Dennis Horak was Canada’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Head of Mission in Iran from 2009-12.
The events in Iraq this past week initially looked very much like the familiar pattern we have grown accustomed to over the course of the past year: attacks, threats and counter-threats exchanged between Iran and the U.S., followed by a period of calm once both sides had sufficiently flexed their muscles.
But the direct targeting of American assets – an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor and an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad – seems to have changed the equation for Washington. In a U.S. operation on Thursday, Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force (IRGC-QF is Iran’s principal arm for external military/terrorist actions) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia unit, Kataib Hezbollah, were killed. The deaths bring a different order of magnitude than we have seen in this simmering conflict before and could significantly elevate the risk of escalation.
The attacks undertaken in Iraq over the past week were conducted by Kataib Hezbollah, but the U.S. administration held Iran responsible from the outset and President Donald Trump warned in a tweet that Iran would pay “a BIG PRICE.” Tehran had seen this kind of presidential bluster before and likely discounted it. The targeting of General Soleimani signalled strongly that he in fact meant it.
The Quds Force is the sharp end of Iran’s regional ambitions and priorities and Gen. Soleimani was its face. For many (including Canada), Gen. Soleimani was a terrorist thug, but in hard-line circles in Iran and among Iran’s regional allies and proxy forces, Gen. Soleimani was a hero. His death at U.S. hands will not sit easily in Tehran. Pressure for a response will be high and likely irresistible. There will be no shortage of allies in Iraq and elsewhere willing to lend a hand. Their taste for vengeance will be equally strong given the reverence Gen. Soleimani commanded in those circles regionally and the loyalty they feel toward Tehran.
For the U.S. not to respond to the initial attack would have been difficult and probably unwise, but the targeting of such a high-profile leadership figure will have taken everyone by surprise.
The U.S. action will be widely applauded across much of the region. The Arab Gulf states, in particular, will welcome Washington’s new willingness to confront Iran so directly. It is an approach they have long been seeking. Gen. Soleimani and the IRGC-QF were reviled in the Gulf (and elsewhere), and his death will be celebrated, even if it also raises the risk of increased regional instability.
Washington’s willingness to take long-standing Iranian-U.S. tensions to such a new, dangerous level if challenged as directly as they were in Iraq should give Iran pause as they consider how to respond in avenging Gen. Soleimani’s death. But restraint will be hard. The IRGC-QF has pervasive influence in Iran, and they will likely demand a direct response. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has already promised “harsh revenge.” While Iran’s regional adventurism is not popular in the country and many of the protesters who took to Iranian streets for weeks in late 2019 will see the escalating tensions with the U.S. as confirmation of the risks of letting the IRGC-QF run rampant across the region, that will not influence the regime’s response. Some, in fact, may see conflict as a way to reignite Iranian nationalism and unity.
What the Iranian response will look like is unclear, but renewed threats to Iran’s vulnerable Gulf neighbours and shipping are likely. Ultimately, where this crisis lands may rest on whether Iran (and its proxies) again target U.S. assets as directly as they did in Iraq. The Trump administration has signalled the risk of that option. The U.S. could decide to respond inside Iran next time, and that would take tensions to a whole other new level.
The problem is that there are anti-Iran hawks in the U.S. administration who see opportunity rather than risk in challenging Iran so directly. For them, Iranian unrest this fall was an indication that the regime is teetering, needing only a gentle shove to fall over. From their perspective, ramping up pressure on Iran – including, perhaps military action inside Iran – is a no-lose situation: If Iran fails to respond harshly, they are signalling regime weakness; if they do hit back directly at U.S. interests, they are inviting even harsher measures that will only further challenge the regime.
The hope remains that, despite this recent escalation, the leaderships in both Washington and Tehran still want to avoid war. But cooler heads in both places will have to prevail to ensure that stays the case. Given the nature of this most recent escalation, finding them in this new, heated environment may now prove even harder than it was before.
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