On January 3, the United States struck Iran at its heart, killing Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the mastermind of Tehran’s regional military Quds Force and one of the most popular leaders of the Islamic Republic. The next day, President Trump called Suleimani a terrorist and killer of hundreds of Americans. His characterization of Suleimani as someone equivalent to former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—a nonstate actor and criminal who was killed by US Special Forces in October—is emblematic of his entire administration’s misreading of Suleimani’s status as a government official. His assassination was an attack on the Iranian state, and thus tantamount to a declaration of war.
In perhaps the most striking irony in an episode filled with ironies, Suleimani was, according to statements by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in the Iraqi parliament the next day, killed while on a peace mission, bearing a letter from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, in response to a Saudi effort to de-escalate regional tensions. That negotiation, along with further Iraqi mediation between the United States and Iran—which Trump had raised with Abdul Mahdi just days before—has now been dashed.
Though Trump claimed Suleimani’s assassination would reduce tensions, the opposite has already ensued. Iraq has banned all foreign troops, including those of the United States, from its territory and has closed its air space, with the parliament—in another irony—voting to expel US forces 17 years after the 2003 US invasion. Iran has announced that its nuclear program will now proceed without limitations, although it will continue to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and abide by other requirements of the nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in 2018. As rhetoric between Washington and Tehran escalates, events have moved quickly, with Trump barring Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif from access to the UN, and the enormous crowds in Iran mourning Suleimani’s death putting pressure on Tehran to meet expectations of revenge. Indeed, in a notable departure from Iran’s usual practice of asymmetrical warfare, Khamenei appeared before the National Security Council and vowed that Tehran’s response to the assassination would be direct, proportional, and carried out by Iranian forces, not proxies.
Suleimani, largely immune from the ambivalence with which many Iranians view the ruthless Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, operated for the most part outside the country as the respected head of the IRGC’s foreign arm, the elite Quds Force. Charismatic and highly effective, he gained admiration even among reformists for expanding Iran’s reach across the Shia Crescent, the land bridge connecting Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. As such, he was widely popular; many considered him likely to be Iran’s next president, after Hassan Rouhani, and the expressions of grief on the streets of Iran are genuine. His assassination has brought the population closer to the leadership, despite recent protests, in shared outrage not only at Trump’s actions but also at the administration’s apparent disdain for Iran’s sovereign rights and its insulting rhetoric demanding that Iran “change its behavior.”
For Iranians and the international community alike, the question is, what’s the long game? Suleimani’s death marks a turning point in a conflict that has been escalating since Trump’s imposition of “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the nuclear deal. In fact, despite Trump’s repeated claims that he does not want war with Iran, the two countries have been fighting a war on three fronts for at least two years, in some cases for longer.
First is what Iran’s leaders describe as an economic war, and it has been brutal. US sanctions on Iran are already harsher than those on Libya, Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela combined. They include sanctions on oil, banking, financial transactions, insurance, steel, mining, coal, ships, aircraft, carpets, people, and medicine, and fines of $1 million (or 20 years in jail) for anyone or any country that breaches them. Iran’s economy and currency have plummeted, foreign products have disappeared from its shelves, and its people have taken to the streets twice this past year to demonstrate against price hikes and banking shutdowns, only to face severe government reprisals. But the killing of Suleimani has shifted the popular mood and offered the government a reprieve, strengthening the hard-liners (no reformer could possibly suggest further negotiation with Trump now).
Iran’s leaders view American demands that it change its behavior as a rebuke to Tehran’s consistent challenge to US interests in the region, particularly vis-à-vis Israel. After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, for 14 months Iran played by international rules, fully complying with the deal’s terms even as it faced unprovoked US sanctions, and maintaining diplomatic ties as it negotiated with European powers to keep the deal alive—yet the US line only became tougher.
