For a conflict known for extremes of rhetoric — the “Great Satan” and the “Axis of Evil” — the four-decade rivalry between the United States and Iran has been largely defined by calculation and restraint. The two countries bloodied each other using covert operatives and proxies, but they mostly refrained from directly targeting each other’s citizens or troops.
That record ended abruptly early Friday when a U.S. missile slammed into a small convoy near Baghdad International Airport. The explosion instantly killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the powerful and ruthless commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force. It also shattered what had been a tenet of U.S. policy for Republican and Democratic administrations: a careful avoidance of the kinds of direct confrontations that might escalate into war with Iran.
Trump administration officials described the fiery attack as a defensive measure intended to disrupt Iranian plans to kill U.S. diplomats or service members overseas. But current and former U.S. officials said the United States almost certainly will face retaliatory strikes for the killing of Soleimani, as well as a heightened risk of a wider regional conflict, which U.S. administrations previously had sought to avoid.
“It’s like hitting a hornets’ nest with a baseball bat,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East and veteran of clandestine operations. “You don’t do it unless you’re ready to go to war with the hornets.”
Defenders of Friday’s action say the strike delivered a long-overdue response to Iran’s increasingly malign behavior in the region, which has included support for rocket and missile strikes by pro-Iranian militias targeting U.S. military bases, international shipping and oil installations in the Persian Gulf.
But Iran experts say the killing of Soleimani — a legendary military leader revered by millions of Iranians and once widely regarded as a future political leader of the country’s more than 80 million people — was an escalation of historic magnitude, and one that almost certainly will elicit a commensurate response.
Though Iran is no match militarily for the United States, it is a master of asymmetrical warfare, and it has spent decades creating a network of allied regional militias, sleeper cells and covert operatives capable of carrying out attacks that cannot readily be traced to Iran itself. Unlike other state sponsors of terrorism, Iran has aggressively supplied proxy groups with equipment and know-how, enabling them independently to carry out sophisticated attacks, including cyber warfare against banks and electrical grids, and precision-guided attacks using upgraded, Iranian-designed missiles and rockets.
At least some operatives may already be in the United States, former and current U.S. officials say. In May, a federal court in New York convicted a Lebanese-born man on charges of leading a Hezbollah sleeper cell that was established to carry out future terrorist attacks if called upon. The suspect, Ali Kourani, had “conducted surveillance and done all kinds of things to prepare,” said Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official with the FBI and Treasury Department and an expert on Hezbollah.
While a retaliatory strike on U.S. targets inside Iraq would be a more likely scenario, he said, an attack on U.S. soil cannot be ruled out, especially if Iran thinks it can avoid having the blame fall on itself.
“Nothing can be excluded,” said Levitt, the director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank. “Iran is going to try to do a bunch of different things, in different ways, in different places over a long period of time.”
The attack on Soleimani was a dramatic shift for an administration that, despite its harsh rhetoric toward Iran, had mostly followed its predecessors in seeking to prevent an escalation of violence in the region. Trump declined to order a retaliatory strike after Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in June or when an Iranian-backed militia group launched missiles and armed drones against a major Saudi petroleum processing center in September, shutting down oil production for several days. In the former incident, Trump said he aborted a planned missile strike at the last minute because he believed the killing of Iranians would be “not proportionate to shooting down an unarmed drone.” He instead approved a cyberattack against military computers used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The more-restrained response was in keeping with established practice among Republican and Democratic administrations for decades. After the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut — attacks eventually attributed to Hezbollah — the Reagan administrated declined to respond directly, although a U.S.-backed Lebanese group later carried out a bombing of an apartment building where Hezbollah’s spiritual leader resided.
Likewise, there was no direct attack on Iranians after the bombing of part of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in June 1996, which left 19 U.S. Air Force personnel dead. The attack was eventually blamed on a different pro-Iranian group, Hezbollah al-Hejaz, and a U.S. court later concluded that Iran supported the bombing.
In the mid-2000s, when Iranian-backed Iraqi militias began a deadly IED campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, the Bush administration launched a covert campaign that targeted bombmakers and supply networks, but avoided direct action against Iranians themselves.
Under President Barack Obama, Washington and Tehran drifted toward crisis over Iran’s rapidly expanding nuclear program, and a foiled Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States inside a Georgetown restaurant. In response, the Obama administration and congressional leaders adopted crushing economic sanctions that severed Iran’s ties to the international banking sector and crippled its vital oil-
exporting business. The White House also launched a covert campaign to introduce a computer virus, called Stuxnet, into Iran’s main uranium-enrichment plants, setting back production for weeks.
Some Iran experts think the Trump administration’s failure to respond to repeated provocations over the past year may have emboldened Iranian leaders, particularly Soleimani, who had frequently traveled to Iraq and Syria to coordinate strategy with pro-Tehran militias that have targeted Americans in the past.
“Trump’s inaction . . . led [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to believe, understandably, that Trump was all bluster,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, said Friday in a Twitter posting. Frustrated, Trump’s senior aides apparently decided to make Soleimani an example — to “show Iran that we own escalation: If they kill one of our men we can kill 30 of theirs,” Sadjadpour said.
Other experts saw the spiraling cycle of violence as an inevitable result of policies that have steadily nudged both countries toward confrontation over the past two years. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal — a pact supported by European allies as well as Russia and China — was followed by the reimposition of sanctions that crippled Iran’s oil exports and created new economic hardships for Iranians. Afterward, it was inevitable that Iran would lash out, said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA.
Trump’s intended goal was to force Iran to return to the negotiating table and make further concessions, but “this did not work out, and the result instead has been retaliation by Iran for the renewed sanctions, and escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran,” McLaughlin told the Web site Ozy.
After that, each side sought to outdo the other with increasingly provocative measures and countermeasures: a rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor was followed by U.S. missile strikes that claimed the lives of 27 militia members; the breaching of the U.S. Embassy gates in Baghdad precipitated a deadly drone attack on Iran’s most popular military leader.
“This is a classic escalatory cycle,” McLaughlin said, “that at this point does not have a clear end in sight.”