The aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads prayers near the coffins of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (Official President's Website/Handout via REUTERS)

Update from AIJAC

Update 01/2020 #01

This Update deals with the aftermath and implications of the US killing of top Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Gen. Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, including the key Iranian responses to date.

We lead with Israeli security analyst Yaakov Lappin looking at the retaliatory Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq yesterday, and what they signal about Iranian plans and intentions. He says it’s clear Iran is now looking to end the current phase of escalation with the US, demonstrating rational cost-benefit analysis, but he also sees numerous signs that Iran is still determined to take on the US and its allies in a different way. In particular, Iran is determined to return to its “comfort zone” of asymmetrical warfare employing proxies, and increase efforts to gain further control over Iraq. For Lappin’s full analysis of Iran’s actions and signals so far,  CLICK HERE.

Next, looking more broadly into the significance of the Solemaini targeted killing is veteran US Middle East analyst Michael Rubin, in a piece written shortly after the attack was announced. Rubin notes Soleimani’s central role in Iran’s international terrorism and says targeted assassinations are often effective, but warns of a likely negative blowback in Iraq, where the attack took place. Rubin also takes on the widespread alarmist comment about possible war with Iran, predicting, correctly as it now appears, that the Soleimani attack would be more likely to restore deterrence and thus prevent widespread violence than provoke a major conflict, and citing historical precedents with Iran to bolster his case. For his complete discussion,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Yonah Jeremy Bob of the Jerusalem Post analyses another Iranian response to the killing – the announcement that Iran will now cease all adherence to the limitations in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Bob says this announcement may actually be much less than meets the eye, both because Iran had already withdrawn from most of the significant obligations of the deal, and it currently does not appear to be doing things –  like kicking out the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors –  which would facilitate a dash to a nuclear bomb. But he does warn that if Iran does take actions of this sort, or starts to enrich uranium to 20%, then that will be a significant and dangerous change and the world will need to act quickly in response. For the rest of what he has to say,  CLICK HERE. Bob also had an important and frightening follow-up story in which former IAEA deputy head Olli Heinonen warns that Iran could quickly place itself only 2 months from a nuclear breakout.

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Iran seeks to end direct clash with America and return to an asymmetrical comfort zone

Tehran doesn’t want outright war; it is relying on the long game in its goal of ejecting U.S. forces from the region and completing its takeover of neighboring Iraq.

BY YAAKOV LAPPIN

The funeral of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds’ Force commander Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran on Jan. 6, 2020. (Photo: Maryam Kamyab, Mohammad Mohsenifar via Wikimedia Commons.)

(January 8, 2020 / JNS) The wave of Iranian ballistic missiles that struck two military bases in Iraq early on Wednesday that house U.S. personnel was a clear Iranian attempt to conclude the current phase of escalation with Washington.

The missiles failed, intentionally or not, to cause any casualties, after days of warnings by Iranian officials saying that U.S. military targets would be hit—possibly an early warning designed to decrease the chance of victims when the strikes actually came.

Still, they were an exhibit of accurate Iranian firepower. Iran’s military industry is mass-producing guided ballistic and cruise missiles, and the attacks were a reminder of Iran’s mounting accurate firepower—used, for the first time and openly, against American targets in the region.

The missile attacks represent a highly calculated move by the Islamic Republic, designed to save face after being knocked back hard by the surprise American airstrike assassination of Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3 in Baghdad.

Despite the fiery rhetoric, the Iranian regime’s leadership—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme National Security Council and the Islamic Republican Guards Corps’ senior command—is capable of a rational cost-benefit analysis. Iran is perfectly aware that comparing its conventional firepower with that of the United States is an almost childish exercise.

Iranian decision-makers have no interest in encountering Tomahawk cruise missiles or B52 bombing raids on military bases and strategic sites in Iranian cities. Tehran understands that it miscalculated in recent weeks, pushed too hard and misread the Trump administration, particularly when it ordered its militia to launch a deadly rocket attack on a U.S. base and ordered mobs to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Despite the apparent de-escalation, the risk of war is far from passing. The Iranians remain on a collision course with the United States in Iraq, but they are likely seeking a return to their comfort zone: proxy operations, outsourced to the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, or plausible deniability attacks on American troops in the future.

Its goal, however, remains unaltered: to eject the Americans from Iraq and complete its takeover of that country, as part of a wider scheme to destabilize the region and move towards violent hegemony. The regime calls this vision “exporting the revolution.” This is a plan that includes the goal of surrounding Israel with heavily armed terror armies. Soleimani was instrumental in trying to achieve this dangerous vision.

