Iranian response options after the death of Soleimani

The person. One of the most experienced and hardened military leaders in the world who rose to power during the Iran/Iraq war. Soleimani had a legendary status within Iran. His link to the Supreme Leader was well known as was his authority to act on his behalf. He was arguably the second most powerful man in Iran so should be regarded as more than ‘just’ a terrorist leader.

The lead up. What is not clear yet is whether this was a) long planned as part of the ongoing to-and-fro (noting that no response to the Aramco attack was seen), b) a shorter term escalation following on from the rockets that killed the US contractor, the counter strike in Kata’ib and the counter-counter on the US embassy in Baghdad, or c) a short notice target-of-opportunity that was too good to miss. I suspect c) but fed by b). The intelligence implications of his position being reported (live) from Iraq and that they (presumably) permitted the attack, should not be underestimated.

The response. The SL’s response options to this can be broadly categorised in four groups; military, proxy, counter-assassination and cyber:

1. Cyber. The recently reported increase in activity by Bahraini intelligence suggests that low level cyber activity remains ongoing. Iran could escalate this but, unless they get lucky, escalating in this arena against the US will only have one outcome.  

2. Proxies. Very hard to describe succinctly the breadth, width and latent capability of these, all of which could slowly ratchet up their efforts to cause chaos and confusion across the region. Continued attacks on embassies/outposts possible as is a renewal of attacks on civilians (such as the missiles fired repeatedly at the international airport in KSA). Continued asymmetric (rather than conventional military) activity in the Strait of Hormuz to be expected.

3. Counter assassination. Very hard to call this accurately but surely on their planning table. Could be a close friend of POTUS or a vocal supporter of his within the MENA region. No overseas drone capability so car bomb or something similar, within the next two years. Very unlikely to be done on US/Europe/APAC soil.

4. Military. A huge range of options here, none of which involve going toe-to-toe in a conventional sense. Theatre Ballistic Missiles, sea-mines and fast attack craft, if deployed simultaneously, could cause chaos, cripple coalition command and control centres, destroy  military hardware and would be very difficult to defeat. However, the Iranians will only take this option if they believe the Regime is under threat, if internal pressure to ‘do something’ becomes overwhelming or if they think they can do it and control the subsequent escalation. This last element makes this the least likely option for now (despite the clammer on Twitter).

Other countries. Easy to focus on this becoming Iran vs the US and lose sight of the other local, regional and international players. Oil prices (already) spiking and the effect this will have on the Far East being the most obvious example of the kind of second order effect that may determine the outcome.

Response Assessment.

– Low-level cyber activity to continue. Almost certain (>90%).

Targeted cyber attack on US soil. Realistic Probability (25-50%).

– Increase in nefarious proxy activity. Almost certain (>90%).

— …in the vicinity of major US mil hubs in the region. Probably or Likely (55-70%)

— …increase in civilian targeting. (Realistic Probability (25-50%).

Counter-assassination in due course. Highly probable (75-85%)

Military retaliation. Unlikely (due to difficulty in controlling the situation thereafter) but this depends on the SLs mindset and who is applying pressure on him to respond, both of which are almost impossible to predict. (15-20%)

Published by Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe is a freelance communications consultant and partner at, an international communications consultancy. He specialises in managing reputations and capacity building for complex and often contested organisations. Prior to this he spent 27 years in the Royal Navy, 20 of which were at sea. He commanded four different warships; Northern Ireland, Fishery Protection, a Type 23 Frigate and the Ice Patrol Vessel, HMS Endurance.

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