The killing of General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone just after he arrived at the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on January 2, 2020, raised the stakes in the Middle East. The Iranians responded with rhetoric and a relatively ineffective missile attack against two military installations that housed U.S. and coalition forces. While it appears tensions have subsided and a ‘war’ has not ensued the conflict is not over yet. It will continue to be fought over the next months and years in the shadows, using proxy forces and engaging in ‘political warfare’.
Who Is Qasem Soleimani?
General Soleimani was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF). He was one of the most powerful and important figures in Iran and one of the leading generals of the Iranian military. Soleimani was considered the driving force behind Iran’s ‘external military operations’.
Increasing Tensions over Past Year
U.S. and Iranian relations have been mostly confrontational since 1979 when the Shah of Iran was removed from power and the U.S. embassy in Tehran was occupied and its embassy officials and workers held hostage for more than a year. Since 1979 the U.S. has regarded Iran as a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Iran Has Escalated Activities in Region. Relations have gotten more heated between the U.S. and Iran in the past few years. Iran’s escalating attacks against U.S. installations in Iraq since May 2019 are part of a campaign to secure sanctions relief and push the U.S. out of Iraq. Iran has been implicated in the attack on commercial shipping, oil facilities, and other terrorist activities. It recently downed a very expensive U.S. drone. It has backed the Houthis in Yemen and is allied with the Assad regime in Syria. It’s proxy forces in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere are engaged in activities adverse to U.S. interests in the region.
The U.S. is engaged in a campaign of applying ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran. The intent of the U.S. is to block Iran’s path to the development of a nuclear weapon and limit the ability of Iran to export terrorism.
The United States has been increasing pressure on Iran over the past few years. In April 2019 it declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It has incrementally increased sanctions against Iran. In addition, additional military forces (air, ground, and naval) have been sent to the Middle East region. Currently (Jan 2020) there are about 60,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops in the Central Command area of responsibility (including 5,200 in Iraq and 13,000 in Afghanistan).  These numbers include deployments during 2019 and early 2020.
Iran Attack on U.S. Bases In Dec 2019
Rockets launched by an Iranian-affiliated militia group attacked a U.S. base near Kirkuk in Northern Iraq on February 27, 2019 killing an American contractor. The contractor was a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Iraq. He was working as an interpreter for U.S. forces. The rocket attacked also wounded four American service members. The U.S. retaliated two days later with air strikes against five facilities located in Syria and Iraq killing members of the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) militia group responsible for the attack.
Storming the Embassy
Iraqi ‘protesters’ (with very strong ties to Iran) swarmed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad breaching the outer perimeter. The U.S. immediately responded sending 100 Marines to secure the Embassy. In addition, U.S. Rangers were flown to the region followed shortly after with the deployment of a significant number of troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Killing of Gen Qassem Soleimani
The U.S., going off intelligence indicators that Iranian proxy groups were going to continue attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities, took out a leading Iranian general – Qassem Soleimani – just after he arrived at the Baghdad airport on January 2, 2020. Also killed in the attack was KH founder and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis as well as other Iranian and Iraqi individuals.
Additional Targets in Region
The same day a U.S. drone attempted but failed to kill another top Iranian commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds force in Yemen. the attack was directed at Abdul Reza Shahla’i – a commander and financier. He was reported by the State Department to be at the center of a botched 2011 plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil. (Fox News, Jan 10, 2020). He also is implicated in many other actions throughout the region. One of these was a January 20, 2007 attack in Karbala, Iraq that killed five American soldiers and wounded three others.
Missles: Iran’s Response
Iran responded to the killing of Qassem Soleimani with the launch of 16 missiles – eleven of which hit on or near the Al Asad airbase in Iraq. The attack caused no casualties (Gen Milley says defensive measures were key) and caused minimal material damage. The losses in the attacks on Al Asad included a Black Hawk, aerial drone, damaged runways, maintenance shelters, and some pickup trucks.
Token Response. Some observers believe it was a ‘token’ strike that would allow Iran to say it responded but which was intentionally conducted so as to not cause any deaths. Others believe that the strike was largely ineffective due to the inability of Iran to accurately put missiles on target. The end result, however, is that the tensions were ‘reduced’ for the time being and open conflict averted.
Additional Sanctions Against Iran
After the launch of the 16 missiles by Iran the White House intensified sanctions on Iran. The U.S. has a long history of using sanctions against Iran.  There are a number of ways to impose these ‘additional sanctions’ on Iran that affect its economy as well as its ability to export violence in the region. 