He also demonstrated that proxy warfare is the least risky way to proceed for achieving Iran’s radical strategy. Building a network of armed forces and nourishing them with increasingly advanced weapons, cash and orders was his modus operandi.

As the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studied noted in its recent report, “By 2019, Iran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen had become a new normal in a region where such a concept would have once been unthinkable by the region’s leaders, including those in Tehran. Iran had achieved much of this change using a transnational Shia militancy, capable of fighting with varying degrees of skill and discipline, which confronted different Iranian adversaries on disconnected battlefields simultaneously.”

Khamenei speech hints at intentions moving forward

“There is one important issue: What is our role?” asked Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” died down among the regime-organized audience.

Iranian television broadcast his speech on Wednesday, and it was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

“After all,” Khamenei said, “something important has happened.” The United States received a “slap last night,” he said, referring to the missile attacks. “As a response, such military operations are not enough. What’s important is that America’s corrupting presence in the region must come to an end.”’

The audience erupted in chants of “Allah Hu Akbar!” The broadcast is a regime propaganda message, but one that contains real information about Tehran’s intentions moving forward.

The same message is echoing among members of the Iranian-Shi’ite radical camp throughout the Middle East. U.S. soldiers and officers will return home in coffins, threatened Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah during a speech in Beirut a few days after Soleimani’s assassination.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted on Wednesday that “our final answer to his [Soleimani] assassination will be to kick all U.S. forces out of the region.”

‘Attacking foreign entities on Iran’s behalf’

Iran is signalling its intent to revert to asymmetrical combat tactics in the future via its network of proxies. It can also be expected to politically pressure the barely functioning Iraqi government to end all cooperation with the Americans.

The Popular Mobilization Front is an umbrella of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, representing tens of thousands of armed members, and is dominated by organizations that are funded, trained and equipped by Iran. These include Kataib Hezbollah, whose leader, Abu Mahdi Al-Mandis, was killed alongside Soleimani in the American strike.

Kataib Hezbollah, as well as other groups like Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, are essentially Iranian attack pieces that can be activated at any time against America. Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries are also active in Syria, where they have been part of Iran’s attempt to entrench itself and prepare attack bases against Israel.

As the United States Military Academy at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center said in a recent report, such groups “are growing in economic and political power and are attacking foreign entities on Iran’s behalf.” They have encountered growing resistance from Iraqi civilians fed up with their government’s failures and Iran’s meddling. But they remain present and powerful.

Their presence represents a deep infiltration of Iraq by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. So while Iran may have taken a step back from the brink with the Trump administration for now—opting for the patient game of continuing to build up its network of terror armies and political influence—the Iranian takeover plan remains in place.

As a result, the situation in the region will remain highly explosive, with the smallest tactical incidents being able to snowball into general war—whether any side wants it or not.

Israel has not been a part of this latest escalation, but remains on high alert. The same Iranian-Shi’ite bloc in the region poses the most severe threat to its security from multiple directions.

The challenges facing the Jewish state are not decreasing, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated on Wednesday, adding that those who seek to attack Israel will absorb a crushing counterstrike, he warned.

Blue and White Party leader and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz offered a similar warning, saying, “The Iranian attack on American bases again proves that Iran is a threat to world peace and Middle Eastern stability. The IDF is the most powerful military in the region, and I would not recommend for anyone to drag us into an incident that is not tied to us, and to test us.”

If such a provocation did occur, he said, “I am convinced that the response will be powerful, severe and unequivocal.”


Qassem Soleimani Is Dead: What You Need To Know And What Happens Next

 

Soleimani and Muhandis were targets of opportunity, and Trump took the decision to strike at them. It would be foolish, however, to ignore there will be an aftermath and many second and third-order effects.

by Michael Rubin

The National Interest, January 4, 2020

An MQ-9 reaper drone of the sort reported having targeted Soleimani with a hellfire missile. 

Qassem Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any terrorist leader since Osama Bin Laden. No one should mourn his death.

In Iran, however, and certainly without moral equivalence, he was a revered figure like former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a man who advocated for the troops and was not afraid to mix with them. Inside Iran, he pulled as the most popular or second most popular figure over the course of years. As successive U.S. administrations repeatedly dropped the ball on any informational strategy to accompany the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military approach, he filled a vacuum which capitalized on Iranian nationalism. He may be the man largely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Syria, but Iranians saw him as the man figure who defeated the Islamic State.

