Almost exactly six months later, Trump had no second thoughts, green-lighting the assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in the early hours of Friday morning as he left Baghdad International Airport with a number of top Iraqi militia leaders.
The attack has sparked outrage in Tehran, with tens of thousands of Iranians taking to the streets chanting “Death to America!” and Iran’s top leaders promising “forceful revenge” against the U.S. for what they call “a heinous crime.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it is awaiting orders, and Iran’s fighter jets were scrambled, but even though Iran can’t confront the U.S. military directly, Iran has options. Among them: strikes against the numerous U.S. military targets in the region, stepping up its support of proxy forces fighting the U.S.and its allies across the Middle East, and perhaps most ominously, cyberattacks on vulnerable U.S. cities and infrastructure.
“I would expect some combination of cyber, proxy and terrorist attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East but also outside the region, in Europe and/or the U.S. homeland,” Michael Carpenter, who served on the national security council during the Obama administration, told VICE News.
Iran has been suffering under crippling economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. since it withdrew from the nuclear arms deal in May 2018, so it will have little appetite for a costly war with a powerful and well-resourced U.S. military.
Trump, too, has long declared that he does not want a war with Iran and promised to pull all U.S. troops out of the region. But the actions taken by his administration over the last two years tell a different story.
“Trump keeps on saying he doesn’t want [a war], yet he keeps on doing things that escalate matters, starting off with walking out of the nuclear deal and essentially conducting economic warfare against Iran,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told VICE News.
While basic geography means Iran cannot mount a direct attack on U.S. soil, there are more than enough U.S. targets dotted around the Middle East for it to attack if its leaders wanted to, including U.S. military bases or a U.S. warship stationed in the Persian Gulf.
The most obvious point of such an attack would be Iraq, Iran’s closest neighbor, where over 5,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
’Iran’s response will likely be a combination of direct and indirect responses aimed at targeting U.S. military infrastructure and even personnel’
“Iran’s response will likely be a combination of direct and indirect responses aimed at targeting U.S. military infrastructure and even personnel,” Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at London-based think tanks Chatham House, told VICE News. “Iraq is the most likely area where Iran can and will strike first, but the U.S. should not rule out strikes in the Persian Gulf.”
Such an attack would likely trigger a swift and deadly response from Washington, something Tehran will be keen to avoid, and so Iran may rely instead on a tactic where it can compete on a relatively level playing field.
Pentagon officials speaking to U.S. media have already said they are especially concerned with Tehran launching cyberattacks against targets on U.S. soil — and with good reason.