The Iranian government’s swift pledge to avenge the Trump administration’s killing of its infamous military commander Qassem Soleimani, and the U.S. government’s deployment of thousands of additional troops to the Middle East and urgent call for Americans to leave Iraq, has left a distinct impression: that some fearsome Iranian retaliation is coming any minute and that it could quickly spiral into an all-out war between the United States and Iran that would surpass the horror of the Iraq War.
But that’s not exactly how Iran operates. The U.S. and Iran have been locked for the past four decades in a shadowy, shape-shifting struggle—what the historian David Crist memorably termed a “twilight war”—and Iran has tended to follow a certain blueprint: compensate for its inferior military capabilities relative to the United States by waging wide-ranging proxy warfare that stops short of direct conflict, allows it to maintain plausible deniability, and is carefully calibrated to advance Iranian interests at a low cost and with minimal risk.
The Iranians “don’t lash out,” Ariane Tabatabai, a scholar at the Rand Corporation who has studied Iran’s military doctrine, told me. “I suspect whatever will happen—and there’s no doubt in my mind that there will be a response”—won’t be some knee-jerk action to appease a domestic audience but will instead reflect a “more strategic, more careful, planned approach,” she said. “That’s going to keep us on our toes for the foreseeable future.”
Iran’s way of war is informed by the recognition that while it is a major regional power, it is no match for America militarily. According to the Global Firepower ranking, which the United States leads, Iran has the 14th-most-powerful military in the world, in between Brazil’s and Pakistan’s. The Iranians have a nuclear program but no nuclear weapons yet. They have a ballistic-missile program but no long-range missiles that can reach the United States. Iran has decent relations with Russia and China but no stalwart great-power allies; as one of the world’s most isolated countries, it does not have many allies at all. And while the Iranians have 523,000 active-duty forces and another 350,000 reserves, which is nothing to scoff at, their conventional military is hobbled by aging equipment, international sanctions, and restrictions on arms imports.
Tehran’s solution has been to engage with the United States asymmetrically, including influence operations and, more recently, cyber activities. At the forefront of this effort has been the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and especially its Quds Force unit, which Soleimani commanded. The IRGC has exploited internal conflicts and weak states in the Middle East, cultivating proxy forces—such as Shiite militias in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon—that serve as a kind of alliance network to rival America’s regional alliances.
In a recent analysis, the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that Iranian leaders have concluded that their most potent weapon is their “sovereign capability to conduct warfare in battlefields across the Middle East through third parties,” which “has encountered no effective international response but has consistently delivered Iran advantage without the cost or risk of direct confrontation with adversaries,” which could endanger the Iranian regime.
Indeed, a list recently compiled by the Congressional Research Service of 20 Iran-related terrorist attacks or plots against the U.S. and its allies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution shows that nearly all were carried out by proxies such as Hezbollah, by the IRGC, or by Iranian intelligence. Be it the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military housing facility in Saudi Arabia or the deaths of hundreds of American troops at the hands of Shiite militias during the Iraq War, the details and extent of Iran’s involvement in harming the United States are often sketchy.
This pattern has continued with Iran’s reaction to Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal and to reimpose sweeping sanctions on Tehran. After a year-long period of calculated restraint in Tehran came mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and a shoot-down of an unmanned U.S. drone in June (the latter of which the Iranians uncharacteristically admitted to carrying out), a murky attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, and a rocket barrage by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia that killed an American contractor in December, leading to the latest surge in tensions.
Tabatabai said that the only historical U.S. actions she could think of that approached the level of provocation of the Soleimani killing were American support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the U.S. military’s downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, and the suspected U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet cyber campaign against Iran’s nuclear program under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. U.S. support for the Iraqis may have played a role in Iran supporting militants who launched deadly attacks on the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. But the Reagan administration claimed that the shoot-down of the Iranian plane was a mistake and apologized for the incident, which perhaps contributed to Iran’s restrained response. And the Stuxnet attack was difficult to attribute definitively, though Tehran did react by beefing up its offensive cyber capabilities.
Now the United States has taken out arguably the second-most-powerful figure in Iran, and has claimed responsibility for the killing publicly and boastfully. In the 40 years of conflict between the two countries, such a moment has never come before. And that’s why, despite such a long track record, it’s so hard to predict what will happen next. What is predictable is that Iran will seek to exact revenge, and that it will aim for elements of surprise that will throw the United States off balance.
Just because Iran wants to avoid a direct war with the United States doesn’t mean its response to Soleimani’s killing won’t be fierce. The fear of that blowback is, in fact, what kept previous U.S. administrations from striking Soleimani when they had the chance.
The former U.S. official Ilan Goldenberg, who has forecast what war with Iran could look like, foresees Iran breaking free of the remaining restraints on its nuclear-weapons program. He also expects Tehran to green-light “all-out conflict” by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world. The counterterrorism analyst Charles Lister anticipates intense violence in Syria and Iraq that will pressure the United States to withdraw militarily from both countries, while the Middle East expert Jon Alterman thinks cyber warfare is coming. “The entire world will need to be on high alert for months or (more likely) years,” he writes.
As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted on Thursday, war with Iran, in contrast to the Gulf War or the Iraq War, will be fought across the region and perhaps the wider world against an array of civilian, economic, and military targets. There’s a reason U.S. allies in the region, no fans of Iran and Soleimani, have reacted with considerable foreboding to this week’s developments. The Saudis, for example, have urged “self-restraint” to avert “unbearable consequences,” while the Israeli government has expressed muted approval for the operation while bracing for Iranian retaliation.
Tabatabai noted that Washington, like Tehran, has traditionally been careful to not take actions that would bring it into direct conflict with the Iranians, and added that she’s been surprised by the brazen actions each country has taken in recent weeks. (Less than 24 hours after the Soleimani killing came yet another surprise: more air strikes against Shiite militias in Iraq.) The twilight war has been brought into more daylight than ever before, and the big question is whether the rules of the past four decades still apply.