Analysis

Iran Retaliated. Now May Come the Covert Proxy Revenge

Qassem Soleimani wasn't the only high-profile target assassinated by the U.S.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Newly-appointed commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Chief Commander Hossein Salami in Tehran, January 9, 2020.
Newly-appointed commander of the Quds Force Esmail Qaani Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Chief Commander Hossein Salami in Tehran, January 9, 2020. Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Nawres Hamid. This, it turns out, is the name of the man who through no fault of his own sparked the events that have shaken up the Middle East over the past two weeks. Hamid is the American defense contractor who was killed in the rocket attack by Shi’ite militias on a military base in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, on December 27. His death roused Donald Trump’s anger and led to the blows between America and Iran including the assassination a week ago of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani.

Hamid was buried on Saturday in Sacramento, California, and it has emerged that he was a native of Iraq who with his family received U.S. citizenship only a decade ago. On Wednesday, Trump hastened to declare that it looks like Iran is content with its firing of rockets – which caused no casualties – on two military bases in Iraq where American soldiers are posted as its response to the killing of Soleimani, the head of special operations outside Iran.

It was also possible to get this impression from statements by top Iranians, among them Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian leaders’ lack of a desire to get embroiled in a direct war with the United States is evident in their statements, as well as in their limited response. But the speed with which the Americans are trying to end the affair doesn’t jibe with Iranians’ moves in previous instances.

First, at the disposal of the Revolutionary Guards, of which the Quds Force is a part, is a wide international network that can launch revenge attacks on American targets in many countries around the world. Second, as former Israeli Military Intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi-Farkash has told Haaretz, another account in the affair remains to be settled.

In the American attack on Baghdad International Airport, another man was killed alongside Soleimani: Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a head of the umbrella group of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq. In his speech, Khamenei said that after the Iranian rocket fire it’s now the Iraqi militias’ turn to act against the Americans. Such an operation would be advantageous for the Iranians: It would be perceived as authentic Iraqi resistance to the United States, and Tehran would be able to claim it wasn’t responsible. As Zeevi-Farkash puts it, this has always been the Iranians’ way – to use proxies to achieve their goals.

Trump’s great service to Israel

In the eulogies for Soleimani this week, Khamenei, other top Iranians and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – who had close ties with the general – indicated Iran’s strategic goal: ejecting U.S. troops from the Middle East, above all from Iraq. This looks like an attainable goal in light of Trump’s evident disinclination to remain there.

But in the background remains the fundamental problem in U.S.-Iranian relations – the disagreement over the nuclear agreement. Iran’s provocations, which ultimately broke the American camel’s back and got Soleimani killed, were aimed mainly at easing the economic sanctions and finding a way back to the negotiating table over the nuclear program.

But in this matter Iran hasn’t made any real progress, so it’s likely Tehran will stay the course, especially in violating the nuclear agreement, to which it’s still a signatory. Trump, meanwhile, is signaling that he intends to keep applying pressure by further stiffening the sanctions. In other words, the two sides haven’t moved forward at all on the basic problem, so presumably the friction will continue.

As is customary in such cases, the American media is striving to recapitulate precisely the decision-making process that preceded the assassination. This is astounding but not necessarily important information. Ultimately we’re dealing with Trump, a frenetic leader. For him, the fact that he sprang a surprise on his foes (the Iranians and the Democrats back home) is a major part of the achievement.

According to the reports, the president, who spent part of the week before the operation playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, dropped hints to his friends and guests that “something big” was about to happen with Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the only senior person from the defense-diplomatic establishment who has survived Trump for nearly three years, is credited with a great deal of influence on the decision to kill Soleimani. Pompeo, who’s friendly with Israel’s leaders, leads a hawkish line on Iran.

As the Israelis see it, Trump has done a great service: The Americans’ assassination of Soleimani has spared Israel similar pondering about the man who was the brains behind Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria, the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah and the (failed) attempts to shoot rockets into Israel. Possibly the fact that an American hand pulled the trigger (actually, remotely activated the drone that did the firing) put Israel out of immediate range of Iran’s revenge actions. But in light of the nearly universal enthusiasm in Israel for the U.S. president’s greatness, it seems we should equip ourselves with a pinch of skepticism.

US President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, DC, January 8, 2020
US President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, DC, January 8, 2020.Credit: Evan Vucci,AP

On Wednesday night, in a belated statement after the Iranian rocket attacks, Trump sounded very unfocused. It’s interesting to compare his current statements to television interviews from a decade or more ago in which he sounds original, clear and almost eloquent. The continued dwindling of his vocabulary, his mutterings and his grimaces have gotten a number of experts suggesting that the president’s health and lucidity are declining.

This didn’t stop Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, once one of Trump’s major critics, from complimenting the president on his speech, comparing it to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 address at the Brandenburg Gate where the president called on Mikhail Gorbachev to lift the iron curtain. A quick look at Reagan’s speech on YouTube suffices for us say with certainty: There’s no comparison between Trump’s mishmash and Reagan’s historic speech. Still, the veteran senator apparently is right about the fact that no one ever died of licking posteriors.