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‘Billion dollar question:’ How is Iran likely to respond to Soleimani’s killing?

Mounting tensions between the U.S. and Iran
Mounting tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The world is now wondering how Iran might retaliate after its top general was killed in a U.S. airstrike.

Qassem Soleimani was targeted by a U.S. airstrike as he was being driven to the airport in Baghdad, resulting in Iran vowing to avenge his death. Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council on Friday that his country reserves the right to self-defence under international law. 

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The U.S. Defense Department has justified the killing, saying the 62-year-old general “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

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READ MORE: Here’s how the Strait of Hormuz could factor into Iran’s retaliation

Iran response

So how is Iran likely to respond? Experts say that’s the most popular question in the world right now.

That’s the billion dollar question,” said Dennis Horak, former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. 

Iran will “be looking very closely at this,” he said. “They need to respond in a strong way.” But the country will likely pause and reflect on how far they can go.

“I think it’s likely the response may target American assets, which could be problematic,” Horak said. “Or they may decide to act in the region as we’ve seen before.”

Last summer, there were attacks on oil tankers in the region, with the U.S. blaming Iran while the latter denied involvement. The U.S. also blamed Iran for attacks on a Saudi oil refinery last fall, which the country also denied.

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Either way, Iran is going to be “weighing various options and deciding whether they want to respond and risk escalation, or respond and be able to tick that box and move on. I’m not sure they know yet.”

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Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Doha Centre, says while there is some urgency to respond, Iran has “no good options — only poor ones.”

“One is that an all-out war which would potentially jeopardize regime survival,” he said.

Retaliating in the Persian Gulf could impact oil flows, putting their own oil income at risk, making it a “not very likely scenario.” The most likely options are responding in some way in Iraq or Lebanon, Fathollah-Nejad said.

“Yet in both cases, there are also costs associated with it,” he said. 

READ MORE: Here are some of the reasons behind rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran

Iraq or Lebanon?

For instance, if Iran retaliates in Lebanon via Hezbollah, “this would cement the impression of Hezbollah being a caretaker of Iranian interests rather than Lebanese ones, so this would help further undermine Iranian power and influence in Lebanon down the road.”

And while Iraq is the arena where Iran likely feels the most confident, there have been ongoing protests there since October last year. 

“There’s not much really popular support for Iran, even and especially so among the Shias (in Iraq),” Fathollah-Nejad said. “So this is also connected with some risks.”

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Soleimani killing has made Canadians ‘vulnerable’ to attacks from Iran: Fisher
Soleimani killing has made Canadians ‘vulnerable’ to attacks from Iran: Fisher

The “easiest” retaliation Iran could engage in would be an escalation in nuclear conflict.

“In any case, they’re poised to take the next step in the gradual reduction of their commitments under the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal], I think by Monday,” he said. “So this kind of escalation would be, compared to all the other ones, the least costly.”

Cyberattacks

Some security experts have raised the spectre of cyberattacks by Iran. John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye, told The Associated Press that Soleimani’s killing means there are now openings for Iran to “cause real disruption and destruction.”

Robert M. Lee, chief executive of Dragos Inc., told the news agency that hackers from Iran have been aggressive in their attempts to gain access to utilities, factories and oil and gas facilities — but that doesn’t mean they’ve succeeded. Experts have told AP that while Iran has been ramping up its cyber capabilities, it is not in the same league as China or Russia — countries that have proven their aptitude at sabotaging critical infrastructure.

READ MORE: In wake of Soleimani’s death, Iran could retaliate with cyberattacks: experts

Cyberattacks from Iran are “very possible” and perhaps even “likely,” according to Horak, who served as head of Canada’s diplomatic mission in Iran when Harper’s Conservative government cut ties with the country in 2012.

It may be in the arsenal, maybe one of the tools they pull out of the toolbox, but I’m not sure that would be sufficient to address the demands,” Horak said. 

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Impact on Canada

How could Canada be impacted? While the country is not exactly a player in this geopolitical situation, Horak points out that the biggest implication for Canada would be the Canadians that live in the region.

“We have tens of thousands of Canadians that live in the Gulf, both in Iran and on the Arab gulf side as well, both dual nationals and Canadians that are there working and living,” he said. 

“We don’t know the exact numbers, they tend not to register in the embassy. So if we ended up in a wider regional conflict, there would be a massive consular challenge facing Canada at that time.”

The geopolitical implications of Soleimani’s killing
The geopolitical implications of Soleimani’s killing

Canada also has approximately 955 troops serving across six separate operations in the Middle East, with around 850 of them serving in Operation IMPACT in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Qatar — where Canada is leading a multinational coalition fighting against the so-called Islamic State.

The Department of National Defence has said there are approximately 200 members in Iraq. National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said in a statement he was suspending all training activities in Iraq to ensure the safety of several hundred mission members.

Overall, the current situation is “dangerous,” with emotions “running very high,” according to Horak.

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“Trump has indicated that he’s willing to do things that others have not and that’s a message that the Iranians, who act very rationally in these things, will take note of,” he said.

READ MORE: Who is Qassem Soleimani? The top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike

“They will need to respond,” he said, but it remains to be seen whether their response will be directed at American assets. 

The now-retired Canadian diplomat says he believes Iran is likely “looking for a bit of a face-saving exit at this point, something that will demonstrate that they are not weak, that this can’t stand,” Horak said. 

“But on the other hand, I don’t think they want it to escalate.” And unless somebody miscalculates, “I think the fact that neither side really wants a war is probably what’s going to get us out of this.”

— With files by Global News reporters Hannah Jackson and Emerald Bensadoun, and The Associated Press