The US assassination of one of Iran’s top security officials early on Friday could mean “war” with the Islamic Republic and unpredictable consequences, warned a former US intelligence officer and diplomats with expertise in the Middle East.
US officials insist the killing was a defensive measure meant to save American lives and did not signal a war. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo told US television outlets that Washington was not seeking an escalation.
But Iran is unlikely to see it that way, and the US will have to prepare for responses and consequences of an unpredictable, costly and potentially consuming conflict with the Islamic Republic.
“It’s war,” said a former US intelligence officer who has worked on Iraq and Iran. “It was always somewhat of a war but when you cut his head off, that’s war. There’s no other way around it.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he continues to work on sensitive security matters.
Diplomats and Middle East observers across the globe were stunned by the assassination, as leaders in major capitals conferred on whether the US killing amounted to the opening of a new chapter in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
“The world cannot afford another Gulf war,” Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, said.
Many worry it is already too late.
“We are now directly engaged in a conflict with the Iranian state,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Middle East programme at the Rand Corporation, a research firm partly funded by the US government. “This is not just through proxies; this isn’t sanctions. This significantly increases the risk.”
Iran and the US have been locked in confrontation for 40 years, though tensions cooled as both countries found themselves facing the threat of Isis in Iraq.
The latest round of escalation began after the administration of Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal forged by his predecessor and launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” targeting Iran’s economy. Washington has accused Iran of being behind a stepped-up campaign of harassment and sabotage targeting American interests. It launched airstrikes on an Iranian-allied militia on Sunday in response to a barrage of rockets that struck a base in northern Iraq, killing one American contractor.
Next came the attack on Tuesday on the US embassy in Baghdad by Iraqi militiamen loyal to Iran. No American was hurt, but protesters set the facility on fire, angering US officials who had promised a day earlier that the airstrikes on Sunday had “deterred” Iran.
The US killed Qassem Soleimani after he arrived on a plane in Baghdad and while in the company of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of pro-Iranian Shia militiamen.
Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, its president Hassan Rouhani and a slew of other officials vowed “vengeance” for the slaying of Soleimani, but did not hint at any specific actions.
“US needs to know that the criminal attack on General Soleimani is its biggest strategic mistake in west Asia, and that the US will not easily escape the consequences of this miscalculation,” said a statement issued by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
US officials have for years considered killing him, but have refrained for fear that the potential costs would outweigh the benefits.
Soleimani had long been acting with increasing impunity throughout Iraq and Syria in recent years, posting photographs of himself posing at battlefronts. One western diplomat described the killing as “quite a bold move” that “sends a message to [Iran’s] system” that the old rules of engagement no longer apply.
Still, despite his high profile, Soleimani was no swashbuckling freelancer like Osama bin Laden or guerilla leaders of the past, but an official of a government with a bureaucracy and a budget; take him out and the Iranians could replace him, which they did within hours, and continue any of his projects. Soleimani is also considered a senior Iranian official as well as a close friend of Mr Khamenei.
“The Quds force is a state organisation,” said the former US intelligence official. “They are part of a formal military service. They have a government and economy backing them. Is America ready to deal with that?”
Killing him risks an escalation that the US didn’t count on, and that is how big wars start, said a former US official.
“What nations know how to do is reciprocity,” said Richard Stengel, a former State Department official. “The Iranians will not see this as reciprocal. They will see this as a massively, exponentially disproportionate response which is not reciprocal or commensurate with what they’ve done.”
Mr Trump’s bluster about the killing and the open way it was conducted almost forces Iran to act.
Possible venues in which Tehran could respond to Washington include Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, where Iran holds significant sway and controls assets. The Islamic Republic could also launch renewed attacks against the US’s Middle East partners, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Iran has already upped pressure on its allies in Baghdad to boot US forces from the country, which it already appears inclined to do.
Iran also has cyber capabilities which it has refined in the years since the US and Israel attacked its nuclear programme with the infamous Stuxnet virus.
“They’re going to attack US interests and people,” said the former US intelligence official. “It’s not always soldiers and diplomats. There are large companies, American interests and people that can be touched. This is an old-world fight. There has to be a response or responses.”
Next week, Iran is also set to announce its pullback from the nuclear deal, which it has been chipping away at for months in incremental steps to punish western nations for abiding by US sanctions. “We have a decision due next week on whether Iran will continue to talk back from its commitments,” said Ms Kaye. “I would expect Iran to escalate its nuclear programme.”
The more important question, though, may be what the US will do after the Iranian response, and whether the US is prepared to respond to the next Iranian escalation. “What are we trying to achieve here? What’s the end game?” said Ms Kaye.
It’s unclear whether the Trump administration has thought about all of the implications of the attack, and what it means for US security policy.
“Now that we’ve made this move, we have to make counterterrorism steps and prepare for any state acts,” said the former US intelligence official.
Ms Kaye speculated that the administration was beginning to believe its own rhetoric that the regime in Tehran was on the verge of collapse due to the US sanctions, and it was convinced by hardliners in Washington that taking out Soleimani would deliver a knockout blow, or at least not cost too much.
“What worries me is the question whether the Trump administration has gone through all the possibilities, probabilities and possible outcomes and done a cost-benefit analysis,” said Mr Stengel, author of a book called Information Wars, about disinformation campaigns. “I hope they have. Everything I’ve read is that the whole national security process is broken.”
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