Many Gulf Arabs interpreted his cultivation of a cult of personality as perhaps the forebearer of a decision to one day seek Iran’s presidency. Those discussions can now, thankfully, be put to rest. But amidst the political cheering, it is imperative to acknowledge how much his death may have changed the operational environment and diplomacy.

Fear of Retaliation Acknowledges Much More:

Much of the discussion with regard to the killing of Iranian Qods Force head Qassem Soleimani focuses on possible Iranian retaliation. That Iran and its component Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has become forces with global reach is belied by the fact that it has so many possible avenues to retaliate. Iran—and its proxies in Hezbollah—have tapped into the Lebanese Shi’ite Diaspora community as far away as South America and West Africa in order to carry out operations previously. The IRCG or Hezbollah have also conducted attacks previously in Thailand, Georgia, and Bulgaria. In 2006, an IRGC member successfully albeit briefly infiltrated the Arkansas National Guard and, in 2010, the Qods Force attempted an attack in the heart of Washington, DC.

Retaliation will come—it is the Iranian way—but targeted assassinations often work: Soleimani was no mere placeholder but represented decades of accumulated wisdom, experience, and personal relations which will not be easy for the IRGC to replace. Added into the mix is the fact that over the last two years, the Islamic Republic has also seen turnover at the top of the IRGC itself, the IRGC Navy, and Iran’s regular navy. As President Trump has drawn new redlines—attacking U.S. personnel and embassy as an act for which there will be no impunity—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must recognize that he can no longer assume that he may one day not also be targeted given his role as commander-in-chief.

Empowering Iran in Iraq:

The greatest victim in the near term is Iraq and the U.S. presence there. Wittingly or not, Trump made two decisions. The first was to kill Soleimani. The second was to do so without subtlety. When the Iranians killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 in Beirut, they did so with a massive bomb for which there could have been multiple suspects, including Hezbollah. Likewise, when the Israelis targeted Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008, they also did so in a way that allowed them to maintain plausible deniability. Neither Iran nor Israel claimed credit for eliminating their opponents. By using an American drone and then tweeting out first an American flag and then a triumphalist statement, Trump has left no doubt as to responsibility for Soleimani’s death. In effect, he put the political need to claim credit on par with the strategic advantage of eliminating an enemy when in reality the former should subordinate itself to the latter.

A funeral procession in Iraq for Solemaini and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi militia commander killed with him – both resented by many in Iraq, but nationalist Iraqis nonetheless resent their killing on Iraqi soil. 

That Soleimani was killed alongside the equally culpable Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis roils Iraqis. Many Iraqis increasingly resented both figures, especially after together they were responsible for the deaths of up to 1,000 protestors across Iraq since October 1, 2019. But Iraqis are nationalist and even pro-American Iraqis can not defend American military operations targeting an Iraqi military official in Muhandis’ case on Iraqi soil. As for Soleimani, many Iraqis will not shed tears—in Nasiriya, protestors mocked the Iranian general’s death by giving a funeral procession to a garbage can—but would have preferred any American action occur outside Iraq rather than treat Iraqi like a battlefield on which to play out the U.S-Iran rivalry.

As a result, few Iraqis are now going to be able to resist demands that Iran’s partisans are sure to raise that American forces leave the country. This does not mean American forces need to leave—most are outside populated areas and focused on training and counter-Islamic State operations—but Trump’s gut reaction appears to want to bring troops home and so he may simply conflate the protestors of the moment with more permanent Iraqi sentiment. U.S. forces in Iraq should not fight Iran—that is not their purpose—but their very presence allows Iraqi leaders to carve out independent space by playing the Iranians and Americans off each other. To withdrawal American forces simply cedes Iraq to Iran against the wishes of most Iraqis, even those who do not particularly care for the United States either. That this dynamic plays out against the backdrop of a political crisis and lame-duck government in Baghdad gives Iran the opportunity to exponentially increase its influence.

Restoring Deterrence:

There is much handwringing in Washington that the death of Soleimani means war with Iran; it does not. If anything, Iran’s seizure of the U.S embassy in 1979 and its repeated attacks on American personnel—in contravention to its diplomatic agreement negotiated with the United States in Geneva in 2003—are the actions of a state conducting a one-sided war against the United States. Restraint does not always bring peace.

