On Tuesday, 03 March 2015, approximately 20 kilometres west of Tehran, an inmate at the Gohardasht Prison serving time for blinding another man with acid was rendered unconscious as medical doctors gouged out his left eye. This state-sanctioned punishment was condemned as "barbaric" and "unspeakably cruel" by various international human rights groups and seemingly marked the first time in modern history that Iranian authorities actually carried out this ancient "eye-for-an-eye" style of punishment.
When viewed from an international perspective however, it starts to become clear that the Iranian regime is no stranger to revenge or retribution. Indeed, with the recent U.S. operation that killed General Qassim Soleimani, the leading commander of the Quds Force within Iran's Republican Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran has pledged "severe revenge" for his death. To respond to his death, on 08 January, Iran sent a barrage of missiles to several Iraqi airbases housing US troops—injuring Iraqis, but not Americans, in the process. Although Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javid Zarif, celebrated it as a victory and called it a day, it would be prudent to remain on guard.
One particularly salient example from history is the Islamic Republic's response to the tragic destruction of its Iranian Air Flight 655 in 1988. The initial attack itself, which was deemed by an investigation a result of human error and deficient human-machine interfaces, ultimately resulted in the death of nearly 300 Iran Air Passengers. In a similar fashion to their modern-day outburst of anger following the death of Soleimani, Tehran responded immediately with verbal condemnations against Washington.
Although the Iranian government did not directly vow revenge or make any immediate threats against the United States for what they perceived as an attack of Iran Air Flight 655, it has recently been revealed that just several months after the destruction of the Iranian air flight, an Iranian Secret Service Official, close to former President Rafsanjani, paid some $10 million (USD) to the Libyan authorities to conduct a terrorist attack on American Airlines according to information obtained by a secret US Defense Intelligence Agency report that has been declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous subsequent investigations uncovered that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command was tasked to carry out the mission. While Ghaddafi sanctioned the operation, it was instigated by the Iranian regime . Roughly five months later, on 21 December 1988, a Boeing 747 American airline Pan Am (Flight 103) exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
But the Iranian regime felt that it needed to deliver even a more clearer message: several months after the Iranian funded terrorist attack, the wife of William Rogers, the captain of the USS Vincennes warship responsible for the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655, narrowly survived a car bomb near the U.S. naval base in San Diego. This marked the first attack of this type on American soil and demonstrated to the world the length that the Islamic Republic was willing to go through to exact revenge.
President Hassan Rouhani made sure he would remind the world of the incident. On 6 January he tweeted 'Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655. Never threaten the Iranian nation.’ His Tweet did not make sense to a lot of people because they could not draw the connection, and Iran does not want to directly admit it. Given Iran’s covert role and U.S. intelligence familiarity with the case, the threat should be clear.
The modern-day Iranian vendetta to avenge the death of Soleimani is rife with even more possibilities for clandestine Iranian retaliation. As the assassination of Soleimani was beyond conventional norms, the response will be in kind, on Iran’s time and its own terms. Many experts are already warning of the possibility of an increase in cyberattacks. Just recently, in October 2019, it was shown that Iranian hackers targeted more than 170 universities between 2013 and 2017, who successfully stole more than $3.4 billion dollars’ worth of intellectual property. Iranian hackers have also conducted a series of attacks against the Trump campaign, current and former U.S. government officials, journalists and many Iranians living abroad.
While Iran signalled satisfaction with the 08 January attacks on the Iraqi bases, anyone familiar with Iran and its style of revenge would know that their creativity transcends such an attack in which no US servicemen were killed. They should also understand that Iran will not admit culpability for any act that could be seen as disproportionate or cruel. This is why Iran hid behind Yemen’s Houthis as it attacked Saudi Aramco oil installations last September. Iran’s capacity to inflict violence is most effective when it denies responsibility for it, such as denying its role in supporting Assad’s Syria (initially) and denying its role in supporting the Houthis of Yemen.
Moreover, Soleimani's aura among his Arab supporters and militiamen abroad was too impactful to ignore. From Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Soleimani helped establish a transnational network known as the "Axis of Resistance," with the sole responsibility of defeating the "Coalition Countries" represented by the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is why Soleimani's daughter felt confident enough in calling upon the Houthis' of Yemen to avenge her father's death.
Although there is a sigh of relief for the limited damage of Iran’s missile barrage, the operation appeared to serve Iran’s strategy rather than pursue revenge. For now, the Islamic Republic’s ultimate goal is to expel the U.S. and shutter its bases in the region entirely. In his speech after Soleimani’s death, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, made it clear that an end to the U.S. role in the Middle East is the most effective retribution for Soleimani's death. Whether this will take a year or a decade, all of Iran's focus now is to serve this objective. In fact, the Iraqi parliament's vote (non-binding) on removing U.S. forces is a first step towards ensuring a region free from U.S. influence. Iran’s attack appeared to be aimed at threatening Iraq to swiftly ask US forces to leave.
If history is any indicator, Iran’s revenge will likely be much like General Soleimani himself — cold, calculated, methodical and operated from the shadows. While it is highly unlikely that any single cyberattack or terrorist attack — even one as damaging as the Lockerbie Flight 103 — will be the extent of Iranian retaliation to Soleimani’s death, what would likely be a response is either the assassination of a high-profile American official outside of the United States or Iran’s usual modus operandi in leveraging its experience in asymmetrical warfare to inflict as much damage as possible to the U.S. and its allies.
Unfortunately, the inability to hold Iran accountable for its destruction in the Middle East has been part of the problem that has emboldened Iran to act violently against whatever it perceives as a threat, whether from the U.S. or from its own citizens. This does not mean that the U.S. should maintain its confrontation with Iran and abandon diplomatic pursuits for de-escalation, instead, it should attempt to put together a bipartisan plan that would allow it to respond immediately should the Islamic regime decide to escalate, as it most definitely will.
*Fatima Alasrar is a Member of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre Steering Committee
15 January 2020