jazeera, 2020). After facing serious accusations, Iranian authorities admitted that they mistakenly shot down the plane, sparking outrage in Tehran (Al Jazeera, 2020). No action was taken by the US or the Ukraine; instead Iranian protesters demanded the resignation of the nations leaders (Al Jazeera 2020). British, Canadian and Ukrainian officials demanded full investigations and warned Iran to back down (Al Jazeera 2020). Two months prior, protests had also unfolded with messages of resistance to the government, with Amnesty International reporting that over 300 Iranian lives were taken by police forces (Voa 2020).The White House issued statements in both English and Farsi telling the Iranian people that America stood with them and were closely monitoring the protests, and warning Iranian officials to “not kill their protesters” (Sullivan and Cole 2020). The most recent attack was carried out on 26 January, when Iran-backed Iraqi rockets fired at the US Embassy in Baghdad but resulted in only one injury (Starr and Hansler 2020). The US responded by announcing its vigilance in monitoring the situation, although no major action has been reported (Starr and Hansler 2020).
Iran’s reaction depends on whether or not its leaders are willing and capable of waging an all-out war with the US and its allies. It is uncertain when an attack will occur, but it is almost certain that an attack will happen in the future, as Iran believes it would show weakness if it does not respond decisively.
Soleimani was the second highest-ranking individual in Iran. If government authorities seek a “reciprocal response”, they will not be satisfied with only attacking US allies. The $80 million bounty placed on President Trump’s head during Soleimani’s funeral should not be a threat taken lightly, as it indicates the very real possibility of an attack happening on US soil (News 18 2020). Iranian officials spoke out saying, “we can attack the White House itself, we can respond to them on the American soil” (News 18 2020). This leads us to believe that the awakening of sleeper cells within the US is one of the country’s greatest threats. Even if Soleimani was had not been killed, plans of “The Big Attack” demonstrate that Iran is not afraid of war. This is because the emergence of another 9/11-scale event would surely initiate war between the US and Iran. Smaller-scale attacks on US bases, such as the two performed on the 8th and 26th of January, may have been more of a test of US retaliation than revenge. Even more likely, it was an attempt to ‘show face’ to satisfy the Iranian people and prove that the leadership is being proactive in avenging the death of their leader. Some evidence even shows that Iran may have intentionally missed the targets in order to give IRIB the chance to report that, “at least 80 troops were killed” (Staff 2020). Recurring attacks on US Embassies and armed forces may continue, as these types of attacks show Iranian presence in the area. However, pressure from the Ukraine, Canada, Britain, and other NATO countries may steer Iran towards de-escalation momentarily, as casualties from another attack would not come without extreme consequences from all sides, including anger within its own population. This pushes us towards the possibility of a cyber-based attack. FireEye, a key player in US cyber intelligence, warned that Iran began to focus on its cyber capabilities following the 2015 Nuclear Deal, and could cause serious damage to critical infrastructure (Murphy 2020). The final foreseen option is the removal of US forces from Iraq. The death of Soleimani “proved just how effectively the US could watch the Iranians from Iraq soil”, giving even more reason for Iran to want American troops out (Gilsinan 2020). The last attack pushed Mike Pompeo to verbalize the US’s “willingness to discuss the scope of our forces in Iraq over time”, which we believe is the response Iran wanted (Starr and Hansler 2020).
As far as an attack on US foreign allies, it does not seem to be Iran’s main priority as of now. An attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure would cause significant damage to the global economy; however, such an attack is unlikely because of the lack of benefit Iran would receive from a relatively uninvolved party. This conflict is very focused around Soleimani’s death, and Iran would probably not waste resources on non-American targets. The same applies to Israel: although there have been multiple threats towards Tel Aviv and Haifa, it would not receive the response Iran is looking for. We believe that Iran is looking for something unique to the situation, as its leaders have forespoken of a “reciprocal response”, and sending missiles to Israel is nothing new. However, Israel’s close relations with the US does make it a politically involved target.
It is certain that Iran will continue to retaliate to the killing of Soleimani; however, the attack on the Ukrainian plane has served as a significant barrier for Iranian plans. With tensions of a potential civil war and the world powers watching closely, Iran appears to be backing off momentarily. Although it is quieter than before, we believe more attacks will be seen in the upcoming months. It can be stated with moderate confidence that Iran will continue its attempt to push US forces out of Iraq by proceeding to sporadically attack US bases in the region. It can also be stated with moderate confidence that we may see the awakening of some form of sleeper cells, to include cyber, within the US in the future.
Al Jazeera (2020) “Protests In Tehran After Iran Admits Shooting Down Plane”, Al Jazeera, 12 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
BBC (2019) “Iran Nuclear Deal: Key Details”, BBC, 11 June, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Burman, M. (2020) “Iran Pulling Out Of Nuclear Deal Following U.S. Strike That Killed Soleimani”, Euronews, 5 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Gilsinan, K. (2020) “Iraq Is The One War Zone Trump Doesn’t Want To Leave”, The Atlantic, 3 Feb, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Halbfinger, D., Hubbard, B., and Bergman, R. (2020) “The Israel-Iran Shadow War Escalates And Breaks Into The Open”, The New York Times, 28 Aug, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Hubbard, B., Palko, K., and Reed, S. (2019) “Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hit By Drone Strike, And U.S. Blames Iran”, The New York Times, 14 Sept, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Manson, K. and Politi, J. (2020) “Donald Trump Backs Away From Military Action Against Iran”, Financial Times, 8 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Murphy, H. (2020) “US On High Alert For Iran Backed Cyber Attacks”, Financial Times, 5 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
News 18 (2020) “Iran Offers $80 Million Bounty On Donald Trump For Killing Of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani: Report”, News 18, 10 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Riley-Smith, B. (2020) “US Says Attack Planned By Qassim Soleimani Was ‘Days’ From Happening”, The Telegraph, 7 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Sly, L. (2020) “Iran Has Vowed Revenge Against The U.S. But It Seems To Be In No Hurry”, The Washington Post, 4 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Staff, T. (2020) “Iran Claims 80 American Troops Killed In Missile Barrage; US Says No Casualties”, The Times of Israel, 8 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Starr, B. and Hansler, J. (2020) “Three Rockets Hit US Embassy Compound IN Baghdad, US Official Says”, CNN, 27 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Sullivan, K., and Cole, D. (2020) “’The World Is Watching’: Trump Again Warns Iran’s Leaders About Protesters”, CNN, 12 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.
Voa (2020) “Iranian Protests Reported After IRGC Admits Responsibility For Downed Plane”, VOA, 11 Jan, accessed on 4 Feb 2020.