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Iran Will Not Retaliate – It Has Far More to Gain By Playing Victim

Iran Will Not Retaliate – It Has Far More to Gain By Playing Victim

Trump is their primary target.

Iran Will Not Retaliate – It Has Far More to Gain By Playing Victim

1200 759 Michael Petraeus

H

ysteria took hold of the mass media of the world after the bold airstrike carried out by US forced in Baghdad killed the legendary commander of the elite Iranian Quds Force, responsible for the country’s ambitious activities abroad.

Many pundits, wheeled out for the occasion around the world, are lamenting the escalation of tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States, seeing a new major war brewing in the Middle East – and, who knows, maybe even a global conflict?

Upon closer examination, however, ignoring the early emotional response, it quickly becomes clear that – despite all its anger and frustration – the best way for Iran to try and turn the situation to its advantage is the exact opposite of what media are telling us today.

Iran’s Options

While Iranian leadership has publicly vowed to avenge Soleimani, it’s mostly posturing that it had to engage in. After all, what else can a regime say when somebody kills its top general?

But behind the facade Tehran is studying its options and their possible consequences.

Few events are entirely negative and each usually presents both risks and opportunities. It is no different with Soleimani’s death. So what can Iran do?

  • Option 1. Violently retaliate against a high-profile American target.

That’s what Tehran appears to be threatening but, in reality, such an action would invite an even stronger response – and Trump has demonstrated he is able to act in a highly unpredictable and unprecedented way.

Iranian government cannot afford another huge blow to its political position – or to its economic situation (which took a hit after Trump reimposed sanctions) and has already turned people against the regime. In the protests that erupted in the past few months more than 1000 Iranians have been killed in the streets. Further decline may encourage more people to oppose the government – especially as Soleimani’s death proves they are not invulnerable.

Iran’s second problem is that Trump’s general withdrawal of troops from the Middle East means that there are far fewer American soldiers on the ground exposed to potential foreign attacks. It was fairly easy to decimate them during invasion in Iraq, when Iranian supplied IEDs killed several hundred of them and wounded thousands. But right now there’s about 5000 of them still deployed in Iraq in just a handful of bases, which are sure to be put on high alert in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death.

  • Option 2. Use proxies to target Americans in the region.

For the reasons mentioned above, Option 2 is not very plausible either. In fact, the event that started the deadly spiral leading to killing of the Quds commander and his co-conspirators in Baghdad, was the rocket attack on the K1 base near Kirkuk hosting Americans on Dec. 27, which left one civilian contractor dead and four American soldiers wounded.

The assault was blamed on Kata’ib Hezbollah, a part of Popular Mobilization Forces – militia armed and trained by Iran. In fact, the leader of KH and PMF Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani in the strike. The organization denied its involvement but Americans did not accept the excuse and first bombed its HQ in western Iraq, killing 28 militia – and then followed up with the strike in Baghdad.

Seeing this response would Iran attempt to continue such clandestine provocations, attacking Americans and then denying involvement? It’s possible but not likely and it, again, may invite an even stronger response – without actually achieving much. At least with a high-profile target Iranians could hope to achieve significant publicity – but continuous harassing Americans does not achieve many goals and the White House has shown it will not take it lying down.

  • Option 3. Attack soft targets, civilians, American allies.

Some people voiced concerns that Iran can turn to attacking softer targets, engaging in terrorism against civilians or civilian facilities, be it American or belonging to American allies like Israel.

That too is rather unlikely.

Targeting anybody other than Americans in retaliation for Soleimani would still show that Iran is really weak and is merely trying to make a show of force – which it really does not have. Attacking Israelis or Saudis may, of course, happen. Harassment of oil transit via Hormuz is also a very real threat. But this is largely business as usual not a fitting response to the high profile casualty.

At the same time any civilian deaths would alienate Iran internationally. Relatively sympathetic Europe would cut ties (that it is still hoping to revive) and even Moscow and Beijing would be forced to distance themselves from a reckless Tehran.

This isn’t the last option Iran has at its disposal but to consider anything else we first have to to establish what its goals are – and why it attacked Americans in the first place.

