Iran’s Revenge Plans Are Bigger Than Missile Strikes
Iran will use the networks Suleimani built to avenge his death.
The assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, perhaps the second most powerful person in Iran behind Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, will reverberate in the Middle East and beyond for years, and perhaps decades. But the immediate consequences, several U.S. intelligence officials say privately, will be clear: more deaths, and some of them American. Tuesday’s noisy attacks, despite the reassuring words of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that they were a “proportionate measure,” were only the beginning.
Those killings will be carried out using tools Suleimani, who was assassinated in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike, himself built. The institution Suleimani led, the Quds Force—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ powerful hybrid military intelligence agency and covert action wing—midwifed Shiite extremist groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Suleimani understood that, unlike Russia or China, Iran was not, and would never be, powerful enough to challenge the United States head-on. It would have to prepare for war differently. This meant establishing deterrence (in Iran’s thinking) against a U.S. attack through asymmetric means, by supporting proxy forces such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the world’s most formidable terrorist army. It also meant backing spectacular acts of violence that did not rise to the level of, and would not precipitate, full-scale war.
The effectiveness of Suleimani and Iran’s larger program of terrorist assassinations, roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices (responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. soldiers), and the bombing of apartment buildings, Jewish community centers, tourist buses, and diplomatic facilities by Iran’s proxies showed that a state could forgo traditional means of power projection and nevertheless powerfully assert its suzerainty outside its own borders.
Those same tools will now be brought to bear by Iran on enacting vengeance for Suleimani—and not just in the region itself. Senior U.S. Defense Department and intelligence officials are well aware that assassinating a senior official from a foreign military hierarchy exposes U.S. personnel to lethal retaliation by Iranian or Hezbollah operatives, who have tentacles in South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. This retaliation is certainly likely now. “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” said one former senior intelligence official of the killing of Suleimani. “We crossed a line.”
Prior high-profile U.S. killings, including those of the al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and, recently, of the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria, differ from Suleimani’s in a key way: Though Suleimani also facilitated acts of terrorism, he was, foremost, a high-ranking government official. This is a distinction with a real significance.
By ignoring this nonstate-state actor divide, the Trump administration has whittled away at a key global norm, one that may boomerang back, dangerously, on U.S. officials. It is hard to know now what bright lines are left in the impending confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.
“From this justice will come unpredictable chaos,” said Douglas Wise, a former Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director and former longtime senior CIA official—a sentiment echoed by over half a dozen former U.S. intelligence officials I’ve spoken with since Suleimani’s death. Some former officials worry about the potential for Iraq to fall back into civil war. Others are concerned about a rising anti-American tide across the Middle East and a forcible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the region. Most are shocked by the apparent lack of advance planning and deliberation by the Trump administration in making such a momentous move—a decision that could lead to war.
Middle Eastern intelligence officials are themselves “gravely concerned” over the U.S.-Iran conflict “becoming an unending cycle of high impact and retaliatory mass violence,” according to a former U.S. intelligence official in close touch with current officials in Iraq. “Suleimani ran Iraq with the supreme leader’s approval,” said this person. “So you killed Suleimani: Does the Supreme Leader look at Suleimani as an extension of himself? If so, then it will be a long, bloody battle.”
The Iranians have built up “long-term spy networks” in such places as Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, according to the same former official, that are used to inform potential Quds Force planning for potential future covert operations. This enables Iran to “push the pressure points”—including military or terrorism-type actions—in these countries if need be, said the former official.
Further bloodshed—beyond Tuesday night’s scattered rocket attacks in Iraq—appears inevitable. “There is little doubt the U.S. will get hit hard in retaliatory strikes, perhaps globally and at a time and place of Iran’s choosing,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA official with extensive Middle Eastern and counterterrorism experience who retired in June. “This event will not be without significant pain for many Americans.” Other former senior U.S. intelligence officials agree. “There will be dead Americans, dead civilian Americans, as a result of this,” said former acting CIA Director Michael Morell in an interview with CBS.
Iran has been preparing for this type of asymmetric conflict with the United States for decades, whether as a response to limited U.S. strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program or as a reaction to a long-feared, frontal U.S. assault on the regime itself. Going back to the 1990s, in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and North America, U.S. officials have observed Iranian intelligence operatives and their Hezbollah proxies casing U.S. diplomatic facilities, cultural centers, and military bases for potential attacks.
Iranian operatives have also stalked U.S. officials abroad for potential assassinations. Around 2013, U.S. officials scrambled to stop what they believed were imminent plans by Iranian intelligence officials to undertake targeted killings of undercover Defense Department intelligence officials in Europe. U.S. officials believe that the information that led the Iranians to identify those officials was provided by a former Air Force intelligence officer, Monica Witt, who defected to Iran in 2013.
With this outbreak of hostilities, Witt’s stock has likely risen in Iran. “It’s possible any information Witt provided may have become operationally stale, but Iranians can come to her and ask about the perspective of their target,” said Wise, the former Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director. “She can provide great value to them there. Her perspective on how the U.S. government may now take steps to defend itself against inexorable Iranian asymmetric attacks may be helpful in Iranian asymmetrical planning.”
In order to not invite an overwhelming U.S. military response, Iran may opt for a more diffuse campaign of violence focused on lower-profile targets. These will likely involve U.S. personnel or facilities abroad, former officials said, such as the anonymous bombing of U.S. diplomatic outposts in Latin America, Southeast Asia, or the Middle East; or the targeted killing of CIA officers working under diplomatic cover whose identities are known to Iran or Hezbollah. Such a campaign—especially if carried out by Hezbollah—would follow the playbook written by Suleimani himself, providing Iran the ability to inflict great pain, repeatedly, on U.S. targets, while also helping maintain a fig leaf of deniability over its actions.
If, as former U.S. intelligence officials fear, the conflict spirals, some believe that Iran or its Hezbollah proxies may choose to strike inside the United States. Iran has shown a willingness to cross this line in the past. In 2011, U.S. officials foiled a plot by the Quds Force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by bombing a popular Washington, D.C., restaurant. Suleimani’s protegees—and his mentor, Khamenei—may be looking at a range of what they seem as proportional targets in retaliation to the killing of such a senior Iranian official.
Iran and its proxies have also clearly made contingency plans, including by dispatching sleeper agents, to plot potential attacks on soft targets within the U.S. homeland. Last year, two Iranian men, including one based in Los Angeles, pleaded guilty to working as Iranian intelligence operatives. One cased a Jewish center in Chicago and assembled targeting packages on Iranian dissidents within the United States. And in a separate case, Ali Kourani, a Lebanese American man, was found guilty in 2019 of working as a Hezbollah operative in New York and assembling potential targeting data on local U.S. government facilities and John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The Kourani case, in particular, may offer a peek into the future. In 2010, Kourani was told by his Hezbollah bosses to research current or former Israeli soldiers living in New York for potential assassination, according to court documents. This, Kourani said, was retaliation for Israel’s killing, two years earlier, of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s chief operational leader.
Memories are long. The initial outbreak of hostilities—a few missiles lobbed at U.S. military bases in Iraq, or maybe later across the Persian Gulf; a bombing of U.S. diplomatic facilities—may give way, over time, to a long, hard tit-for-tat campaign spanning continents: not quite a war, but far from a state of peace. The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that “the practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.” Suleimani’s bloody legacy testifies to that.
Zach Dorfman is a senior staff writer on national security and cybersecurity for Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, and a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Twitter: @zachsdorfman