- - Sunday, January 12, 2020

Gen. Qassem Soleimani is dead. The Iranians have retaliated by firing a volley of missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. The usual strident critics of the Trump administration are talking about World War III, and the press is filled with reports that terrified millennials believe they are about to be drafted.

The world waits to see what will happen next. Is this the beginning of a broader conflict or simply the end of a limited exchange of fire?

It is neither. It is the end of the beginning. 

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We just killed one of Iran’s point men for its global campaign of terror. We also signaled a fundamental shift in how we will respond to further acts of Iranian aggression. The Iranians, accustomed to the appeasement of the Obama administration, were caught off-guard and humiliated before the world. 

More to the point, the ayatollahs were made to look impotent in front of their own population, which has been in open revolt for months as U.S. sanctions destroyed Iran’s economy and the average Iranian’s standard of living crashed. Terrified of signaling weakness and losing their thrones, the ayatollahs chose to do something uncharacteristic — to launch a retaliatory missile strike on the U.S. military directly from Iranian territory.

They chose, though, to keep the number of missiles fired small and to aim them at targets where American casualties would be non-existent. The fact that there were no Americans killed was not good luck. Four months ago, the Iranians flew cruise missiles and drones hundreds of miles across Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and hit Saudi oil processing facilities with great precision. Had Tehran wanted to hit the exact locations where U.S. troops were located in Iraq it could have done so.

What Tehran will do now is hope that we will understand the nature of the response and not strike back. Iran will thunder to the world about the blow it has struck but then take no further immediate action. The world’s attention will shift elsewhere. 

But in reality, the Iranians have only just begun. Their true response will come at a time of their choosing. They will be patient. They will review their options. Then they will strike when and where they have the advantage and in ways that make it as hard as possible for us to justify a forceful response. 

The Iranians will also take into account the chorus of American voices condemning Mr. Trump’s killing of Soleimani. They will expect, as always, that the EU will be a soft, unreliable American ally in this fight. And, of course, Tehran will watch the electoral process underway in the United States and hope that come November 2020 Iran’s leaders will be talking to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden, any one of whom can be counted on to apologize for Soleimani’s killing and to beg for reconciliation.

The conflict will move into shadowy world of asymmetric warfare the Iranians know so well. They will strike, without attribution, against soft targets, using proxies, the Quds Forces and regional allies to provide plausible deniability. 

Cyber attacks will likely begin first. The U.S. cyber capabilities dwarf those of Tehran, but this is not a contest in which they will attempt to hack the National Security Agency or U.S. ICBM bases. The Iranians will strike wherever and whenever they detect assets of importance on our side that are not sufficiently defended. That means power plants, the New York Stock Exchange, dams, air traffic control networks, banks and electrical grids. 

Many such targets remain easy prey to groups with any degree of technical proficiency. It has become routine, for instance, for major American cities to be held hostage by hackers demanding ransom in exchange for returning control of critical systems to municipal authorities. If a criminal group can cause that kind of chaos, Iran can do far greater damage.

Iran will also leverage its worldwide network of operatives and proxy forces. In recent years we have arrested a number of Hezbollah operatives on U.S. soil preparing for attacks on key landmarks and critical infrastructure. Targets have included icons such as the Empire State Building and facilities of worldwide strategic importance like the Panama Canal. Hezbollah is just one of many groups, funded, trained and armed by the Quds Force, which are available at Tehran’s direction to strike American targets.

However, when Tehran’s response comes it is unlikely that it will be tied directly to Iran. A cyber attack that takes down the power grid in the Northeastern United States will be attributed to a previously unknown environmentalist group protesting climate change. An attack that closes the Panama Canal and disrupts the entire world’s economy will be claimed by a Latin American group fighting American colonialism in South America.

The U.S. government will not be fooled by any of this subterfuge. That won’t make the damage any less, and it won’t change the fact that opponents of the president will lap up these absurd cover stories and treat them as reality. Washington will survey the damage and try to chart a course through dangerous pwolitical headwinds.

Soleimani is dead. The Iranians have responded. This is not the end. It is only the end of the beginning.

• Sam Faddis is a former CIA operations officer with experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

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