Why?

As reported by Reuters here allegations that Soleimani planned attacks on Americans appear to be true. In October he is said to have met with Iraqi allies and coordinated shipment of more sophisticated weaponry that would allow for a rocket attack on American military installations – just like the one that happened near Kirkuk on 27th of December.

“Soleimani’s plans to attack U.S. forces aimed to provoke a military response that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States, according to the sources briefed on the gathering, Iraqi Shi’ite politicians and government officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.”

This is not inconceivable for two reasons:

  1. The government in Baghdad was facing popular protests i.a. against its close ties to Iran. An attack on US soldiers on Iraqi soil that would prompt a response in which Iraqi militia would suffer could distract the public and redirect discontent towards the US, as dozens of locals were killed in American retaliation.
  2. Any strike carried out by Trump could hurt him both domestically and internationally, focusing even more public hate on him – especially as he claimed to be leaving the Middle East and is now getting engaged in it again.

That second point is doubly important when you remember about the big event that is about to take place in America this year – US presidential election.

After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal signed by Obama and reimposed all sanctions on Iran in late 2018 (adding several more throughout 2019) Iranian economy took a nose dive, what ultimately led to massive protests in Iranian cities as the government was forced to increase the price of petrol in November 2019.

Weak economic situation is not only limiting Iran’s ability to meddle abroad but it becomes a threat to the regime’s existence as Iranians get more fed up with the corrupt leaders getting wealthy when millions are struggling to get by. IRGC and people connected to it control most of the Iranian economy through companies linked to the government and the military.

This points to Iran’s primary goal, that is driving all its actions vs. USA – revival of JCPOA and sanctions relief.

Iran’s regional ambitions matter but they cannot be attained without money. That’s why Iranians traded their infant atomic program for nuclear sanctions relief in 2015. The horrific oversight – or rather blind ignorance – of the West was the violent sectarianism that Iran kept supporting, which was somehow not a part of the deal, despite huge leverage that the US and EU had over the Islamic Republic.

In other words, the largest global state-sponsor of terrorism and sectarian violence had sanctions lifted and was granted access to billions of dollars in frozen assets, while it kept murdering people left and right.

Trump’s administration corrected that terrible geopolitical mistake – even as Europe still tries to salvage whatever is left from it. New sanctions bit deep into the regime – which has now restarted some of its uranium enrichment activities to blackmail the West. Fortunately to no avail, because even friendly EU governments cannot be seen bending to a hostile regime making nuclear threats.

The only way for Iranian hardliners to get their economy in order, pacify the discontent and acquire more financial resources to continue their wars is a change in the White House.

To that end their aim for 2020 is to ensnare Trump and force him to make mistakes which would tip the balance towards a Democratic presidential candidate, who will almost certainly return to the table and revive the deal the revered president Barack Obama signed in 2015.

It’s therefore entirely plausible – even logical – that their provocations were meant to drag Trump back into Middle Eastern affairs, prompting loud criticism from Democrats at home and from the international community.

What Iranians did not expect was that retaliation would not end at nameless Iraqi militia but claim the man commanding their Middle Eastern wars for the past 20 years.

The snake tried to bite the eagle and had his eye plucked out.

That said, Iran’s dastardly plan did produce some results, with Trump facing condemnation from political rivals in the US and a rather cold reception everywhere else. Since mainstream media in the West are generally opposed to Trump, their coverage of the killing of Soleimani is largely dismissive of the American president.

Democrats have called his behavior “reckless”, while hundreds of people took to the streets in several American cities to voice their protest.

As a result, while Soleimani’s death is an incredibly steep price Iran has to pay, it does not come without opportunities to strike back at Trump through legal or diplomatic channels, to portray him as a warmonger who destroyed peace efforts and is now trying to set the world on fire. A madman, a lunatic who should be voted out of office this November.

This leads us to the fourth – and most likely – option Iran has to handle the situation:

  • Option 4. Play the victim.

