The targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani presents Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei with perhaps the biggest test of his career. How will he respond? Will it be just be a demonstrative response and would that be sufficient?
In his first official reaction Khamenei promised a harsh revenge. We can take his threat seriously, but will be the consequences?
We witnessed how the death of an American contractor brought for all parties involved in the region’s conflict. The United States conducted airstrikes that killed at least 25 pro-Iran Iraqi militia. This was followed by a two-day siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad the same militia group, and eventually came the killing of the star character who was engineering the expansion of Iran’s influence; “the hero of exporting revolution”.
Qassem Soleimani was Khamenei’s man in the Middle East and the most powerful figure perhaps after the Supreme Leader.
Now we are in a new phase. Any serious and effective Iranian retaliation will be met with a heavy U.S. response.
If Mr. Khamenei thinks U.S. President Donald Trump will hesitate to face Iran because of the upcoming presidential elections, he is making a serious mistake.
A possible military confrontation that Trump says he is not seeking, can turn into the main election issue, to the extent that a victory against Iran leads to a victory in the elections.
However, Iran pundits believe Khamenei likes to be in power and apparently, he also has plans for his sons. He knows that any harsh response against the United States can quickly turn into a destructive war for Iran that leaves no throne and no king to occupy it.
But Khamenei also knows that a simple demonstrative retaliation will not be enough. If it is too mild a response, his Iranian and non-Iranian friends and allies might lose faith.
It is too early now after the shock of Soleimani’s death to gauge how far wisdom will control the events. We need to wait and see.
But Iran’s initial verbal threats against the U.S. are so extensive that they might limit the freedom of decision makers to limit themselves to symbolic responses.
The bitter irony of history is that now Khamenei’s adversaries may wish he makes decisions motivated by an urge to save his throne and avoid becoming involved in a big war against the U.S. Such a war can lead to the destruction and the dissolution of a country and a land called Iran.
Iraqis, both Iran’s friends and foes, are worried about a new war. The ever-present specter of their country becoming a battleground for the United States and Iran is today a serious concern more than it has ever been.
We can hardly imagine rosy days ahead for the peoples of the region. Iran is in its weakest position in recent history and it faces Donald Trump who appears to have set foot into a new era and is willing to ignore Iran’s red lines.