Now that the dust has settled – literally and figuratively – on the Iranian response to the killing of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s mastermind for terrorist and other nefarious activity across the globe, it’s a good time to take stock of what has just happened, and what is likely to follow.
Whether one agrees with the elimination of General Qassem Soleimani as the correct means of signaling Iran, it was an important statement that a new red line is in effect. Proxy warfare – namely, a client organization taking hostile action in a manner hard to directly attribute to, but that everyone knows was ordered by, the patron – has always been convenient for these states.
Now Iran (and presumably other self-alienated states) have been served notice that they will be held more directly accountable for the actions of their proxies, particularly when those actions result in the death of an American.
In its response to the death of Soleimani, Iran demonstrated extraordinary message calibration towards four audiences.
First, the regime sent a clear signal to President Trump that Iranian investment in precision guided ballistic missiles paid off, and it can now hold U.S. military forces at risk nearly anywhere in the region. It also used that precision to send another signal, namely that, because no Americans were hurt in the demonstration, there is no need to start a war that Iran knows it cannot win.
Second, any totalitarian regime fears its own people more than anything else. By exacting populist “hard revenge,” Iran’s leaders galvanized a large portion of their population, distracting them from the economic hardships they are experiencing due to sanctions. Because the Iranian regime controls its own media, it is able to leverage to their own needs the falsehood that many American casualties were inflicted in its attack.
Third, Iran at least attempted to signal to the international community that its actions were legitimate and legally bound to the concept of self-defense. Finally, Iran made clear to regional nations that they should not assist the U.S. in any retaliation, lest they become targets themselves – a capability that was clearly demonstrated during Iran’s attacks on the Saudi infrastructure last year – and that they should consider ejecting the U.S. military from their lands.