Given the severity of the attack – even though Soleimani was the leader of Quds Force designated by the US and Canada (among other countries) as a terrorist organization what, effectively, put him in a position that Osama bin Laden was to Al Qaeda or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was to ISIS – Iran can claim that American action was illegal and seek to turn it into a legal and diplomatic dispute (and is already aided in this effort by many blindly partisan media outlets in the West).

As a result Iran can portray itself as a more civilized country seeking justice for Trump’s aggression. A peace dove fighting an angry hawk.

In that it will certainly find allies not only among American Democrats but also in Europe, whose leaders are still hoping to revive the nuclear deal and access Iranian market for lucrative business deals and abundance of oil and gas.

Lack of decisive retaliation may undermine its image among its militant allies (but it’s not like they have anywhere else to turn) and Muslims in general – though if it succeeds at getting Trump out of the White House, it will have a considerable victory to celebrate by the end of the year.

For these reasons any serious military escalation is, at the moment, very unlikely.

In fact, earlier today, through its news agency Fars News, Iran has already signaled the intent to sue the US in international courts:

“This brutal act was a violation of human rights and all international rules. Martyr Soleimani was the official guest of the Iraqi government officials as a high-ranking (Iranian) official, and a foreign state has committed this crime in Iraq,” Esmayeeli said on Saturday.

“The criminal US government’s measure to martyr General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and their entourage is a terrorist act from legal view point and a clear instance of state terrorism,” he added.

Esmayeeli underscored that the judiciary, alongside the foreign ministry and the human rights headquarters will file a complaint against the US at international courts.

As Iran is doing that it’s not likely it would jeopardize the effort by giving credence to American allegations of premeditated attacks on its soldiers by engaging in more hostilities.

Any such attack would become instant proof against the regime that it is seeking to harm Americans – and so the US had every right to act in defense of its citizens, what is entirely within the boundaries of international law.

Therefore, for the time being (at least until the US presidential election reveals who will lead the USA for the next 4 years) Iran is going to play the victim, trying to garner international support and pursue “justice” through international institutions and diplomatic channels. Left-leaning media in Europe and America will surely aid its efforts as Trump is their common enemy. In fact, they appear to be doing Tehran’s PR work even as we speak.

If the US president succeeds in his re-election bid we may see a change of course, given that Iranian economy will face at least four more years of struggle under American sanctions. Iran may then resume open hostilities feeling it has little to lose and attempt to drag the US in a regional conflict by attacking it or its allies – or resort to blocking or obstructing the Hormuz it has always threatened to do.

But until then it will be hoping for a Democrat in the White House, whose win would be to Tehran like a long-awaited return of a beloved relative.

Iran’s Options

While Iranian leadership has publicly vowed to avenge Soleimani, it’s mostly posturing that it had to engage in. After all, what else can a regime say when somebody kills its top general?

But behind the facade Tehran is studying its options and their possible consequences.

Few events are entirely negative and each usually presents both risks and opportunities. It is no different with Soleimani’s death. So what can Iran do?

  • Option 1. Violently retaliate against a high-profile American target.

That’s what Tehran appears to be threatening but, in reality, such an action would invite an even stronger response – and Trump has demonstrated he is able to act in a highly unpredictable and unprecedented way.

Iranian government cannot afford another huge blow to its political position – or to its economic situation (which took a hit after Trump reimposed sanctions) and has already turned people against the regime. In the protests that erupted in the past few months more than 1000 Iranians have been killed in the streets. Further decline may encourage more people to oppose the government – especially as Soleimani’s death proves they are not invulnerable.

Iran’s second problem is that Trump’s general withdrawal of troops from the Middle East means that there are far fewer American soldiers on the ground, exposed to potential foreign attacks. It was fairly easy to decimate them during invasion in Iraq, when Iranian supplied IEDs killed several hundred of them and wounded thousands. But right now there’s about 5000 of them still deployed in Iraq in just a handful of bases, which are sure to be put on high alert in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death.

  • Option 2. Using proxies to target Americans in the region.

For the reasons mentioned above, Option 2 is not very plausible either. In fact, the event that started the deadly spiral leading to killing of the Quds commander and his co-conspirators in Baghdad, was the rocket attack on the K1 base near Kirkuk hosting Americans on Dec. 27, which left one civilian contractor dead and four American soldiers wounded.

