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Prepare for “deniable” attacks by Iran in the months ahead

The ease with which Qasem Solemaini shuttled around his Middle East fiefdoms was a measure of his perceived omnipotence. He taunted his enemies by posting selfies on social media, flaunting his ability to control events in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

Like a mafia don, he seemed untouchable. A long list of foes wanted him eliminated, but few had the resources to implement the hit and handle the blowback that would inevitably come from Iran. The US said its decision to kill Soleimani was an act of self-defence in order to avert a clear and present danger. Soleimani had already deployed his powerful Iraqi Shia militia allies to attack US forces, killing an American contractor and storming the US embassy compound in Baghdad on December 31. The incident had ominous echoes of the US hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979 and the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in 2012.

Although the US has increased the pressure on Iran since it withdrew from the JCPOA nuclear deal in May 2018, the Solemaini killing was a bolt out the blue. Despite the tough talk from Washington, Trump had until now relied entirely on sanctions, using US financial muscle to punish Iran. US allies in the region in general, and Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular, had become increasingly alarmed at Trump’s reluctance to respond to Iran’s aggressive activity, fearing Iran was no longer sufficiently deterred and that a dangerous escalation was imminent.

Then, in 2019, Iran began violating the terms of the nuclear deal. It breached restrictions on uranium stockpiles, increased the purity of enriched uranium and started to spin advanced centrifuges at the Fordow nuclear facility. Iran was also involved in attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf; it disrupted international shipping lanes and in July seized the UK-flagged tanker, Stena Impero.

In June, Iran shot down a US drone, and in September it was blamed for attacking Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais with drones and cruise missiles. This was not the behaviour of a weakened regime cowering under US pressure. Instead, Iran was testing the US response, showcasing its sophisticated military capability without paying a price.

Furthermore, as the leader of Iran’s elite IRGC Quds Force, Soleimani was the architect of a complex strategy to project Iranian power across the Middle East by building a network of militias and terrorist organisations to influence and dominate politics in key states and attack Iran’s enemies.

Soleimani began his career working with Kurdish and Shia militias to fight Saddam Hussein in Iraq. After more than 20 years running the Quds force, he controlled Shia militias in Syria, financed and armed the Houthis in Yemen, Shia militias in Iraq, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and built Hezbollah into the most dangerous non-state actor in the world. For three years, he has been trying to supply Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias with precision-guided missiles, like the ones Iran used to attack Iraqi bases with US personnel on January 8.

But despite Soleimani’s near-mythical status, this missile mission was exposed to the long arm of Israeli intelligence and thwarted by hundreds of Israeli airstrikes on Iranian bases and their allies in Syria, Iraq and a drone strike on Hezbollah’s missile project in Beirut.

Soleimani played a crucial role in saving the Assad regime, placing his militias in a command structure with Russian air power to crush the Sunni rebellion with brutal efficiency. In the last months of his life he sought to preserve political allies in Lebanon and Iraq as they crumbled in the face of protests over corruption and failed governance. In Iraq, he enforced tactics of extreme violence against protestors, resulting in the deaths of more than 500 civilians.

Iran’s official retaliation for Soleimani’s death was to fire missiles at Iraqi bases housing US personnel, perhaps intended as a show of force without causing fatalities. The unofficial response will likely play out in the months ahead with a series of deniable attacks on the US and its allies, carried out by the vast terrorist network that Soleimani built, which is untested and unpredictable without him at the helm, but still heavily reliant on Soleimani’s successor to provide Iranian weapons and cash to survive.