Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the family of slain General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2019. Photo: AFP

The quintessence of President Donald Trump’s first remarks on the assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani lies in the following embedded within his statement of December 3: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.… We do not seek regime change.”

The reports from Tehran even before Trump spoke had indicated that the US transmitted a message on these lines to the Iranian Foreign Ministry also via Swiss intermediaries.

But Trump added a warning: “The United States has the best military by far.…  We have the best intelligence in the world.  If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.”

Soon after Trump spoke, the US launched a second strike on a two-car convoy containing members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the overarching group for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

Meanwhile, a Pentagon official said 3,000 to 3,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Global Response Force will go to Kuwait. Some 14,000 other troops have already been deployed as reinforcements to the Middle East this year, and the US already had around 60,000 military personnel in the region. The total deployment now touches 70,000 troops — but that’s still far short of a the strength needed for an invasion of Iran.

These elements taken together, the US has a plan of action ready. First, the US is not willing to play the cat-and-mouse game that Iran would have preferred. The US feels — rightly so — that such a game would only work to Iran’s advantage due to the very nature of its resistance politics.

On the contrary, the Iranian leadership had somehow concluded that Trump, who prioritizes his re-election bid over anything else, would resign himself to taking pin-pricks.

The recent joint military exercise with Russia and China was one such act to taunt the US, where Iran, in reality, had little to gain. It probably helped Moscow and Beijing to thumb their noses at Washington. In any case, the optics sullied American prestige regionally.

The acts of intimidation — poking US forces in Iraq — were assuming ominous proportions lately, putting American nerves on edge and becoming potentially dangerous, because they could always be calibrated by Iran.

Most certainly, the attack on Kirkuk base rang alarm bells. But what followed — the attack on the American embassy in Baghdad — was traumatic, raising the specter of a hostage crisis similar to what destroyed the Jimmy Carter presidency. The point is, Iraq has a dysfunctional government and Iran-backed militia call the shots.

Although Trump took the decision to eliminate Soleimani, the Pentagon would have recommended that it is better to seize the initiative now against the Iran-backed militia rather than remain reactive.

Second, the US intends to drive home the advantage resulting from the killing of Jamal Jafaar Mohammed Ali Āl Ebrahim (aka Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), the deputy head of Popular Mobilization Committee. What is little understood is that Jamal was a highly experienced practitioner not only of terror weaponry but also of statecraft — not easily replaceable.

Jamal’s connection with Iran goes back to the Saddam Hussein era in the late seventies. He was implicated as the mastermind behind the 1983 Kuwait bombings (only two months after the devastating Beirut barracks bombing, which killed 241 US and 58 French military personnel.)

The US estimates that Jamal’s decapitation gives an opening to go for the jugular vein of the Popular Mobilization Committee, which is Iran’s principal instrument for power projection in Iraq. Trump hinted that US intelligence has penetrated the Iran-backed militia groups.

Supporters of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force and Iraq’s Hezbollah brigades stand next to a poster of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani during a funeral for Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP

Third, Trump has once again underlined that he seeks neither a war with Iran nor a regime change. Presumably, he hopes to mollify the Iranian leaders even after what happened.

To be sure, although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei swiftly appointed a replacement for Qassem Soleimani, his absence will be keenly felt. What distinguished Soleimani was that he was charismatic and exceptionally gifted in political networking, apart from being a brilliant military mind.

Such figures are rare to come by. Tehran will feel his absence. In particular, Tehran’s capacity to influence the selection of a new prime minister in Baghdad stands eroded.

Suffice it to say, Tehran’s response will be based on the conclusions it draws from the above scenario. Effectively, the US has redrawn the ground rules in Iraq and expects Tehran to accept a new normal.

The history of the past four decades shows that Iran is averse to wars. However, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, General Ali Fadavi,said, “The Americans should be waiting for that severe revenge; that vengeance is not to be taken by Iran only.… The great resistance front covering a vast geographical area stands ready to take revenge, and that is sure to happen.”

The US, he continued, “resorted to such means as diplomacy this morning [Friday] and even told us ‘If you want to take revenge, do it in a way that’s proportional to what we did; but they cannot decide anything [for us]. That will take place at the most opportune time and in the best manner possible. Soon we will see that the Americans will not be there in the region.”

The above remarks provide a signpost. Iran’s response to Soleimani’s killing is certain to be devastating and the intention will be to inflict heavy casualties on American personnel regionally. Trump’s gambit may have put his re-election bid in serious jeopardy.

Iran’s choice is going to be to wage an asymmetrical war. Tehran will settle for nothing less than American withdrawal from the region. It’s going to be total war — unrestricted in terms of weapons used, territory or combatants involved, or objectives pursued, a war in which accepted rules of war are disregarded.

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