Iran's Supreme Leader has vowed "harsh vengeance" against the U.S. for killing of his most senior commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq late Thursday night but we should probably not expect an immediate direct confrontation on the ground.
Khamenei must now decide how to respond to an attack that not only killed his top commander but also shattered the myth of the power and invincibility of the Iranian intelligence apparatus in countries where the Qods Force is most active, especially in Iraq.
The Iranian Supreme Leader has always warned about "infiltration of the enemy" and now has to worry about it even more if there is any suspicion Soleimani's movements and plans had been compromised from the inside.
Ali Afshari, an Iran expert and contributor to Radio Farda, believes Iran and its allies in Iraq easily fell into the trap of U.S. forces. The shock of Soleimani's killing has once again demonstrated a "huge ditch" in their intelligence apparatus, he says.
The role of a possible security breach seems too obvious not to be noticed. "We should not overlook the role of the spies posing as friends who informed the Americans of our general's whereabouts," Asr-e Iran, a relatively moderate Iranian news website warned in a commentary on Soleimani's death hours after it was announced.
The circumstances force Khamenei, known among Iranians as a man of vengeance, to show a strong reaction in the face of the great blow he has received from the Americans, who only a few days ago he said "couldn't do a thing" to hurt Iran.
What Khamenei decides to do can bear grave consequences, not only for Iran but also for the whole region and even the world which is anxiously watching for Iran's reaction as the trending of the hashtags #WorldWar3 and #WWIII on Twitter shows.
Reza Haqiqatnejad, an expert on Iran and Radio Farda staff writer, says what makes a decision is difficult is that keeping silent and being passive can irreparably damage the regime propaganda machine while reacting may entail uncontrollable consequences.
But Khamenei is not just vengeful, he is also too shrewd and cunning to fall into the trap set for him. He is not likely to allow the U.S. to force his hand. He knows he is not in too strong a position.
The regime could probably be prepared to go all the way and confront the U.S. military in the past when there was money to support such a venture and a people who could easily be mobilized. Now things are very different.
Iran's Supreme Leader knows that he cannot fight against the world's biggest power when the country is plagued with economic difficulties resulting from U.S. sanction.
He also knows that it is no longer easy to mobilize a population that has increasingly been estranged from the theocratic system and is even prepared to die to make its voice be heard as seen in the November protests. The Iranian society is simply too deeply wounded by the killing of hundreds or maybe even more than a thousand protesters to fight for those who drowned their voices with undue violence.
Khamenei's first step will probably not be immediate large military retaliation, directly or through Iran's proxies in the region, but an extensive propaganda operation in Iran as well as Iraq and Lebanon where he has to show off Iran's influence even more than before by mobilizing its sympathizers to mourn for Soleimani and his companions.
Under Khamenei's guidance Iran may for the time being also carry out smaller-scale attacks against U.S. interests and troops through its proxies across the region to keep the U.S. constantly on its toes. Proxy war against the U.S. is most likely to be the order of the day as before.
In fact, in a second statement on Soleimani's killing the Revolutionary Guards has claimed that a "new chapter and new fronts" will open in the resistance "against Israel and aggressor and occupying American terrorists in the region." The statement also promises the U.S. to "experience" Soleimani's school of thought "across the world" in places that are under its domination and where it is illegitimately present.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Middle East scholar tells Radio Farda, says Iran may save its energy for deepening its influence in Iraq even more than before. Influential Shiite leaders in Iraq who have so far refused to endorse Iran's meddling in Iraqi politics will be under pressure to denounce the killing of Soleimani and not opposing an Iran-friendly prime minister, he says.
Boroujerdi believes that "The regime's decision on how to respond to Soleimani's killing follows the dictum of 'revenge is a dish better served cold'".