The world waits anxiously for Iran’s response to the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Iran’s leaders wasted little time vowing revenge against the United States, and punctuating those words with symbolic acts designed to inflame the passions of the Iranian people, and of Muslims worldwide. Today, Iran raised a red flag over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque as a representation of a severe battle to come. At this point Iran is almost entirely obligated to retaliate, and Tehran understands this. Soleimani was a senior member of the regime, and largely responsible for the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. His death cannot go unanswered.
As Iran considers its next move, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon are trying to locate clues which might give a hint about what is coming, when, and where. Iran’s fiery rhetoric in the last 24 hours makes it clear emotions are running high. Statements about striking vital US targets have filled the airwaves, and world wide web. Tehran’s first instinct has likely been to strike a high-value, high-visibility US target in the region. An attack that will put the United States, and the world on notice, as well as showcase Iran’s capabilities.
Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, its eyes are bigger than its stomach. If it wants to challenge the US militarily in the Persian Gulf region, the fight will be brief and the end result not in Iran’s favor. Since late spring, the US has been quietly building up its forces in the region in dribs and drabs. A handful of fighters here, a battery of Patriots there. The media has been so obsessed with the impeachment soap opera in Washington that it has barely noticed the movement of forces. Suffice to say, the US has enough hardware on hand around the Persian Gulf to fulfill a host of offensive, and defensive operations should Iran decide to respond militarily, and on a large scale.
On Friday, Iran declared a three-day public mourning period for Soleimani’s death. Once it draws to an close, Iran probably will not waste much time before retaliating. Until then, the waiting game goes on.
President Trump made the right decision in ordering the airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general officer and commander of the Quds force. He was a legitimate target, a man responsible for previous attacks against US interests in the region. The US government was current on Soleimani’s activities, and keenly aware of the reasons for Soleimani’s presence in Baghdad Even more significant than his status as a legitimate target, is the fact that Soleimani was a terrorist responsible for the deaths of Americans. To not take advantage of the opportunity to neutralize him would’ve been irresponsible at the very least. The Trump administration’s handling of Iran has been strikingly different from how the Obama administration dealt with Iran. It’s more than fair to say President Trump’s approach has been far more effective. In this case, the president wasted no time, took decisive action, and dealt a considerable blow to Iran’s Quds force, and to Tehran’s shadowy activities across the region.
Having said all of that, we are going to see an Iranian response and possibly soon. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wasted little time in vowing revenge for the killing of Soleimani. This morning has seen much speculation in media circles as to what form Iranian retaliation will take. This matter has also been analyzed at length on this side of the fence by the US intelligence community, Pentagon, and outside advisers brought in to consult.
In short, the conclusion drawn is that the coming Iranian action will not adversely affect the calculus in the Persian Gulf area for US forces, or national interests. In all likelihood, the response will follow along the same lines of previous action, meaning attacks against US embassies, rocket strikes on bases where US troops are stationed, and perhaps a resumption of strikes against oil tankers operating in the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea. Iran may also seek to punish US allies in the region for what Tehran views as their complicity in the killing of Soleimani. The coming 24-36 hours will reveal much about the direction Iran has chosen.
In any event, it did not take long for 2020 to produce its first geopolitical crisis.
In the last twenty-four hours signs have appeared indicating Iran could potentially be planning a military move somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. The indicators started coming to the surface shortly after it was revealed that a US Navy warship seized a major shipment of Iranian arms headed to the Houthi rebels in Yemen last week. Since then, US military and intelligence officials have been closely analyzing the information coming out of the region and are concluding that Iranian action is possible.
It appears that Iran is using the chaos in Iraq as a cover to secretly move additional short-range ballistic missiles into the country. From points just outside of Baghdad these missiles can be launched against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia respectively. The appearance of missiles in Iraq is not a new development. US intelligence has been warning of their presence since last year, and Israel launched airstrikes to destroy the hidden weaponry. The threat from the short range ballistic missiles is increasing as their numbers have been increasing lately.
Earlier in the week, the Trump administration has hinted that it could be sending additional troops to the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran continue to rise. The size and make up of the new deployment remains to be seen, however, as the week has gone on, it seems certain that new US forces will begin moving to the Gulf in a matter of days in an attempt to strengthen US military options in the region should Iran decide to move.
The Iranians appear to be reacting to the prospect of more US forces in the area. According to reports from media sources, and from inside of the Pentagon, Iran has started moving additional air defense units to Bushehr, site of its sole nuclear reactor, and also the location where a new reactor is under construction. Obviously, the air defenses are being strengthened there to deter the US from launching air and cruise missile strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iran’s national oil company has claimed that one of itsoil tankers in the Red Sea has suffered an explosion, and damage. Initially, Iran claimed the cause of the explosion was a missile strike on the vessel but hours later official accounts had rolled back the missile claim. There has been no indication about whether an oil spill has occurred as a result of the damage, if the ship is on fire, or its overall condition. Late this afternoon, Iranian state television reported the ship is returning to Iran. The contradictory reports and lack of facts have only raised more questions about exactly what happened to the tanker, which. News of the explosion boosted oil prices by around 4%.
Iran is conducting an investigation into the incident. “The details of the attack and the instigators are under investigation and will be announced in due course,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said. Given that Iran has been blamed for the recent missile strike on Saudi oil facilities, I wouldn’t be shocked if Iran discovers it was Saudi Arabia that perpetrated the oil tanker attack in retaliation. I’ll be honest, that was the first thought to cross my mind after seeing the headline this morning.
It’s not as if Iran doesn’t have the men, and equipment to attack an oil tanker, theirs or otherwise. The world has seen Iran carry out attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf this year using limpet mines and explosives planted by IRGC troops, and operatives. The motive for conducting an attack against one of its own ships is certainly present and valid. Tehran would certainly hope an overt attack on an Iranian asset would shift some of the scrutiny away from Iran. You can never put anything past the Iranian government, especially now when it must seem to them as if the walls are closing in. Economic sanctions, US pressure, and Saudi Arabian suspicion are combining to have a decidedly negative effect on the leadership in Tehran.
As the United States military prepares to move additional forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, Iran is threatening to pursue and destroy any aggressor, and that war might be unavoidable. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview on Face The Nation, which will be shown Sunday morning. In it, the diplomat stressed that should a conflict erupt between Iran and the United States, it will not be a limited war. Meanwhile, as the latest US troop movement prepares to get underway, the Pentagon revealed that the mission of the troops is defensive in nature and will focus on air and ballistic missile defense. Assistance was formally requested by the Saudis. Along with the deployment, the US has announced it will be providing additional military hardware to its Gulf allies. The purpose behind this move is simple. Should the current tension bring about a military confrontation, it is in Washington’s best interest for US allies in the Gulf region to be properly equipped and supplied.
On Friday, the Trump administration also raised economic pressure on Iran. A new round of sanctions will target Iran’s national bank, a move that has the potential to cut off Iran’s dwindling access to global markets. When it comes to hard currency, Iran is running short. Further US pressure will make matters worse, and likely spur Tehran to take action similar to last weekend’s attacks sometime in the near future.
The coming week will see a new realm in the US-Iran crisis open up. The UN General Assembly will be underway, and the situation in the Persian Gulf will undoubtedly be a major topic. It remains to be seen if Iran’s leadership will meet with President Trump. Another area to be watched carefully will be US efforts to build an anti-Iran coalition and how successful they are. On Monday, we’ll discuss the UN General Assembly in greater detail.