The Iranian missile attacks on two US military bases in Iraq represented the first, public, stage of revenge for the assassination of top commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
But Iran's attacks on the US may not be over yet — they're likely to be followed by a variety of less overt and more dangerous responses, by way of regional proxies across the Middle East, intelligence experts and diplomatic sources say. In the past, Iran and its proxies have waited up to six years to finally deliver the vengeance they desired.
Shortly after the Wednesday morning missile strikes, Iran's leadership — including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — claimed they had concluded all retaliatory measures against the US. Experts aren't so sure.
“The Iranians had to make a public move for domestic political reasons in the aftermath of Soleimani's killing,” a NATO military intelligence official currently based in the region told Business Insider Wednesday.
“But now we enter a new stage where the Iranians will let their proxies in Iraq conduct operations within the context of the Iraqi political arena, while also pursuing a much sharper retaliation against US targets going forward that will be designed to be ambiguous in terms of taking credit, and are likely to be more deadly.”
The source asked to remain anonymous because they do not have permission from their government to speak openly to the media.
'Political theater' … 'will not replace the blood-for-blood desire for revenge'
They described the missile strikes as “political theater” that “will not replace the blood-for-blood desire for revenge” by Tehran.
The missiles, which were openly launched from Iranian military bases, did not kill either US-led coalition or Iraqi troops based at the target locations. US officials reportedly suspect that Iran may have been shooting to miss.
'Only one aspect of the Iranian plans for revenge'
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on Wednesday described the missile attack as a “slap in the face” to the Americans. He also said Iran would not escalate the missile strikes if the Americans did not retaliate.
He did, however, criticize the ongoing US military presence in the region, saying in a tweet: “The US has caused war, division, sedition, destruction, and the demolition of infrastructures in this region. Of course they do this everywhere in the world. This region won't accept the US presence.”
A departure of US forces in the region is one of Iran's most public military and diplomatic priorities.
This has left analysts convinced that Iran would continue to pursue covert attacks US military and diplomatic facilities, despite their claims to prefer de-escalation of the two countries' overt military confrontations.
“The missile strikes represent only one aspect of the Iranian plans for revenge,” said a former contractor to the UAE intelligence services, who still maintains security contracts around the Middle East and asked to not be named discussing the sensitive subject of Iranian retaliation.
“The next obvious track will be the response of the Hashd towards the presence of US troops in Iraq on the ISIS training and security mission,” the source said, referring to the mostly Shiite militias that formed with heavy Iranian support to confront ISIS in 2014.
“Abu Mahdi [al-Muhandis] was a major figure in the Iraqi militia community and is considered deserving of revenge of his own,” said the UAE-linked source, referring to the commander of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia with close ties to Iran, who was killed alongside Soleimani.
'They might remain patient for now to see how the political effort to remove the Americans develops'
Shortly after the Iranian missile attacks, Qais al Khazali — a powerful militia commander widely seen as an Iranian operative in Iraq — said that the Iranians had taken their action, but that Iraqi groups now need to remove US troops from their country, according to Agence France-Presse.
This was widely seen as an immediate threat to US facilities in the region.
“[The militias] will face pressure to work within the Iraqi political system, which is gearing up to kick the US troops out,” said the NATO intelligence source.
“There will almost certainly be attacks on US troops from these groups, but they might remain patient for now to see how the political effort to remove the Americans develops.”
“Sure, there will be an Iraqi militia response towards US troops based in Iraq,” said the UAE source. “But that will not be related to the Iranian covert revenge track, which will be very patient and likely target a high-value facility or even US official for attack.”
Iran and its regional proxies, which include Yemen's Houthis and Lebanon's Hezbollah, have shown tremendous patience in the past when it comes to conducting revenge attacks.
Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, once waited four years to avenge the killing of Soleimani's colleague
After the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah commander and top Soleimani colleague Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, reportedly in a joint CIA-Mossad operation, both Iran and Hezbollah vowed revenge against Israel. Various Hezbollah attacks on Israeli targets in Georgia, Thailand, and Cyprus were disrupted over the following years.
But in 2012 — six years later — the group finally struck back with a suicide bombing directed at Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israelis, the Bulgarian bus driver, and the Lebanese bomber. Thirty-two Israelis were wounded.
“The US diplomatic and military facilities around the world will be looking at months, if not years, of extra security for fear of an Iranian-led attack,” said the UAE linked official.
“They will not feel pressure to just strike anything — that's what last night's missile attacks were for. The next attack will be much more vicious, deadly, and in all likelihood, vaguely deniable for the Iranian authorities.”