Iran vs. U.S.: War in progress, shaped by Soleimani, goes on without him

Iran has lost its chief architect of regional influence to a U.S. airstrike, but rather than spark a new war, this new round of violence is an escalation of a war in progress.

Assassination sends shockwaves, but the Iran-U.S. conflict is a long game

Iraqis mourn during the funeral procession of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, and eight others, in Kadhimiya, a Shia pilgrimage district of Baghdad, on Saturday. (Sabah Arar/AFP via Getty Images)

The protests, the fleeing foreigners, the promises of revenge — in the span of a few hours, the aftermath of Qassem Soleimani's assassination by the U.S. started to look like a prelude to war.

Iran will no doubt retaliate for the loss of an influential military and political strategist, its "unofficial foreign minister." It's about much more than payback; it's a matter of saving face, of rallying Iranians anew against a foreign enemy.

And it's just a matter of time.

Had he not been the target of Friday morning's airstrike, the general would have been central to deciding exactly how Iran's revenge should unfold.

Rather than spark a new war, however, this new round of violence is an escalation of a war in progress. For Iran, it is largely an asymmetrical war to extend influence, a war whose tone and direction Soleimani helped to set using decades of experience on the battlefield. And it is an approach that Iran won't be keen on changing even after losing its chief architect.

Why? For one — dire warnings aside — the prospect of an all-out war is likely to be hemmed in by political realities (and elections this year) in both Iran and the U.S. For his part, Donald Trump promised to end U.S. involvement in Middle East wars.

Iran, meanwhile, is fighting its own internal political battles, including an ongoing war for supremacy between more moderate forces that advocated diplomacy with the West, and a hardline constituency that prefers confrontation and an adversarial relationship especially with the U.S.

Mourners surround a car carrying the coffins of Iranian military commander Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief al-Muhandis. (Sabah Arar/AFP via Getty Images)

The latter enjoyed a boost when Trump announced the U.S. was withdrawing from a deal Iran agreed with major world powers to curb its nuclear activity. The re-imposition of sanctions has dented an Iranian economy already riddled by corruption and stale leadership.

Disillusioned by Iran's focus abroad — spearheaded by Soleimani in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — and by a failing economy, Iranians erupted in protest last November in 28 of the country's 31 provinces. Iranian forces quickly clamped down in violence unlike anything seen since the 1979 revolution that ushered in Shia Muslim clerical rule.

And now parliamentary elections are fast approaching. The climate, and the supreme leader, will likely favour the hardliners, who held up Soleimani, 62, as a national hero and a possible presidential contender.

With all this at play, Iran's leadership can hardly afford open, direct confrontation.

Soleimani's own war began in the '80s during the Iran-Iraq conflict. His war spilled over Iran's borders into Lebanon when he helped Hezbollah wage asymmetric warfare against occupying Israeli troops — which eventually withdrew. He was then side by side in Beirut's southern suburbs with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 conflict with Israel.

Ally of Syrian president

Most recently, he marshalled Iran-loyal militias into Syria to brutally prop up Bashar al-Assad's regime, costing the lives of untold thousands of civilians. He was also instrumental in helping Iraqi militia fight off ISIS.

The U.S. killing of Iranian Maj.-Gen. Soleimani, pictured in 2016, has stoked fears that tensions in Middle East could escalate drastically. (Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press)

Since the U.S. called off the nuclear deal, a new-old war between Iran and the U.S. festered again, with Soleimani helping direct the series of tit-for-tat attacks on U.S. interests and allies.

Underlying Soleiman's overarching war is a quest to extend and cement Iran's influence, from Lebanon, all the way to Iraq.

As Iran's armed diplomat, one who also spoke Arabic fluently, Soleimani was an effective regional instrument, honing a network of proxies to advance Iran's interests. When Western powers criticized Iran's regional meddling, they effectively meant him.

And yet while he was head of Quds Force, the elite and secretive military unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, he seemed to operate freely.

Now, even as it visibly reverberates in the Middle East and beyond, his elimination won't appreciably alter Iran's overall approach — which is calculated to expand its regional influence while seeking to avoid direct confrontation.

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest in Tehran on Friday against the killing of the Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and al-Muhandis. (West Asia News Agency/Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters)

Soleimani, "wasn't the only person in the Revolutionary Guards who built such personal relationships, as the Western news media tends to depict. Far from it," Prof. Narges Bajoghli, from Johns Hopkins University, who has researched Iran's Revolutionary Guards for a decade, wrote in the New York Times.

"We can expect retaliation across the region. But the killing will not in itself weaken the Revolutionary Guards or Iran's role in the region," Bajoghli said.

Soleimani's deputy has already been named as successor.

And Iran will act, inspired by a number of options available that have already been previously deployed in its — and Soleimani's — ongoing war.

Many possibilities for revenge

"Iran's advantage is in the asymmetric sphere, so rocket attacks, bombings, assassinations and even attacks like the missile assault on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 are all possible responses," said Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a non-partisan think-tank in Washington.

Possible targets for Iran are also in plentiful supply, and nearby: U.S. bases in and around the region, embassies, businesses — perhaps even individuals. The only big question is whether any attack will be direct, or through proxies.

Loyal militias in Iraq could act. The Iraqi government, aggrieved over the latest U.S. breach of its sovereignty, could demand an end to its continued presence.

Another favourite tool in Iran's active arsenal — cyberattacks.

It's already been a painful war, and will continue to be so. Even as Iran promises a response, both countries will seek to contain that war because anything different is detrimental to their interests.

Trump promised his decision to have Soleimani killed was to "stop war, not to start war." The veracity of that claim will be tested by how the U.S. and Iran respond to each other's attacks.

"One can only hope that … this perilous tit-for-tat will be relatively contained and of relatively short duration," said Robert Malley, president and CEO of the Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to conflict resolution.

"One can only hope. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.