The assault was blamed on Kata’ib Hezbollah, a part of Popular Mobilization Forces – militia armed and trained by Iran. In fact, the leader of KH and PMF Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani in the strike. The organization denied its involvement but Americans did not accept the excuse and first bombed its HQ in western Iraq, killing 28 militia – and then followed up with the strike in Baghdad.

Seeing this response would Iran attempt to continue such clandestine provocations, attacking Americans and then denying involvement? It’s possible but not likely and it, again, may invite an even stronger response – without actually achieving much. At least with a high-profile target Iranians could hope to achieve significant publicity – but continuous harassing Americans does not achieve many goals and the White House has shown it will not take it lying down.

  • Option 3. Attacking soft targets, civilians, American allies.

Some people voiced concerns that Iran can turn to attacking softer targets, engaging in terrorism against civilians or civilian facilities, be it American or belonging to American allies like Israel.

That too is rather unlikely.

Targeting anybody other than Americans in retaliation for Soleimani would still show that Iran is really weak and is merely trying to make a show of force – which it really does not have. Attacking Israelis or Saudis may, of course, happen. Harassment of oil transit via Hormuz is also a very real threat. But this is largely business as usual not a fitting response to the high profile casualty.

At the same time any civilian deaths would alienate Iran internationally. Relatively sympathetic Europe would cut ties (that it is still hoping to revive) and even Moscow and Beijing would be forced to distance themselves from a reckless Tehran.

This isn’t the last option Iran has at its disposal but to consider anything else we first have to to establish what its goals are – and why it attacked Americans in the first place.

Why?

As reported by Reuters here allegations that Soleimani planned attacks on Americans appear to be true. In October he is said to have met with Iraqi allies and coordinated shipment of more sophisticated weaponry that would allow for a rocket attack on American military installations – just like the one that happened near Kirkuk on 27th of December.

“Soleimani’s plans to attack U.S. forces aimed to provoke a military response that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States, according to the sources briefed on the gathering, Iraqi Shi’ite politicians and government officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.”

This is not inconceivable for two reasons:

  1. The government in Baghdad was facing popular protests i.a. against its close ties to Iran. An attack on US soldiers on Iraqi soil that would prompt a response in which Iraqi militia would suffer could distract the public and redirect discontent towards the US, as dozens of locals were killed in American retaliation.
  2. Any strike carried out by Trump could hurt him both domestically and internationally, focusing even more public hate on him – especially as he claimed to be leaving the Middle East and is now getting engaged in it again.

That second point is doubly important when you remember about the big event that is about to take place in America this year – US presidential election.

After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal signed by Obama and reimposed all sanctions on Iran in late 2018 (adding several more throughout 2019) Iranian economy took a nose dive, what ultimately led to massive protests in Iranian cities as the government was forced to increase the price of petrol in November 2019.

Weak economic situation is not only limiting Iran’s ability to meddle abroad but it becomes a threat to the regime’s existence as Iranians get more fed up with the corrupt leaders getting wealthy when millions are struggling to get by. IRGC and people connected to it control most of the Iranian economy through companies linked to the government and the military.

This points to Iran’s primary goal, that is driving all its actions vs. USA – revival of JCPOA and sanctions relief.

Iran’s regional ambitions matter but they cannot be attained without money. That’s why Iranians traded their infant atomic program for nuclear sanctions relief in 2015. The horrific oversight – or rather blind ignorance – of the West was the violent sectarianism that Iran kept supporting, which was somehow not a part of the deal, despite huge leverage that the US and EU had over the Islamic Republic.

In other words, the largest global state-sponsor of terrorism and sectarian violence was given sanctions relief and access to billions of dollars in frozen assets, while it kept murdering people left and right.

Trump’s administration corrected that terrible geopolitical mistake – even as Europe still tries to salvage whatever is left from it. New sanctions bit deep into the regime – which has now restarted some of its uranium enrichment activities to blackmail the West. Fortunately to no avail, because even friendly EU governments cannot be seen bending to a hostile regime making nuclear threats.

