Daniel Douek teaches political science at Concordia University and McGill University in Montreal.
After firing a barrage of missiles early Wednesday at two U.S. bases in Iraq in revenge for General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards declared that if the United States should retaliate, Iran would escalate by firing upon U.S.-allied Israel and Dubai. Iran has also announced that this was but the first step in avenging Gen. Soleimani.
Iranian decision-makers seem to have gamed this geopolitical chess match further than a single move ahead. Before the strikes, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had attended a national security meeting in which he ordered that Iran’s military response – the “severe revenge” he had promised for Gen. Soleimani’s killing on Jan. 3 – be delivered by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces themselves and not proxy forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria or the Palestinian territory which have until now been Iran’s weapons of choice.
After Gen. Soleimani’s death, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Major-General Tamir Heiman, signalled that Israel sought no escalation with Iran, declaring that the crisis between the United States and Iran was confined to Iraq. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates similarly remained quiet and urged calm. Yet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had travelled to Israel days earlier and briefed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the impending plan to kill Gen. Soleimani.
Now, Iran’s message is clear: If the U.S. escalates with further retaliation, Iran will engulf the region in war on terms of its choosing.
This is the asymmetric war Iran has been preparing for, the culmination of Gen. Soleimani’s strategy, decades in the making, to arm Iran with missiles and cultivate a string of allied, mainly Shia militias ranging from the mountains of Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon and everywhere in between: the so-called “Shia Crescent.”
These include Iraq’s Kataib militia, whose commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed along with Gen. Soleimani, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It was to preserve this vision of Iranian power that Gen. Soleimani enlisted Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene militarily with Iran and Hezbollah and rescue Syria’s Assad regime, which was on the brink of defeat in that country’s civil war.
Playing chicken with the United States and Israel by expecting them to flinch first is a high-stakes gamble. On paper at least, the U.S. and Israel can outgun Iran and are also nuclear powers.
Indeed, Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian installations in Syria since 2018 with minimal response and has warned Iran against further escalation. But Iran has signalled that it won’t back down, knowing that a regional war would be costly for Israel and the U.S. at a time when both countries are bogged down by domestic turmoil.
For years, Iran has been refining and expanding its vast arsenal of ballistic missiles, perfecting guidance systems and increasing range, and supplying many to its proxies. In Yemen, the Houthi militia has launched sophisticated missile strikes against Saudi targets. Hezbollah possesses as many as 150,000 missiles, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who last September met with slain Quds Force leader Gen. Soleimani and Mr. Khamenei, has declared Hezbollah ready to join the fighting if it escalates. In any case, as Mr., Nasrallah himself has admitted, Hezbollah takes its orders from Iran.
Since getting mauled by Hezbollah in a 33-day war in 2006, Israel has seen its Iranian proxy rivals Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah grow far more powerful. Last November, Palestinian Islamic Jihad temporarily paralyzed southern Israel’s economy with a barrage of 450 rockets from Gaza. In September, Iran launched a sophisticated drone and missile attack on Saudi oil fields that caused oil prices to spike sharply upward, demonstrating Iran’s ability to disrupt the U.S. militarily and economically.
Iran also has advanced cyberwarfare capabilities and a history of bombing and assassinating foes in the Middle East and beyond. And with Russian missiles and warplanes co-ordinating with Iranian forces in Syria, the risk of inadvertently drawing Russia into any broader war is real. The Iraqi government is now demanding that the U.S. withdraw its forces from Iraq as a punishment for assassinating Gen. Soleimani on Iraqi soil.
For the moment, it appears the United States will seek to avoid escalating hostilities, but U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to further isolate Iran by strengthening economic sanctions and enlisting the help of NATO countries will likely leave Iran’s power and resolve intact. NATO countries are unlikely to risk provoking Iran when Mr. Trump and his policies remain deeply unpopular with their domestic constituencies and Iran has so far maintained its regional military profile despite the sanctions.
Meanwhile, as Mr. Trump calls on other signatories to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has accelerated its nuclear weapons program, advanced enough to produce a bomb within about three years.
By killing Gen. Soleimani, the United States has attempted to show Iran that it will not be cowed in the Middle East, but the U.S. may be facing a more formidable foe than it realizes.
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