Iran faces dilemma over retribution for Suleimani killing

Hardliners try to balance need to strike back at US with avoiding a full-blown conflict

An Iranian politician holds a picture of assassinated general Qassem Suleimani  during a parliamentary session in Tehran. Photograph: ICANA News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

An Iranian politician holds a picture of assassinated general Qassem Suleimani during a parliamentary session in Tehran. Photograph: ICANA News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

 

As millions of Iranians poured on to the streets of Tehran on Monday to mourn the death of the military commander Qassem Suleimani, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, faced a difficult question: how to satisfy the Islamic regime’s desire for revenge for the US killing, while avoiding a war.

During four days of mourning, huge crowds have demanded retribution for the assassination last week of their most revered military leader. Publicly, the regime has issued bellicose statements. But in private, even hardliners have said Tehran must strike back but avoid a full-blown conflict.

“We cannot ignore this aggression easily and have to prevent the US from repeating its rogue behaviour,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a politician close to Iran’s hardline forces. “But our strategy is retaliation in such a way that we do not go to a war.”

Washington and Tehran have been engaged in a game of brinkmanship since the US withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018. In June, Iran shot down a US drone and then seized a British-flagged tanker in July. In September, it was blamed by Washington for air strikes against Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil installation.

But the elimination of a senior military commander in targeted US air strikes was an unexpected and unprecedented escalation which means that Tehran must proceed more carefully, Iranian analysts said. The previous brinkmanship was based on a calculation that Donald Trump did not want another war in the Middle East. Now the US president has threatened to hit more than 50 targets in Iran, including cultural sites, if the Islamic republic retaliates.

“This extremely complicated situation is not only a dilemma for the supreme leader but the whole \Iranian] system,” said one Iranian analyst, who asked not be identified. “Iranian leaders are stuck between addressing public emotions and the expediency of the political system which is not to militarily retaliate.”

Reducing influence

Iran’s immediate response is therefore more likely to include efforts to reduce US influence in the Middle East in other ways, analysts and regime insiders said. Tehran has already pulled back from all its commitments under the 2015 nuclear accord and on Sunday exercised its influence in Iraq’s parliament to help pass a vote to expel US forces from the country in retaliation for the air strikes. Iran’s parliament passed a bill on Tuesday to increase the budget of the Quds force by €200 million over the next two months.

The vote was non-binding but if Iran could force the US out of Iraq – where the Americans have invested hundreds of billions of dollars since ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 – it would be considered a big victory for Iranian foreign policy, according to one regime insider.

“Iran’s call for the US to leave the region is not little and should not be underestimated,” the insider said. “It is similar to the months before the Islamic revolution when Imam Khomeini [the founder of the revolution] had one simple slogan ‘Shah must go’ and he left.”

Taraghi, the hardline politician, suggested that the US also wanted to avoid a war. “If Trump were serious in his threats, why has he sent 16 countries’ representatives to beg us not to hit back?” he said.

If Iran does retaliate with force, it will do so directly and not through its proxies in the likes of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria or Yemen, Taraghi added. “Their decision to retaliate is theirs. We will need to act ourselves, separate from them.”

Risky

Pro-reform forces in Iran warn that any retaliation is too risky with unpredictable consequences. “Iran and the US have never been this close to a war,” said one reformist politician. The “massive funerals” of the last few days would hopefully release some of the immediate pressure to act and “put off the risk of war”, the politician said.

Brigadier Gen Esmail Ghaani, Suleimani’s successor as head of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, said on Monday that Iran would remove the US from the region “in various steps”.

Ultimately, the decision on how to respond will fall to the ayatollah and those close to the supreme leader have urged followers to accept whatever course of action he decides.

“My father believed obeying the supreme leader’s absolute authority is the prerequisite to piety,” Suleimani’s daughter Zeinab told mourners in Tehran on Monday. “We will sacrifice ourselves, so that you [Khamenei] do not feel alone.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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