The US has issued repeated warnings to Iran against the latter launching any attacks that could lead to the worst military clash between the two nations in recent years. The warnings coincide with the anniversary of the most notable US operation against the Iranian regime in the last 40 years. Will Iran retaliate through direct military attacks on US forces in the Gulf waters, or US military bases in the region including in Iraq? Or will it target US or Israeli military and civilian sites, or American or Arab ally diplomats or politicians?
The Iranian regime wants to carry out an act of revenge before president-elect Biden takes office, not wanting to embarrass him as his victory is considered a last chance to get rid of the harsh sanctions that may destroy the Supreme Leader’s regime. But the idea of engaging in a confrontation before January 20 is a risky wager that may lead to the outbreak of a direct war that even Iran is not ready for.
Tehran has done little by way of retaliation in the year since the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, one of the highest ranking of government officials. Soleimani was not just a major general as his job title suggests, rather he was parallel to and held more powers than President Hassan Rouhani, and was seen by many as the “shadow ruler” of Iran, the Supreme Leader or his future successor notwithstanding. Taking out Soleimani was a strategic move by the Americans, and not just retaliation for the activities of Iranian proxy groups in Iraq and Syria that targeted US forces and allied countries.
His removal has plunged the Iranian political arena into chaos until today. As the months pass, the Iranian leadership appears to be under pressure from Soleimani’s followers at home and abroad, and is demanding his revenge and the restoration of its own status. Getting rid of him meant getting rid of the most dangerous future leader of Iran; he had broad regional ambitions and extensive experience in waging warfare and sparking unrest.
With Soleimani gone, competition has intensified for the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the backbone of the regime since the revolution. Getting rid of Soleimani was not just American desire, rather it must have been great news for the reformists within the regime, who were a target for Soleimani and his forces. Soleimani clearly overrode Rouhani’s powers, forcing his foreign minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, to resign less than two years ago. When reformist lawmakers in Parliament objected to Soleimani’s spending to expand the IRGC, he bragged that he did not cost the Iranian treasury anything because he was able to take care of himself, and by that he meant massive funding obtained from Iraqi resources, drug sale and international money laundering. Getting rid of Soleimani served Rouhani and his government inside Iran, but only until another general appeared with absolute power.
A year has passed since the assassination of Soleimani, marked by a slowdown in Iran’s activity abroad. The only time it responded to the operation, it fired on its own interests, shooting down a Ukrainian Airlines plane shortly after take-off from Tehran and killing 176 people on board. That incident demonstrated the failure of the Iranian military establishment to manage even a single battle.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.