The assassination of the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was reportedly working incessantly to bolster Iran’s regional power and influence by strengthening its allies and proxies while undercutting the roles of adversarial powers in Middle East, by a US air strike in Baghdad led to a spiraling of speculations, opinions and analyses within academic as well as strategic circles as regards the contours of the US-Iran confrontation.
The questions the incident raised revolved around whether Iran would choose an immediate response, how US President Donald Trump’s administration would respond if Iran retaliated by harming US presence and interests in Middle East, and the likely scenario in the region that would emerge in case of US-Iran tit-for-tat confrontation.
Based on the intensity of the situation and past Iranian actions, while it was believed that Iran might choose to respond to the killing of its commander by mounting a similar kind of attack in the US mainland could not be ruled out, it would be a difficult choice considering the tight intelligence and security mechanisms operating within the US. American law-enforcement and intelligence agencies foiled Iran’s attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington by blowing up a restaurant in 2011.
However, Iran chose to target the US presence in Iraq as a quick response to demonstrate Tehran’s capabilities within the country where Soleimani was killed. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards launched 22 ballistic missiles at two US targets in Iraq. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quoted saying that Tehran did not want war but “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, described the missile attack as a “slap in the face” to the US.
The Middle East has been pushed into an era of uncertainty as confrontation between the US and Iran ratchets up. While the US could further retaliate with its unmatched air capabilities and intelligence inputs and it has powerful allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, violence would certainly escalate, as Iran would dampen the American presence and interests in the region through proxies like Hezbollah and Shiite militias.
Iran has indicated that it will make a sharp turn away from the nuclear agreement of 2015, unlike incremental violations and time-bound escalations that it began to make in mid-2019, and become a nuclear-weapon power soon unless diplomatic channels open up between the two countries. It was in May 2019 that Iran began to violate the agreement incrementally by taking small steps every couple of months.
The Trump administration’s ability to escalate the conflict by responding to Iran’s reaction has been circumscribed by the lack of legitimacy of its initial action
The US decision to launch the attack not only lacked approval of legitimate authorities within the United States, the action was seen as “reckless,” “a dangerous escalation,” and “severe revenge” outside. Even the American decision to send more troops to Iraq to defend its personnel and interests has received a dent after the assassination of Soleimani, with the clear signal sent by Iraq asking the US not to use its soil for its confrontation with Iran and to withdraw remaining troops. The Trump administration’s ability to escalate the conflict by responding to Iran’s reaction has been circumscribed by the lack of legitimacy of its initial action.
However, further escalation of conflict and miscalculations on the Iranian or American part could lead to an all-out war, and not only between those two countries – a larger conflagration might not be ruled out, bringing in allies and proxies.
Russia and China
It is difficult to ascertain the Russian and Chinese roles if conflict escalates between Iran and the US. For instance, China is one of the largest importers of oil from Saudi Arabia – an American ally – after it chose to scale back its purchases of Iranian oil since the US ended sanctions waivers. Similarly, Russia reportedly declined to sell Iran the S-400 surface-to-air missile system last year for fear of disrupting the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region.
Making similar observations, Farhad Rezaei, an Iran-focused defense and security analyst based in Ottawa, argues: “China and Russia are also partners of Saudi Arabia and Israel as well, and they are not happy with Iran’s harassing of the kingdom and its verbal attack on Israel.” He observes further, “The Chinese are not happy with Iran’s actions in the waters and its alleged attack on Aramco, because that will cause a remarkable increase in the oil price.”
However, both Russia and China consider the US a strategic competitor and have been vocal in their opposition to the American role in parts of the Middle East. The US strategy of putting maximum pressure on Iran through unremitting sanctions after overturning the nuclear deal has invited resistance from both countries. They both also allegedly supported Iran’s efforts to avoid excessive impacts of the sanctions through indirect measures. Both also blocked a UN Security Council resolution to condemn the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. Both countries along with Iran in the recent past held joint naval exercises near the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz in the Indian Ocean.
In Syria, while Russia and Iran joined efforts to strengthen the government of President Bashar al-Assad, China played a role in vetoing United Nations proposals sponsored by the West to sanction the Assad government.
The common thread uniting Iran, China and Russia is the perceived US hegemonic influence around the world’s most important maritime oil chokepoint.
While most of the powerful countries including the European nations want stability in the Middle East region so that flows and prices of natural resources remain stable, the realization and certainty that each could impose an unacceptable level of damage to the other’s personnel and interests if violence escalates might prevent both the US and Iran from tit-for-tat offensives. However, both are expected to choose a path of cyberwarfare as an outlet to confront each other.
They can hope to continue the war while averting immediate military reprisal only in the cyber domain. While cyberwarfare could induce a military response, both countries would still believe that they could operate from unknown sources, forge alliances covertly and breach security of the other before the attacks get noticed.
Iran may choose the cyber domain to confront the US threat in the long run. The global presence and interest of the US could enable Iran to find soft targets in a much wider landscape. On the other side, the US, taking advantage of its technological superiority and intelligence capacities, could target critical Iranian infrastructure – electricity, banking, natural-resource supply chains and nuclear facilities.
It is worth mentioning that the US with Israeli assistance resorted to cyberattacks in a bid to cripple an Iranian uranium processing facility using a digital worm called Stuxnet a decade before. Ever since, Iran has allegedly launched cyberattacks on US dams, financial systems and government networks. While the impacts of such attacks have arguably not gone beyond costing the US in financial terms and the affected actors were able to return normalcy within a short period, it nevertheless indicated Iran’s growing capacity in the cyber domain and its ability to breach American technological superiority operating from a distance.
Underlining the Iranian threat in the cyber domain, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin from its National Terrorism Advisory System a day after the assassination of Soleimani that warned: “Iran maintains a robust cyber program and can execute cyberattacks against the United States.… Iran is capable, at a minimum, of carrying out attacks with temporary disruptive effects against critical infrastructure in the United States.” Similarly, a January 2019 intelligence report underscored Iran’s cyber capabilities in targeting US officials, steal intelligence and disrupt “a large company’s corporate networks for days to weeks.”