Advertisement Close

Bahbah: Iran’s Retaliatory Options to Soleimani’s Assassination

posted on: Jan 8, 2020

Bahbah: Iran’s Retaliatory Options to Soleimani’s Assassination
Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Kerman, Iran, Tuesday. (Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

By Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

Last Friday, the United States assassinated Iran’s most important and most visible military commander, the head of the Quds Brigade, along with a powerful Iraqi militia leader who was also a government official.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised: “hard revenge” for the killing of Maj. General Soleimani.

Yesterday morning, Wednesday, Iraq’s time, Tehran launched “tens” of surface-to-surface missiles at Iraq’s Ain Assad airbase that houses US troops.  There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.

Even though Iran possesses at least 10 possible options at its disposal to retaliate, it would seem that Iran will be forced to limit its options of retaliation as it is much more vulnerable to a US counterattack.

First and foremost, Iran, after years of sanctions and isolation, is a weak country militarily. The strongest weapon system at its disposal is its arsenal of deadly missiles which have grown in accuracy and potency over time.  Additionally, Iran has developed a significant arsenal of deadly drones that have exceeded in their effectiveness the expectations of any foreign estimates.  Iran’s attack last September on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq processing plant that crippled the plant and deprived the world of 5 percent of the world’s oil supply, was a clear indication of what Iran has become capable of doing.

With no air force or a navy to protect it, Iran’s oil installations, its nuclear facilities, its military bases, as well as its leadership are exposed to a vengeful US retaliatory attack against any Iranian military actions in retaliation for the killing of General Soleimani.

Before outlining whatever retaliatory actions Iran may take, those actions cannot be:

Bahbah: Iran’s Retaliatory Options to Soleimani’s Assassination

  • Easily tracked back to Iran
  • “Kill Americans,” as President Trump has declared that to be a “red line”
  • Flagrant enough as to elicit an immediate US military action

So, what are Iran’s options of retaliation that would not trigger a massive US military response?

Bahbah: Iran’s Retaliatory Options to Soleimani’s Assassination

  1. Cyberwarfare:  Cyber-attacks can be used to create disruptive effects that can impact millions.  In a computer-dependent world, hackers can disrupt air traffic, shut down transportation networks, open dams, target US and international banks, and target US government agencies and private corporations.  In February 2014, Iran hacked Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Casino that ruined three-quarters of his servers and cost some $40 million to repair the damage Iran caused.
  2. Attack via its Proxies: Soleimani spent years cultivating Iran’s proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen.  Those proxies are armed and could launch attacks and claim responsibility for those attacks against US targets and US allies.  Their targets could be oil installations, oil tankers, the Strait of Hormuz, as well as US facilities.
  3. Activate Sleeper Cells: Presumably, Iran has sleeper cells in Europe and the United States.  These could be activated to cause harm to people and installations in those countries.
  4. Attack US Allies: An attack on Saudi Arabia, Israel, or the UAE is not necessarily an attack on US personnel.  These are easier targets than the United States and would not elicit a major military response from the United States.
  5. Targeted Assassinations: Iran’s agents throughout the world – and its reach is global – could target persons of interest to the United States yet, not necessarily, Americans.  The idea of those targeted assassinations is to instill terror in anyone or any government that considers itself an ally or a friend of the United States.
  6. Lay Mines in the Arab/Persian Gulf: Those mines as we have seen from mines that damaged Saudi and Emirati ships are inexpensive and abundantly available.  They are small and could be transported easily in small boats and dropped in the Gulf or even in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran has already taken retaliatory measures against the United States.

Bahbah: Iran’s Retaliatory Options to Soleimani’s Assassination

These measures have included:

  1. Encouraging Iraq to Demand the Withdrawal of US/Foreign Troops from Iraq: The Iraqi Parliament has already passed last Sunday a non-binding resolution demanding the government to expel all foreign troops from Iraq.  Iraq’s prime minister has asked the United States to withdraw its troops “to avoid further escalation as tensions soar between the United States and Iran.”  Trump has responded by stating that it was not the right time to withdraw from Iraq because a pullout would be the worst thing that could happen to Iraq as Iran would end up dominating the country.
  2. Iran Declared that it was no Longer “Bound by the Iran Nuclear Deal:” Iran’s declaration was a sign that, given the US sanctions against Iran and Europe’s powerlessness to help Iran, that diplomacy should take a back seat and any further negotiations are futile given the US’s assassination of General Soleimani.
  3. Iran-Backed Militias Fighting ISIS has Turned their Guns Against the United States: The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq has been forced to suspend its campaign against ISIS to protect itself from possible Iranian retaliation either directly (as has happened this morning) or indirectly by the Iran-backed militias.

By deciding to assassinate Maj. General Soleimani, instead of retaliating for the death of the American contractor who was killed in Iraq through less provocative actions, Trump has refocused the US mission in Syria/Iraq and the Gulf from defeating ISIS and protecting allies to an open-ended and multifront fight against an array of Sunni and Shia extremists.  Additionally, by assassinating Gen. Soleimani, the United States has made itself a more attractive target for a broad assortment of adversaries.

Time will tell how and when will Iran truly exact its revenge for the assassination of its beloved general.  But, when the retaliation comes, it will undoubtedly hurt the United States.




Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security.  He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author




Check out our Blog here!