Assessing the implications of the death of General Soleimani
The media is full of reporting and analysis as a result of the death of General Soleimani due to US intervention, the promise of retaliation by Iran and threat of further attacks on fifty-two Iranian sites by the US if they do. The reporting has focused on the wider strategic defence and security implications but what does it mean for other organisations with assets and personnel in or visiting the region? Here we attempt to provide a practical look at the changing threat environment and offer some advice on what should be done.
Who was he and why is he important?
Firstly, it’s important to understand the gravity of this event. Soleimani was a senior and respected Iranian General who reported directly to the Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. For over twenty years he has commanded the Quds Force. A unit within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with conducting unconventional warfare and special operations on behalf of the Iranian state as a cornerstone of their foreign policy.
The Quds force is Iran’s conduit to numerous proxy groups, non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis and militias in Iraq and Syria. As well as providing advice, equipment and training the force conducts covert and deniable operations on behalf on the Iranian state directly or through these proxies including kidnappings, assassinations, sabotage and acts of terrorism.
Soleimani, as its commander for over twenty years helped Assad turn the tables in Syria and ensured Iran’s influence in Iraq. He was a poster boy for the Iranian hard-liners, a tough military strategist and tactician but was portrayed as humble as well as courageous and devoted to Iranian and Shia ideology, Iran’s ‘warrior monk’. He was described by a former CIA director as an evil genius.
Thus, he was an iconic and senior figure so the Iranians can’t be seen to let his death pass without retribution. History shows that Iran never backs down, in public at least, and believes that to not respond in kind shows weakness and makes them vulnerable. Thus, retaliation would seem inevitable.
How are they likely to retaliate?
They will be considering their options, in the short and medium term, so there’s no absolute answer. It remains for now a mystery rather than a secret. All that is certain is that they will respond. Their response will no doubt be complex, played out over time in a variety of places and using a range of methods.
They may well seek to orchestrate an initial short-term response not least in Iraq where the Iraqi parliament has already called for the withdrawal of US and allied forces. Perhaps using Shia militia groups to attack US bases and interests while at the same time putting political pressure on the Iraqi government to follow through on the call for a withdrawal of US forces. Rocket attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad have already occurred.
Beyond Iraq they may well direct other proxy groups to carry out attacks on US interests and they have plenty of potential options. Shia militia may carry out attacks against US bases in Syria or the Hezbollah in Lebanon who could attempt to strike at the US Embassy or other US interests in country. The Houthi rebels in Yemen who are supported by Iran may increase their missile attacks on US interests and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
Further afield Iranian backed groups in Afghanistan could target US forces or they may seek to cause disruption in the Gulf region, Bahrain, the UAE or Oman. In terms of Europe and the attacks we have seen initiated or inspired by IS these are less likely.
Closer to home they may consider detaining US or western nationals currently in Iran.
History shows the Iranians often look for a like for like response so may try to directly or indirectly target senior US officials or representation in the region.
They may also attempt to disrupt maritime activity in the Persian Gulf.
When will it happen?
Perhaps within days, their proxies have existing capability and on the shelf plans to attack US interests, but this will probably be followed up by other more considered targeting and operations in the short to medium term. Much will also depend on the US response to any initial Iranian action.
Defining the new threat environment
Think of it in terms of a series of concentric circles like a target, with Iraq and Iran as the bullseye. The biggest immediate threat is probably in Iraq against US but also other western interests, followed by the threat to US and UK citizens in Iran itself. The next concentric ring is the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. The third ring is the wider Middle East not least the Lebanon and Israel.
Further afield the threat is perhaps less high barring in Afghanistan. That said the Quds Force does have a hidden hand in North Africa and the Balkans for instance.
What should you to do?
Monitor events closely, the Iranians will be weighing up the options so it’s not possible to predict the outcomes yet, remember their response is still a mystery rather than a secret.
Pay special attention to FCO and US State Department travel advice; look for subtle as well as clear changes in advice. It’s often bland and errs on the side of caution but it’s well informed by intelligence reporting from MI6 and the CIA.
Consider special measures for any US nationals on your payroll.
Use the concentric circles model to calibrate and prioritise your overall response.
In Iraq serious consideration should be given to extracting personnel or at least non-essential staff and delaying any planned deployments. Review your security arrangements, contingency planning and personnel training. Consider placing restrictions on movement. Brief all staff on the changing threat environment and on the importance of everyone maintaining a high-level of situational awareness.
In Iran itself seriously consider withdrawing any US and UK nationals and cancelling any planned visits, the same applies for German and French nationals too.
Within the Gulf region (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman) review your current security arrangements and contingency plans, brief staff on the change in threat environment and encourage them to maintain high levels of situational awareness. Then look towards the wider ME (Jordon, Israel, Egypt) and similarly review your current security arrangements and contingency planning. Avoid US facilities and in Saudi Arabia particularly, be aware of increased risk of government and oil related sites.
When doing all the above also think about collateral effect. Are your personnel located close to US personnel or interests or are they frequenting the same venues (hotels, restaurants) and using the same facilities? Is this necessary and can they for now at least be avoided?
Finally, the situation remains dynamic so be prepared to adjust your security stance in response to a changing threat environment. For keeping abreast of developments is key either in-house or under guidance from a risk management company.
David Curran MA CSyP FSyl Chartered FCIPD
Director, Edson Tiger