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Iran Strikes Back

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

On January 3, 2020, the United States killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani by an American drone strike in Baghdad Airport. Soleimani was widely considered Iran’s most important military commander and the man personally responsible for implementing Iran’s regional policies in the past two decades. His assassination, and the potential Iranian response to it, is only the latest step in an increasing escalation between Iran, the Gulf States, and the United States, which began in 2019.

To assess the potential dynamics that will develop following an Iranian attack in response to Soleimani's assassination, Wikistrat ran a role-playing simulation to examine responses by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel to an Iranian attack. The simulation, which took place over five days in January 2020, included more than 35 participants and examined the potential responses, considerations and limitations of these three actors in responding to an Iranian attack.


The United States' Approach:

1. Low probability of an Iranian cyber-attack While the common conception is that Iran will probably retaliate for Soleimani’s killing in the form of a cyber-attack – including against critical infrastructure in the United States – the simulation showed that Iran might not execute different forms of cyber-attacks against the US. One cybersecurity analyst in the simulation estimated that a “plausible cyber response from Iran might be more along the lines of business as usual, though at an accelerated pace.”

2. Even in the event that Iran launches a major cyber-attack against the US, another cybersecurity expert who participated in the simulation noted that while Iran could certainly cause a disruption in the US, “their [cyber] capabilities are way below the US and Israel,” and therefore an Iran cyber-attack would pose a limited threat to the US.

3. Iran is unlikely to respond against the US with direct military force; instead, it will most likely use its proxies to retaliate. A kinetic Iranian response will most likely target US military bases in Iraq, through the Hashd al-Shaabi and other Shia militias. This response will likely target US bases and military personnel, but potentially also US diplomats and civilians.

Iran's approach:

1. Say yes to war. While Iran seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States, as it may threaten the stability of the regime, a short-term conflict could be beneficial to the regime at this time as it would unite the Iranian people behind it and deflect attention from the ongoing protests against the regime.

2. Iran as a cautious actor. Despite fears by President Trump and others that Iran will retaliate against an American attack against it, the simulation showed Iran to be a cautious actor which does not seek to directly retaliate against the US.

Saudi Arabia's Approach:

1. The Saudi response to an Iranian attack will not be based on American actions, but instead on greater cooperation with the other Gulf States. An Iranian attack against Saudi Arabia will be seen as an opportunity to revive the idea of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), the “Arab NATO”.

Israel's Approach:

1. Restrained Aggression. Israel is usually perceived as a heavy-handed regional actor, but the simulation showed that, while Israel’s response to a Hezbollah attack will be swift and aggressive, it will seek to contain any further escalation vis-à-vis Iran or its proxies as much as possible.


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