The only way for Iranian hardliners to get their economy in order, pacify the discontent and acquire more financial resources to continue their wars is a change in the White House.

To that end their aim for 2020 is to ensnare Trump and force him to make mistakes which would tip the balance towards a Democratic presidential candidate, who will almost certainly return to the table and revive the deal the revered president Barack Obama signed in 2015.

It’s therefore entirely plausible – even logical – that their provocations were meant to drag Trump back into Middle Eastern affairs, prompting loud criticism from Democrats at home and from the international community.

What Iranians did not expect was that retaliation would not end at nameless Iraqi militia but claim the man commanding their Middle Eastern wars for the past 20 years.

The snake tried to bite the eagle and had his eye plucked out.

That said, Iran’s dastardly plan did produce some results, with Trump facing condemnation from political rivals in the US and a rather cold reception everywhere else. Since mainstream media in the West are generally opposed to Trump, their coverage of the killing of Soleimani is largely dismissive of the American president.

Democrats have called his behavior “reckless”, while hundreds of people took to the streets in several American cities to voice their protest.

As a result, while Soleimani’s death is an incredibly steep price Iran has to pay, it does not come without opportunities to strike back at Trump through legal or diplomatic channels, to portray him as a warmonger who destroyed peace efforts and is now trying to set the world on fire. A madman, a lunatic who should be voted out of office this November.

This leads us to the fourth – and most likely – option Iran has to handle the situation:

  • Option 4. Play the victim.

Given the severity of the attack – even though Soleimani was the leader of Quds Force designated by the US and Canada (among other countries) as a terrorist organization what, effectively, put him in a position that Osama bin Laden was to Al Qaeda or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was to ISIS – Iran can claim that American action was illegal and seek to turn it into a legal and diplomatic dispute (and is already aided in this effort by many blindly partisan media outlets in the West).

As a result Iran can portray itself as a more civilized country seeking justice for Trump’s aggression. A peace dove fighting an angry hawk.

In that it will certainly find allies not only among American Democrats but also in Europe, whose leaders are still hoping to revive the nuclear deal and access Iranian market for lucrative business deals and abundance of oil and gas.

Lack of decisive retaliation may undermine its image among its militant allies (but it’s not like they have anywhere else to turn) and Muslims in general – though if it succeeds at getting Trump out of the White House, it will have a considerable victory to celebrate by the end of the year.

For these reasons any serious military escalation is, at the moment, very unlikely.

In fact, earlier today, through its news agency Fars News, Iran has already signaled the intent to sue the US in international courts:

“This brutal act was a violation of human rights and all international rules. Martyr Soleimani was the official guest of the Iraqi government officials as a high-ranking (Iranian) official, and a foreign state has committed this crime in Iraq,” Esmayeeli said on Saturday.

“The criminal US government’s measure to martyr General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and their entourage is a terrorist act from legal view point and a clear instance of state terrorism,” he added.

Esmayeeli underscored that the judiciary, alongside the foreign ministry and the human rights headquarters will file a complaint against the US at international courts.

As Iran is doing that it’s not likely it would jeopardize the effort by giving credence to American allegations of premeditated attacks on its soldiers by engaging in more hostilities.

Any such attack would become instant proof against the regime that it is seeking to harm Americans – and so the US had every right to act in defense of its citizens, what is entirely within the boundaries of international law.

Therefore, for the time being (at least until the US presidential election reveals who will lead the USA for the next 4 years) Iran is going to play the victim, trying to garner international support and pursue “justice” through international institutions and diplomatic channels. Left-leaning media in Europe and America will surely aid its efforts as Trump is their common enemy. In fact, they appear to be doing Tehran’s PR work even as we speak.

If the US president succeeds in his re-election bid we may see a change of course, given that Iranian economy will face at least four more years of struggle under American sanctions. Iran may then resume open hostilities feeling it has little to lose and attempt to drag the US in a regional conflict by attacking it or its allies – or resort to blocking or obstructing the Hormuz it has always threatened to do.

But until then it will be hoping for a Democrat in the White House, whose win would be to Tehran like a long-awaited return of a beloved relative.


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Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

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