The world is rightly anxious about Tehran’s response to Donald Trump’s assassination of its national hero, Qassim Soleimani, because Iran is a ruthless terrorist state now spoiling to avenge the ultimate Shia hardliner’s death.
How, when and where Tehran will lash out against the U.S. or western interests is impossible to predict. The one certainty is that there will be payback.
Such was Soleimani’s stature and influence that whatever Iran or its Shia proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are ordered to do, once the reprisals begin they will be far more than an eye for an eye.
Fear of the Iranian response is one of the reasons why the U.S. and others had never taken action against Soleimani, although American presidents have obsessed about how to deal with zealots in the Shia leadership since that night 40 years ago this April when Jimmy Carter’s embassy hostage rescue misadventure ended in a cloud of dust and a tangle of mammoth Sea Stallion helicopters far short of Tehran.
Notorious killers such as Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, the Taliban’s one-eyed Mullah Omar and Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were taken down for their many crimes. Soleimani — despite having the blood of many more people on his hands and leading a far more public life — had had his life spared until early Friday morning.
Unlike that rogue’s gallery of killers, Soleimani was never a freelance terrorist or the leader of an independent group. He was a general and senior diplomat who killed on behalf of the Iranian state.
One of civilized society’s odd enduring conventions is that no matter how vile someone’s behaviour, if he or she holds a senior government job, diplomatic niceties must be respected. That was especially so for someone who was effectively Iran’s second most powerful politician.
So, despite his odious reputation, Soleimani was allowed to survive and thrive. With every fresh murder he gained more prestige among Shia jihadis. He planned Hezbollah’s rocket barrages against Israel, helped keep Bashir al-Assad in power in Syria, masterminded a pitiless civil war in Yemen, dispatched gangs of terrorists to Europe and directed the murders of scores of American soldiers. The last is why Donald Trump said he finally acted, although the targeted killing of Americans by Iran and its followers has gone on for years.
Observing diplomatic niceties even about thugs such as Soleimani is particularly important to countries such as Canada. It may explain Ottawa’s tepid response to his death.
Justin Trudeau has been silent about the death of the world’s number one terrorist — who has notches in his belt for murders he planned as far away as Argentina — although aides insist that the prime minister was being kept closely informed while continuing his surfing vacation in Costa Rica.
Francois-Philippe Champagne, the new foreign minister, did little better. He provided an empty statement about how all sides should “exercise restraint and pursue de-escalation,” that Canada’s “goal is and remains a united and stable Iraq” and most vacuous of all, that the government was “in touch with our international partners. The safety and well-being of Canadians in Iraq and the region, including our troops and diplomats, is our paramount concern.”
It does not help that Trudeau, Champagne and former foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, who keeps her eye on everything, do not between them have a jot of experience in the Middle East. But Canada is blessed with a strong cadre of military officers and some diplomats and intelligence officials who have a good understanding of the region’s history, factions, tribes, cultural and religious nuances and military capabilities.
There has been much speculation at home about the dangers that Canada’s 250 or so military trainers might now face there. The truth is that almost all those troops come from bases at home that are probably less secure than the HESCO-walled fortresses they inhabit in Iraq. As for a smaller number of crack Canadian Special Forces troops whose mission details have never been discussed, they are expected to take care of themselves and to withdraw if things get too hot.
U.S. forces are more exposed because there are far more of them and they are far more spread out across Iraq and not always in heavily fortified bases. Iraqi Shias will be keener to go after them because it was an American president and an American drone that killed their beloved Soleimani.
While the Canadians trainers face relatively little risk as they continue teaching battlefield medicine and ways to find and defuse homemade bombs, urgent discussions that took place in Ottawa and at NATO headquarters in Brussels have suddenly led to the probably prudent temporary suspension of the Canadian-led training mission. There have undoubtedly also been discussions about possible escape plans for troops that are part of what Ottawa calls Operation Impact. Such plans would become much more pertinent should the US decide to abandon its sometimes besieged embassy in Baghdad.
A bigger risk to the NATO training mission led by Maj.-Gen. Jenny Carignan is the alliance’s prickly relationship with the Iraqi government. If it deteriorates further, the trainers and their well-regarded commander, Carignan, a genial, highly-regarded combat engineer and Kandahar veteran from Quebec, and the multinational trainers she commands could be ordered by Baghdad to leave.
The most vulnerable Canadians in Iraq and across the Middle East are civilians, most of whom are oil workers operating in isolated places. Though they have guards, they would be no match for heavily armed, highly motivated Shia militias who know the lay of the land and would have the element of surprise.
Iran has already said it will strike back though It has not hinted at how it might try to do this.
It is highly unlikely the Iranians would try to go toe-to-toe with U.S. forces. Other than a couple of dozen somewhat new Russian warplanes, Iran’s frontline fighters, ironically, are 50-year old Vietnam-era U.S.-made F-4 Phantoms and 30-year old U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats. Its navy is not much better.
Still, Iran has some superb Russian-made radars and anti-ship missiles that worry the U.S. Navy, and has demonstrated an ability to swarm U.S. warships with dozens of small boats. But the U.S. is thought to have developed countermeasures and tactics that may nullify these threats.
It is far more likely that Iran will have its ultra-loyal Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon launch mass rocket attacks on Israel, start a civil war against Iraqi Sunnis or try to incite a wider regional war by firing missiles from Iran into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms. It could turn the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen up a notch or blow up an oil tanker or two in the narrow Strait of Hormuz to stop oil and gas exports from getting out of the Persian Gulf. This would cause chaos in world markets.
Iran is also adept at cyber warfare. That may be the way to start a campaign against the U.S. and its allies, later punctuated by major terrorist attacks that get a lot of media attention and create a climate of fear and hysteria.
But Iran’s most dependable tactic was and remains terrorism.
Either directly or by tapping Hezbollah, it could deploy killing teams almost anywhere but especially to Europe, which has few defences against them, or to hostile neighbouring states that are relatively easy to infiltrate. Murdering or capturing western tourists in places such as Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt are real possibilities, too.
Also hard to divine is Donald Trump’s order of battle beyond the obvious. More U.S. combat troops are already on their way, fighter jets and heavy bombers will likely be dispatched to friendly bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and U.S. Navy assault ship and escort ships are joining the fleet that is always on watch in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman while submarines will be drawing close enough to be able to cruise missiles.
President Trump is not renowned for strategic planning or playing the long game. He tends to consider and make key decisions in the time it takes him to walk from the clubhouse to the first tee without much apparent thought as to what might come next.
Iran is far more patient. The coming killing spree triggered by Qassim Soleimani’s assassination may take many forms and occur over many months, even years. It could also begin today or tomorrow with a bloody revenge attack almost anywhere on earth.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.