The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force has sparked tensions in the Middle East as various Iranian leaders vowed revenge.
The most chilling warning came from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei who said that “severe revenge awaits the criminals behind the attack,” adding that “Soleimani’s death would double resistance against the US and Israel.”
Iran Supreme National Security Council also vowed retaliation against America for what it described as “criminal adventurism.”
“This was the biggest US strategic blunder in the West Asia region, and America will not easily escape its consequences,” said a statement from the top security body.
Early on Saturday while visiting the family of the slain General, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani observed that the US made a serious mistake by killing the battle-hardened General, and that it will face consequences for years to come.
“The Americans did not realize what a grave mistake they have made. They will suffer the consequences of such criminal measures not only today but also throughout the years to come,” he said. “This crime committed by the US will go down in history as one of their unforgettable crimes against the Iranian nation.”
When Qassem’s daughter asked him, “Who is going to avenge my father’s blood?”, He replied, “everyone will avenge his blood, you don’t worry.”
What makes revenge more likely is that General Qassem was one of Iran’s most decorated and highly respected military officers. Some rumours had even emerged that he would one day stand for the country’s presidency.
As the head of the Quds force, he masterminded military strategies that went far beyond Iran’s borders. He built a web of Iran proxy militia and subversive groups in different Arab countries that could launch attacks on Iran’s behalf while operating clandestinely.
They included Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. These groups could play a pivotal role in any retaliatory attacks against America. So far, Iran has claimed that it has already pinpointed 35 key targets for revenge – among them warships in the Persian Gulf and Tel Aviv.
Judging by Iran’s previous activities in the Middle East and against America, the 35 key targets could include:
Disruption in the Strait of Hormuz
It could disrupt this major sea route, which is the only way to transport oil from the Persian Gulf to the World’s oceans, by inflicting damage on oil tankers and other vessels owned by American and its allies.
Any disruption to this strategic shipping channel will affect the world’s economy owing to the huge amount of oil that passes through it. Between 2018 and 2019, a total of 22.5 million barrels of oil passed through the channel every day. That represented 24% per cent of daily global oil supply over the same period.
No wonder US Energy Information describes it as the “world’s most important chokepoint.”
Last year two tankers almost sank in the area after they were hit below the waterline and close to the engine room by mines. According to the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, the attacks appeared to be well planned and coordinated.
Although the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, blamed Iran for the attacks, Tehran denied any involvement describing them as suspicions. However, it was highly likely that the attacks were carried out by some of Iran’s proxies operating in the region such as the Houthis who later took responsibility.
Iran has one of the most aggressive cyber armies capable of crippling banks, oil companies and electricity companies. In 2013, a group of Iranian hackers took control of the system of a major US dam raising concern on how vulnerable major government infrastructures were vulnerable to Iranian hackers.
“The focus will be critical infrastructure, oil and gas in the Middle East, maybe elsewhere,” said John Hultquist a cybersecurity expert. “Anywhere where they can cause serious, almost psychological effects, noticeable disruption. The purpose is to prove to the public that they reach out and touch Americans.”
Iran advanced its cyberattack capabilities in 2010 after US and Israel deployed a viral software called Stuxnet that destroyed centrifuges crucial to its nuclear ambitions.
US military assets
US has assets and troops stationed and operating in different countries across the Middle East which could be a soft target for Iran. In Iraq where General Soleimani was killed, there are around 6,000 American troops stationed in key installations across the country. A small contingent of soldiers thought to be around 800, are currently operating in Syria and could easily be an easy target for Iran and its proxies. In Afghanistan where the US is currently engaged in one of its longest military battles, there are around 14,000 soldiers. A similar number is stationed in Kuwait while Jordan has 3000, Saudi Arabia 3000, Bahrain slightly above 7000, Oman 600, United Arabs Emirates 5,000, Qatar 13,000, and Turkey 2,500.
Attack on US allies
Iran or its proxies could launch attacks against US close allies such as Israel Saudi Arabia and the United Arabs Emirates. Currently, the strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is soaring as both countries struggle to be regional powers.
Although Iran appears to have superseded Saudi Arabia as the regional kingpin, the Saudis through Prince Mohamed bin Salman have been devising ways of containing Iran’s influence in the region. In their quest, they have been emboldened by the support of the US and Israel which see Iran as a threat in the Middle East.
Since last year Iran has been launching attacks against Saudi Arabia through its proxies to retaliate US withdrawal from the nuclear deal ratified under President Obama. These attacks included the one carried out in September last year by the Iran backed Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia oil facilities.
Taking American citizens hostage
Since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution, Iran has pursued a deliberate policy of kidnapping American citizens and detaining them indefinitely. Those targeted include students, tourists and diplomats. The first case that raised international uproar was in 1979 when Iran held 52 American diplomats, hostage, for over a year.
Currently, Iran has been targeting American citizens it suspects of espionage.
Among them is Bob Levinson, an ex-FBI agent who disappeared 12 years ago. There is also Siamak Namazi an Iranian-America who has been detained since 2015, and Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American who was imprisoned between 2016 and 2019 after being accused of being a spy.
With the tension between Iran and America at its apex, more kidnapping and the detention of American citizens by Iran or its proxies should be expected in the near future.