The starting point for examining the continuation of the American-Iranian conflict should take into account that the initial Iranian response to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani is not necessarily the final one. On the contrary, we can assume that the Iranian regime wants to gain time in order to examine the alternatives to fulfilling its promise to inflict a serious punishment on the United States.
The leadership in Iran is committed to that. The assassination of such a senior and familiar personality in Iran and in the Shi’ite camp as a whole; the blow to the foundations of Iran’s regional strategy, of which Soleimani was one of the leading architects; the need to renew the strengthening of Iran’s deterrence capability, to prevent additional blows to its leaders and its strategic sites, and to demonstrate that it is also capable of delivering a harsh blow to its enemies; and the humiliation of the Iranian regime as a result of the assassination all require the Iranians to examine the possibility of inflicting as harsh a blow as possible against the United States and its allies.
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This examination could also conclude that the option of such a blow involves considerable risks and that it would be better to give up on it, and there are several signs that that really is Iran’s approach. But such a conclusion would seriously undermine Iran’s deterrence capability, and is likely to invite additional responses from the United States in the future.
The firing of Iranian missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq after the assassination of Soleimani, with minimal results, has to be perceived by Iran’s rivals as a sign of weakness rather than strength. In that sense, the Iranian regime will be confronting several major obstacles that are likely to affect the nature of its response.
First, the United States enjoys clear strategic-military superiority to Iran. This superiority may deter Tehran from making a far-reaching retaliatory move, prevent the attempt to strike at the United States, and would incur a harsh retaliatory blow, if Iran is not deterred.
Although Iran has developed a concept of asymmetrical combat, which is meant to provide it with tools in its attempts to deal with more powerful countries, this concept has yet to be tested in a large-scale conflict with the United States. Meanwhile Tehran is stressing that it does not want a such a conflict with Washington, but is also warning that the firing of the missiles is not the end of the story, and that it will continue in its attempts to remove U.S. forces from the Middle East.
Moreover, until the assassination it seemed that U.S. President Donald Trump was deterred from taking military action against Iran, and was satisfied with exercising economic pressures. The killing of Soleimani, the attack against five pro-Iranian Shi’ite militia targets in Iraq and Syria prior to his assassination, Trump’s threat to hit 52 targets in Iran and the continued heavy economic pressure all are creating a renewed and reinforced dimension to U.S. deterrence against Iran.
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Second, Israel is likely to be another target for Iran’s retaliation campaign. But the Iranians should recall that Israel hit dozens of Iranian and Shi’ite targets in Syria and Iraq without Tehran daring to respond – with the exception of a few failed attempts – in recognition of Israel’s aerial superiority. Although Iran has considerable deterrence capability against Israel, based on its huge missile systems and those of Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias, using those systems against Israel means war, and in that case Iran has to take into account two serious risks: that the United States will help Israel, and that Israel will also exploit the confrontation in order to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
Third, the nuclear treaty with Iran is actually no longer in effect. The chances of talks between Tehran and Washington about renewing and amending the treaty were slight before, and have decreased even further after the assassination of Soleimani. Iran in effect has removed all the restrictions imposed on its nuclear program by the treaty. If Tehran decides to exploit this situation in order to make a “breakout” to nuclear weapons in order to reinforce its deterrence against the United States and Israel, it would have to take into consideration once again that Israel or the United States could strike at its nuclear sites. Iran knows that Israel is looking for justification and a good opportunity to deliver such a blow.
Fourth, Iran has no real allies. The only ally that stood by it was Syria under the regime of the late President Hafez Assad. But in the past decade Syria has been incapable of helping Iran after losing its military power, and is itself in need of comprehensive assistance. Russia has close ties with Iran, mainly in the economic, military and nuclear spheres. But Russia and Iran are not allies. Both are in strong competition for taking charge of the rehabilitation of Syria, nor did Russia help Iran in the face of the Israeli strikes against the Iranian and Shi’ite targets in Syria in recent years.
And fifth, Iran is now in a difficult period internally and regionally. Since mid-November Iran has been suffering from a wave of demonstrations – among the harshest it has experienced since the Islamic Revolution – due to its shaky economic situation, which deteriorated even further in the wake of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
The direct reason for the demonstrations was the increase in oil prices, but they have taken on a political aspect as well – the masses in the streets chanted, “Death to the traitor,” referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At the same time, violent mass demonstrations are also taking place in Iraq and Lebanon – two countries in which Iran is very interested because of Shi’ite dominance in their populations – and in both countries there is a demand to eliminate the Iranian presence and influence on the country. These waves of demonstrations are preoccupying the regime in Iran, and will make it difficult for it to become embroiled in a conflict with the United States and its allies at the same time.
These developments are not sufficient to seriously reduce the dimensions of the Iranian threat against Israel, which is still the greatest threat to the country, and should not be downplayed. The huge missile systems at the disposal of Iran and Hezbollah will continue to constitute the main thrust of this threat, and if Iran has a breakout in future to nuclear weapons – as it apparently intends to do at a suitable opportunity – the weight of the threat will increase to a level we have never before experienced.
But in examining Iran’s present conduct, we can point to these important weak points, which could be exploited by the United States and Israel in the event of a threat from Iran. At the same time, from Iran’s point of view, its weak points oblige it to be very careful, so that its response, should it come, won’t lead to a major conflict with the United States.
Col. (res.) Dr. Kam is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.