As hundreds of thousands were attending memorial ceremonies for Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iran, in Beirut, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was sketching out the rules of the regional game for the near term. In an aggressive speech, Nasrallah presented the goals of the resistance axis headed by Iran: Attacks on American targets in the Middle East, with the aim of removing U.S. military forces from the region. Amazingly enough, Israel was barely mentioned. From his remarks, it seems the entire axis will be involved in the struggle, which will focus on striking American military and other official targets.
Nasrallah’s remarks dovetail with the assessments heard immediately after an American drone strike killed Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, hitting his convoy after he landed in Baghdad late Thursday night. Tehran and its satellites will seek to leverage the rage over the surprise killing into coordinated pressure, in an effort to force the American military out of the area.
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The Iraqi parliament has passed a resolution calling on the government to end the presence of foreign troops in Iraq and ensure they don't use its land, air, and waters, and there is still a limited U.S. military presence in Syria. Meanwhile, however, traffic is flowing in the other direction, as Washington is boosting its forces in the region in the face of threatened revenge attacks.
The prevailing assessment by military officials and Iran experts in Israel and the West is that the Iranians will have to respond both because of Soleimani’s senior status, which led him to mistakenly think himself immune to attack, and because they’ve committed themselves to doing so repeatedly over the past few days. However, Tehran will have to find a response that does not set off a war, given the huge capabilities gap between its army and U.S. forces, and also because U.S. President Donald Trump’s behavior is so unpredictable.
Trump is so far maintaining the image of someone who’s prepared to go far to deter his rival. On Saturday night, following threats by Iran, he tweeted a counter-threat: If Iran harms any more Americans, the United States has 52 targets in Iran, including government buildings and cultural sites, marked for a possible counterattack. After the attack on Soleimani, it’s a threat the Iranians have to take seriously.
Trump’s actions are still raising numerous questions, as his domestic critics remind us. Attacks on cultural and heritage sites violate international law; the claim that the assassination was a pre-emptive strike to prevent American deaths has so far not been backed by any proof, and it isn’t clear how well the administration has prepared itself for the escalation scenarios possible following Soleimani’s killing.
Israel, meanwhile, is almost out of the game. For safety’s sake, the Israel Defense Forces has taken some limited steps to boost the defensive lines in the north and south. But the impression is that Iran is now focused on American targets and not on Israel. A former senior member of the Revolutionary Guards was indeed quoted as threatening an attack on Haifa, but he hasn’t held an official position for years.
During the weeks preceding Soleimani’s death, Israeli officials frequently discussed a possible increase in military friction with Iran in both Syria and Iraq. Now other considerations are coming into play. The security and diplomatic echelons must now examine whether another attack to prevent weapons smuggling to Hezbollah or to foil Iranian military entrenchment in Syria justifies pouring oil onto the regional fire at this time.
Meanwhile, Iran on Sunday announced another, expected, violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement in response to America’s withdrawal from it and the tough economic sanctions Trump has imposed. The Iranians said they will be enriching the quantity of uranium they will need, but didn’t explain exactly what they meant.
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Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw from the agreement looks, in retrospect, like a move that shook up the regional arena and led, indirectly, to the current series of events. The agreement, full of flaws though it was, at least maintained a framework that imposed certain obligatory forms of behavior on all parties (Iran is, officially, still committed to it). But now it seems that everything is open, although the Iranians must take into account that Trump, in extreme circumstances, might even consider action against their nuclear facilities.