- - Tuesday, January 7, 2020

United States Marines of a certain age rejoiced at the killing of Qassem Soleimani in early January. For over four decades Iran has conducted a proxy war against the United States with virtual impunity and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force has been the main instigator behind it.

The Marine Corps bore the brunt of the first wave of asymmetric Iranian attacks in the 1980s. Working through their Hezbollah surrogates in Lebanon, Iran supplied the explosive expertise that enabled the 1983 Beirut bombing which killed 241 Marines and attached sailors and another Marine died when the U.S. embassy in that city was bombed.

In 1988 — at the behest of Iran — Hezbollah operatives kidnapped, tortured and killed Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rich Higgins, an unarmed U.N. observer, who was serving as the commander of the U.N. Observer Group in Lebanon (OGL). This despicable act was personal for many of us Marines.

Since that time our soldiers and Marines have suffered many casualties to Iranian manufactured and supplied Explosively Formed Penetrator devices (EFPs). The Iranian leadership has finally received a taste of its own medicine.

Qassem Soleimani took over the Quds Force late in the last century and has been a major instability factor in the Middle East and elsewhere. He was a mastermind of the killing of thousands in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Most recently, he pushed Iran-sponsored militias in Iraq to fire on unarmed demonstrators who have been legally protesting the policies of the pro-Iranian elites in the Baghdad government.

It is small wonder that crowds celebrating his death in neighboring Middle-Eastern countries outnumbered substantially those Iranian-sponsored crowds which mourned his passing.

Soleimani’s loss is different from the killing of leaders of non-state terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Those organizations are Darwinian in that there are usually even tougher characters waiting in the wings. Soleimani headed up a vast bureaucracy that was largely glued together by his personal contacts both in Iran and internationally. He will be hard to replace,

The events surrounding Soleimani’s killing represent sea change in U.S. policy toward state-sponsored terror and a blow to the entire system through with which Iran exports its poisonous influence internationally. We are now going after the key leaders who carry out Iranian policies by proxy in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. Soleimani was not alone in being targeted this month. Several key pro-Iranian militia leaders died in the strikes as well.

Unlike al Qaeda and ISIS, these militia leaders are prominent political figures who have to remain in the public eye in their respective nations to keep power. They have never faced a direct threat to themselves by America for their actions. All that has changed. This will complicate Iran’s retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

As a number of area experts have pointed out, Iran is unlikely to launch a direct kinetic attack on U.S. interests. The same holds true for a cyber-attack; Iran is too badly outgunned. Iran could target U.S. military or political leaders; bad as that might be, we have a lot of them and none of them is irreplaceable. Thus, assassination won’t get Iran very far.

In the past, Tehran might yet turn to Hezbollah or militias in Iraq, Syria or Yemen to carry out a terror act to give a layer of plausible deniability. Now that the leaders of these groups are subject to direct U.S. retaliation it will be more difficult to get characters such as Hezbollah’s Nasrallah to sign on in the future. Most of these people have no compunction about sacrificing their young followers in suicide attacks, but very few have yet signed on for martyrdom themselves.  

Make no mistake, there will be retaliation, but it will not likely come immediately. Iran’s ruling elites make decisions by consensus and they are now without their most talented doer of dirty deeds. Our nation is resilient enough to take a punch. The leadership in Tehran has to decide how many punches it can take.

It took us nearly 60 years of on-and-off containment to deal with the Soviet Union. We have been four decades dealing with Iran. Hopefully, at some point the Iranian people will force their government to abandon reckless nuclear and overseas adventurism.  

Iran’s leaders are now on notice that they are accountable. Old Marines have a saying: “To err is human, to forgive is divine; neither of which is Marine Corps policy.”

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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