For decades Iran thrived on its ability to slowly build up powerful proxies across the Middle East, often with Soleimani playing a key role in knitting together groups from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq. His death may harm the symphony of Iranian power that he projected like a conductor. Still, the general opinion is that Iran must respond. “The pressure on Tehran to retaliate for the loss of such a towering figure will be immense,” argues a writer for the Times of London.
Iran has lost other key allies to assassinations in the past. Imad Mughniyeh, the second in command of Hezbollah and a key ally of Soleimani, was killed in Syria in 2008. U.S. and Israeli intelligence reportedly led to his killing. It is particularly interesting that Soleimani, in a recent interview about his role in the 2006 war that Hezbollah launched against Israel, spoke about how he and Mughniyeh and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah had worked closely together. Now two of the three are dead. There was supposed to be a massive Hezbollah retaliation for the death of Mughniyeh, but it never materialized. Similarly, Israel’s Operation Black Belt in November against the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza started with the targeted killing of Baha Abu al-Ata. Islamic Jihad retaliated with rocket fire, which Israel easily intercepted.
Iran is capable of spreading chaos across the Middle East, but it must choose wisely what to do next. Its assets include Hezbollah, Syrian-based militias that work for the Assad regime and Iran, and more than 100,000 members of pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran has also transferred advanced missiles and drones to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In addition, the Shiite militias in Iraq, called Popular Mobilization Units, have received ballistic missiles from Iran in August 2018 and in 2019. However, missiles don’t win wars. Hezbollah has an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets and missiles, but it lacks much of the precision guidance that would make them a strategic threat to Israel. Iran has drones, like those used to attack Saudi Arabia in September, and it has cruise missiles and swarms of small boats it uses to harass shipping.
However, none of Iran’s technology, nor its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is the threat that they have been made out to be, at least to an adversary that actually wants to confront Iran. Iran’s threat is more in its willingness to use force when its adversaries don’t want to be attacked. That is why tactics such as the kidnapping of academics, or the waylaying of a U.K.-flagged tanker, are its preferred methods. When it has used its precision missiles, it was against ISIS and a Kurdish dissident group. Soleimani masterminded several small attacks from Syria on Israel, including a failed drone attack in August, three rocket attacks in 2019, and one rocket salvo in 2018. In response, Israel hit 54 targets in Syria in 2019, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Israel has launched more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
If one adds up the balance of attacks, Iran is generally the loser when it chooses to fight militarily. Soleimani’s genius was in building Iran’s influence, mostly among Shiites. This meant arming militias, usually with small arms and some up-armored vehicles. It meant laying the groundwork for Iranian weapons trafficking, such as drones or even air defense and ballistic missiles. But claims that Soleimani was like Nazi-era tank commander Erwin Rommel would be true only if Rommel hadn’t used tanks and had just had an armed militia trying to gain influence in North Africa.
The narrative behind the Iran deal was that if there was no deal, there would be war. This is predicated on the notion that war is the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear program. However, despite decades of work on its nuclear program, Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon. It’s not clear it ever wanted one. It wanted a deal that would give it cover for its larger agenda to dominate Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. It thrives on threats. It judiciously uses attacks to harass and intimidate. But Iran does not want war. Iran’s regime knows that a major war will result in its collapse. Iran’s regime murdered 1,500 protesters in November precisely because they fear the rising anger of average people in Iran. Where was the spontaneous outpouring of anger over Soleimani’s death? There were no million-man protests in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, of people rushing to the streets. They waited for the regime or their militia commanders to tell them how to protest. This is evidence that Iran’s role may be weakening and that even though it will respond, it must decide wisely how to do so.