When Saudi oil installations were attacked last September, with Iran the likely culprit, Washington took no direct action. Iran believes that ever since the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, it has been scapegoated by US presidents, despite offers of compromise. George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech, which came after Iran publicly mourned the losses of 9/11 and offered to help Washington in its war against the Taliban, is a case in point. For Iran, therefore, the current pressure to change its behavior is understood as a reflection of narrow White House interests, not an expression of broader US foreign policy strategy—and thus doubly demeaning. Iranian relief that it can now legitimately respond to what it considers an act of war—with the support of Iraq, which was similarly humiliated by the US attack—has translated into a surge of nationalist pride. In record time, electronic billboards have appeared on the streets (not just in Iran, but in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala too), depicting Suleimani as a holy martyr and Iran as the rightful protector of his memory.
The second front in the US-Iran confrontation, a tit-for-tat targeting of shipping, oil installations, and Special Forces, is where Iran is expected to ratchet up its game. A strategic power that has excelled at asymmetric warfare, Iran tends to plan carefully and hit with precision. Its confidence, however, has been shaken by the fact that Suleimani’s movements were so easily tracked by its foes, so Tehran will first need to attend to its own security apparatus before taking action. With Suleimani no longer exercising command over Iran’s many proxy militias and aligned groups, it is unclear, at least in the short term, whether Iran can control the field. Meanwhile, President Trump vowed in a tweet that any retaliatory actions would be met with harsh countermeasures, with 52 targets already identified, one for every hostage seized by Iran in the 1979 US embassy takeover, including Iranian cultural assets. In response, Iranians launched #Iranianculturalsites, posting pictures of their favorite historical monuments inside the country.
In yet another irony, regional popular dismay at what is being called Washington’s “banditry” has dispelled for the moment the anti-Iranian feeling that gripped Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in popular revolts last fall. At the same time, militias that previously cooperated with Americans in the struggle against ISIS, including Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah, whose leader was killed alongside Suleimani, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah, have already implied that they may retaliate. Meanwhile, a resurgent ISIS is in the wings and will no doubts stoke the flames. For Washington, and for Trump in particular, this is very risky, as thousands of Americans are working in the Gulf region; if they start returning home in body bags, Trump’s presidential campaign could nose-dive. The prospect that Iran’s ayatollahs once again may exercise significant sway over an American election—as they did during the hostage crisis and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980—is irony indeed.
Third, the United States and Iran are engaged in mutually disruptive exchanges of cyberwarfare. The United States, protected on two sides by oceans, has been largely immune from conventional war, with 9/11 being the exception. Its “island” nature is no protection against cyberwarfare, however, and in the rarefied world of cyber capacity, Iran is a global player. The day after Suleimani’s assassination, a federal website, the Federal Depository Library Program, was hacked by a group claiming to be Iranian, who posted a grisly image of Trump being punched and a warning that more was to come. Tehran joined the cyberwarfare club after 2010, when it found itself the first nation to experience state-sponsored malware in the form of Stuxnet, a US-Israeli concoction that dismembered its nuclear centrifuges. Flame, a network disrupter, followed soon after. Between 2011 and 2013, Iran infiltrated a US dam control system and numerous bank servers, including those of JPMorgan Chase, American Express, and Wells Fargo. Later, Tehran infected Saudi oil installations. Such attacks are largely deniable, and have not only become increasingly difficult to trace but also increased logarithmically in speed and scope. Last fall, US and British officials identified a Russian infiltration of Iranian cyber cells, which was used to attack industrial organizations and dozens of governments, revealing that identities can be slipped on much like the “skins” in computer games. When Trump stepped back from a physical attack on Iran last fall after the Revolutionary Guard shot down a drone in the Persian Gulf, it was an act not of restraint but of switching weapons—another US cyber attack followed soon after.
Undoubtedly, before taking a drastic step to dismember US civil infrastructure or close down Internet access, Iran will consult with Russia and China, two states highly critical of targeted political assassinations. In the wake of unprecedented joint naval exercises by both powers and Iran in the Gulf of Oman last November, it is very possible they will not only support but also contribute to Iran’s efforts at cyber disruption, adding to its efficacy and deniability. In that case, Trump will have opened the door to direct, sustained attacks on the US mainland for the first time—and to deeper conflict with two nuclear-armed superpowers—a final deadly irony arising from the assassination of Suleimani.