A Region on Edge: Mideast Officials Scramble to Anticipate Iranian Retaliation

No one knows where Iran may strike to avenge the killing Friday of its top general in a U.S. drone strike, but few believe Tehran won’t retaliate, and it has plenty of possible targets to pick proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to carry out reprisals, warn analysts.

U.S. allies – some of whom complain they weren’t forewarned of the plan to eliminate Gen. Qassem Soleimani – are drafting contingency plans to cope with the fallout. President Donald Trump has warned the U.S. will strike Iran “very fast and very hard,” if it takes retaliatory action, saying the Pentagon has identified 52 Iranian targets, including some “very high level” cultural sites.

British military chiefs are counseling Downing Street to consider dispatching more soldiers to bolster security for the 400 servicemen the country already has in Iraq, and the more than 1,000 stationed across the Gulf.

That advice so far has been rejected with Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead ordering British troops in Iraq to be given heavier weaponry and for their mission to be switched from training local forces to guarding British diplomats from revenge strikes by Iran after the assassination of Soleimani, who was seen in Washington and London as a terror chief. London fears that Iranian proxies could storm the British embassy compound in Baghdad to kill or abduct British citizens.

Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, ordered Sunday two Royal Navy warships in the Gulf to begin “close escort” of oil tankers amid fears that Iran could seize or sink western ships. “We have a plan A and a plan B and a break the glass’ plan, if it all kicks off. Our forces in the region have been told to reorientate towards force protection,” a senior British official said.

France and the Netherlands have followed the U.S. example and ordered its citizens to leave Iraq, where on Saturday rockets landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. At various levels Washington’s European allies have expressed frustration with the strike against Soleimani, while acknowledging, too, that he was directly involved in terrorist activity. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo said Saturday that Britain and other European allies were not “as helpful as I would wish,” adding, “the Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did saved lives in Europe as well.”

Israeli military chiefs are tightening their defenses and are bracing for Hezbollah to respond to the killing of Soleimani, Iran’s master-fixer in the region and head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Threats from Hezbollah

A Lebanese Hezbollah official, like other Iranian clients in a chorus of angry threats, said Saturday the response of the Iran-backed “axis of resistance” would be decisive. His threats echoed the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who says Tehran will react with “harsh revenge” to the killing of Soleimani, a personal friend and a man he once dubbed a “living martyr.”

Most analysts suspect Iran will take a leaf out of Soleimani’s own playbook and aim to target Americans across the Middle East and Afghanistan, where Iran has been observing a marriage of convenience with the Taliban. Soleimani was a master-manipulator of Iranian-backed forces in the region and strove to drive up the death toll of U.S. troops in the Mideast in a bid to drain the American resolve to fight.

Gen. Gholamali Abuhamzeh, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Soleimani’s native province of Kerman, in southern Iran, raised the prospect Saturday of a possible renewal of an offensive against oil ships navigating the Strait of Hormuz.

“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there,” he told an Iranian broadcaster. But like Iran’s para-military proxies in the region, who appear to be lining up to exact revenge, he painted the a grim picture of reprisals across the region. “Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since a long time ago … some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he said.

Immediate retaliation

The most immediate arena will likely be in Iraq, where Tehran and its Iraqi Shi’ite proxies have already made clear they want to force U.S. troops to abandon the country.

That effort was underway before the drone assassination of Soleimani with Shi’ite militias launching a dozen attacks on U.S. troops since October. Those attacks — including an assault no the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – was the trigger for Friday’s assassination of Soleimani, according to U.S. officials. Qais al-Khazali, a powerful pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leader, has ordered his fighters to be on high alert, saying on Iranian television the price for the drone strike must be “the complete end to American military presence in Iraq.”

“Retaliation, in the first instance, is likely to be focused on Iraq,” said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. But Western troops stationed in Syria’s Kurdish regions in the north are also vulnerable to attacks from Iran-commanded Shi’ite militias, fear Western officials.

But outside Iraq and Syria, the target list is worryingly long and military and intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic are scrambling to assess when and where Tehran will most likely strike amid the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran,. Western companies are operating in the Gulf are restricting their employees travel in the region, say security consultants.

Unnamed U.S. officials told the broadcaster CNN Saturday that they’re seeing signs of Iran stepping up readiness to launch short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Other analysts predict Iran will want to lash out, too, at U.S. allies in the region, to make their backing of Washington as costly and disruptive as possible.

Qatar dispatched Saturday its foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to Tehran, seemingly in a bid to mollify Iran. The Reaper drone that fired a Hellfire missile killing Soleimani flew from a U.S. military base in Qatar. “No such similar action was taken in the past, which is why we are very uncomfortable and worried,” Al Thani told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani according to official reports.

Rouhani in statement after the meeting said Tehran expects neighboring countries explicitly condemn this murder by the U.S. America’s Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, privately have welcomed Soleimani’s death, say Western diplomats. They have long condemned him role in the region, and see his slaying a blow to Iran. But diplomats based in the region say their official reaction is reserved as trey are nervous about Iran’s response. Washington and Riyadh blamed Iran for missile and drone attacks in September on Saudi oil facilities.

Iranian targets

Qatar is unlikely to be on an Iranian target list as Doha has been supportive of various Iranian diplomatic initiatives in the region, say Western officials and analysts. But both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sworn enemies of Iran’s Shi’ite regime, are braced for attacks.

“Beyond the immediate environment [of Iraq], Israel may reap serious security repercussions and U.S. allies in the Gulf, particularly Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi, could all fall victim to Iranian retaliatory measures,” says Charles Lister, an analyst the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Any reprisals on Saudi Arabia and UAE would likely come from Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a long-running proxy war.

European intelligence officials are also fearful of Iranian cyber-attacks. In 2017 Iran was suspected of being behind a cyber-attack on the British parliament’s computer system, which compromised the email accounts of British ministers.

At this stage the European ally likely to be singled is Britain, a British intelligence official told VOA. “I don’t think Tehran will want to hit out at other European states – Iran is more interested in widening transatlantic rifts between Washington and the Europeans,” he said.

One question Western diplomats and intelligence officials are trying to answer is how far Iran will go to revenge the death of Soleimani. Iran and the U.S. are not evenly matched – and Washington has the backing also of powerful regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Israel. And Iran has little gain in an all-out war with the vastly superior U.S. That power equation could well limit how far Iran is prepared to go to challenge Washington, say some Western experts.

Check Also

Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets train with Greek special operators as bilateral military ties deepen

Navy SEALs and Green Berets operated alongside their Greek counterparts this week in Athens, where …