Iraq Caught in the Middle
Members of the Iraqi parliament were not happy with the U.S. air strikes and this could cause problems down the road. The Iraqi parliament quickly called for the departure of U.S. military forces from Iraq; however, Sunni and Kurd representatives did not vote. Rumors of a rapid departure by the U.S. from Iraq are being played down by the U.S. State Department. In the meantime NATO has suspended its training mission in Iraq. The U.S. has also stood down operations as it takes a protective posture in anticipate of future aggression by Iran. Time will tell how the Iraqi public and government will respond to this latest conflict between Iran and the U.S. on Iraqi soil.
2nd and 3rd Order of Effects. Although tensions are now reduced the strike has fostered a number of consequences throughout the region. Relations between the government of Iraq and the U.S. have significantly deteriorated. Some of this is rhetoric and some is substantive. Iraq lawmakers reacted quickly passing a non-binding resolution for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iraq’s government is exploring a larger role for the NATO training mission – moving away from dependence on the United States. The training mission suffered a temporary halt and some counterterrorism operations were put on hold. In addition, it is possible that the strike diluted the protest movement that was – in part – focused on Iran’s meddling in Iraq; and which then turned its attention to the U.S. activities in Iraq. 
Accidental Downing of Airliner by Iran
In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani a civilian airliner was downed near Tehran. Over 170 passengers and crew were killed when the Iranian military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner that had just taken off from Tehran airport. At first the Iranians stated that there were technical difficulties but soon it was apparent to the regime that they would have to acknowledge their own military shot the airliner down.
Map: Iranian-supported groups in the Middle East. Source: “Iran Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance,”, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), November 2019.
What Comes Next?
While America has the Air Force and Navy to outfight Iran some worry that Iran’s use of asymmetric, proxy-based warfare is the biggest threat. Iran has developed robust proxy armies and organizations throughout the Middle East. Most of these proxy groups will follow the lead of Iran although some may strike out against the United States even if Iran does not direct them to do so. U.S. personnel – government employees, members of the military, and U.S. civilians are at risk. There are a number of embassies and military bases scattered throughout the Middle East that are at risk.
Iranian retaliatory measures in the future will likely include the use of its regional militias to attack U.S. forces and U.S. interests across the region. It may increase its attacks on oil production facilities, disrupt shipping lanes, and use asymmetric or unconventional tactics to execute operations in other regions of the world. Iranian proxy groups and organizations include the Hezbollah in Lebanon, pro-Asad forces in Syria, armed Shia groups in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and other groups in the region.
Hybrid Warfare. The United States is likely to be engaged in a hybrid, irregular conflict with Iran for many years. Iran will be able to have plausible deniability for the actions of its many proxy groups, criminal networks, and other nefarious actors in the Middle East region. One question that is raised by many national security observers is will the United States retain enough of a special operations and ‘irregular warfare’ capability in light of its strategic shift to ‘great power competition’ and focus on the Indo-Pacific region.
UW? An unconventional warfare capability is one thing to consider when sizing up the participants in ‘hybrid war’. Certainly, the United States has tremendous UW assets within USSOCOM, the CIA, and other agencies and organizations. However, having the capability and using that capability in a coherent and strategic fashion are two different things. Iran has established long-enduring relationships with its proxy forces throughout the region. Iran’s proxies can count on long-term support. Can America’s allies in the region do the same?
Iran may have satisfied domestic pressure to respond to the U.S. killing of General Qassem Soleimani with its launch of 16 missiles against targets in Erbil and Al Asas. However, its real response will be of a hybrid nature that involves the use of their proxy forces in the region.
 The 2019-2020 Iran Crisis and U.S. Military Deployments, Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 9, 2020.
 Iran Sanctions, Congressional Research Service (CRS), November 15, 2019. According to this 110-page report “Successive Administrations have used economic sanctions to try to change Iran’s behavior. U.S. sanctions, including “secondary sanctions” on firms that conduct certain transactions with Iran, have adversely affected Iran’s economy but have had little observable effect on Iran’s pursuit of core strategic objectives such as its support for regional armed factions and its development of ballistic and cruise missiles”.
 Possible Additional Sanctions on Iran, Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 8, 2020. This 4-page CRS report outlines additional sanctions that the U.S. could impose upon Iran.
 Elias Yousif of the Center for International Policy explores the consequences in his article – “What it cost to kill Soleimani”, The Hill, February 9, 2020.
“Can America Win an Unconventional War Against Iran?”, Haaretz, January 10, 2020.
“Iran’s Proxy Threat Is the Real Problem Now”, by Sulome Anderson, Foreign Policy, January 10, 2020.
U.S. Killing of Qasem Soleimani: Frequently Asked Questions, Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 8, 2020, 22 pages.