In 1987, President Reagan ordered the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers. Shortly after, the SS Bridgeton, a reflagged tanker, struck an Iranian mine. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, today considered a reformist leader, commented it was “an irreparable blow on America’s political and military prestige.” Iranian blustered increased until, the following year, President Ronald Reagan ordered Operating Praying Mantis after the Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine. That skirmish escalated into one of the largest surface naval engagements since World War II and led to the decimation of the Iranian Navy and Air Force.

“Operation Praying Mantis” in 1988 was a US-Iranian conflict which saw the decimation of the Iranian Navy and Air Force, and deterred further Iranian attacks for many years. 

Iranian leaders blustered then as now, but refrained from attacking the United States directly for years after until the generation of military officials who experienced that day slowly rose through the rank and retired. Since Operation Iraqi Freedom, the IRGC has pushed and prodded at America, seeking to determine where the line was drawn at which the United States would respond. On Friday, they found it.

Some analysts now question whether Soleimani’s death raises a standard for deterrence. Will every Iranian figure plotting the deaths of Americans be killed? Alternatively, some Afghans have asked why, if Trump can kill Soleimani for his actions against Americans, why the U.S. military cannot target Pakistani figures supporting the Taliban? It is a good question, but the desire for consistency misunderstands deterrence. Not only was killing Soleimani a long-time coming, but deterrence can mean not the certainty of U.S. action but just instilling in opponents’ minds the idea that there is a possibility they could suffer such consequences.

Soleimani and Muhandis were targets of opportunity, and Trump took the decision to strike at them. It would be foolish, however, to ignore there will be an aftermath and many second and third-order effects. It is imperative that the U.S. national security bureaucracy alongside Congress now work overtime on a nonpartisan, broad strategy to contain the negative and exploit the positive. Just as Bin Laden’s death wasn’t just the result of Obama but built upon policies and information derived under Bush, so too was there broad bipartisan work to counter Soleimani. U.S. security and defense against those seeking to kill Americans should be a bipartisan endeavor, and not just a topic for cable new polarity.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.


The Islamic republic’s announcement on Sunday that it had ended all restrictions on uranium enrichment was the least significant violation to date.


By YONAH JEREMY BOB 

Jerusalem Post, JANUARY 6, 2020 22:16

Now that Iran has tossed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, the world needs to prepare for the bumpy, ever-escalating avalanche toward a conflict that could be not only between the United States and Iran, but that might also include Israel.

Or do we really need to get ready?

Iranian President Rouhani reviewing centrifuges – Iran now says it will cease adhering to any of the nuclear deal restrictions.  

The Islamic Republic’s announcement on Sunday that it had ended all restrictions on uranium enrichment was the least significant violation to date.

One might ask: Is the country racing toward a nuclear bomb?

The answer is not so clear, and it depends on several factors.

There are two other announcements that would mean a dash toward a nuclear bomb: either that Iran is enriching its uranium to a much higher percentage (at least 20% or higher), or that Tehran is reattaching and activating many of its centrifuges. This would be especially indicative if it includes more of its second-generation IR-2m centrifuges.

A third announcement, that it was kicking out the IAEA inspectors, might also show that Iran was making a dash. But Iranian officials specifically said they would keep the inspectors.

If Iran announces any of the above additional escalations in the coming days, then real trouble is brewing.

If not, and if Iran continues to allow the international nuclear watchdog to observe its centrifuges, then nothing has effectively changed.

In fact, the Islamic Republic’s previous four violations dating back to May 2019 had already removed nearly all the uranium-enrichment restrictions, and the only question was how far Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would decide to take the country’s program.

After Sunday night’s announcement, we still do not know the answer to that question.

We do know that if IAEA inspectors remain on site, then we will have regular tracking of how much closer Tehran is getting to a nuclear bomb. This will allow us both to prepare, if necessary, but also to be able to act – with restraint – if its policy of inching forward continues.

It is still quite possible from Sunday’s announcement that Iran will wait to see who wins the November 3, 2020, US presidential elections before it decides whether to move closer to enriching enough uranium for a bomb.

None of this should make Israel or the US feel more secure, of course.

Any potential preemptive-strike plans on Iranian nuclear facilities need to be as ready as ever. But for now, those plans can still confidently be put off for months, probably for at least a year, and maybe indefinitely.

Still, at least as of Sunday night, Iran’s nuclear response to the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani was a lot of bluster with little substance.

The question then shifts to what other actions Khamenei may order, such as attacks on US assets in Iraq, Syria and other hot spots overseas.