For a conflict known for extremes of rhetoric – the “Great Satan” and the “Axis of Evil” – the four-decade rivalry between the United States and Iran has been largely defined by calculation and restraint. The two countries bloodied one another using covert operatives and proxies, but mostly refrained from directly targeting each other’s citizens or troops.
That record ended abruptly late Thursday when a U.S. missile slammed into a small convoy near Baghdad International Airport. The explosion instantly killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the powerful and ruthless commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force. It also shattered what had been a tenet of U.S. policy for Republican and Democratic administrations: a careful avoidance of the kinds of direct confrontations that might escalate into war with Iran.
Trump administration officials described the fiery attack as a defensive measure intended to disrupt Iranian plans to kill U.S. diplomats or service members overseas. But current and former U.S. officials said the United States almost certainly will face retaliatory strikes for the killing of Soleimani, as well as a heightened risk of a wider regional conflict, which U.S. administrations previously had sought to avoid.
“It’s like hitting a hornets’ nest with a baseball bat,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East and veteran of clandestine operations. “You don’t do it unless you’re ready to go to war with the hornets.”
Defenders of Thursday’s action say the strike delivered a long-overdue response to Iran’s increasingly malign behavior in the region, which has included support for rocket and missile strikes by pro-Iranian militias targeting U.S. military bases, international shipping and oil installations in the Persian Gulf.
But Iran experts say the killing of Soleimani – a legendary military leader revered by millions of Iranians and widely regarded as a future political leader of the country’s more than 80 million people – was an escalation of historic magnitude, and one that almost certainly will elicit a commensurate response.
Though Iran is no match militarily for the United States, it is a master of asymmetrical warfare, and it has spent decades creating a network of allied regional militias, sleeper cells and covert operatives capable of carrying out attacks that cannot readily be traced to Iran itself. Unlike other state sponsors of terrorism, Iran has aggressively supplied proxy groups with equipment and know-how, enabling them independently to carry out sophisticated attacks, including cyber warfare against banks and electrical grids, and precision-guided attacks using upgraded, Iranian-designed missiles and rockets.
At least some of operatives may already be in the United States, former and current U.S. officials say. In May, a federal court in New York convicted a Lebanese-born man on charges of leading a Hezbollah sleeper cell that was established to carry out future terrorist attacks if called upon. The suspect, Ali Kourani, had “conducted surveillance and done all kinds of things to prepare,” said Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official with the FBI and Treasury Department and an expert on Hezbollah.
While a retaliatory strike on U.S. targets inside Iraq would be a more likely scenario, he said, an attack on U.S. soil cannot be ruled out, especially if Iran thinks it can avoid having the blame fall on itself.
“Nothing can be excluded,” said Levitt, the director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank. “Iran is going to try to do a bunch of different things, in different ways, in different places over a long period of time.”
The attack on Soleimani was a dramatic shift for an administration that, despite its harsh rhetoric toward Iran, had mostly followed its predecessors in seeking to prevent an escalation of violence in the region. President Donald Trump declined to order a retaliatory strike after Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in June or when an Iranian-backed militia group launched missiles and armed drones against a major Saudi petroleum processing center in September, shutting down oil production for several days. In the former incident, Trump said he aborted a planned missile strike at the last minute because he believed the killing of Iranians would be “not proportionate to shooting down an unarmed drone.” He instead approved a cyberattack against military computers used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
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Source: Greenwich Time