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As Iran Tuesday launched missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq in an apparent retaliation for U.S. killing of its top commander, Middle East experts warn that the region could be heading towards a new wave of violence marked by a looming breakout of violence from Iran and its proxies against the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S. Defense Department in a statement confirmed that more than a dozen ballistic missiles were fired into at least two Iraqi air bases that house U.S. troops. The attack, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said, is a retaliation after the country’s top commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a drone strike in Baghdad, on the orders of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, disclosed earlier Tuesday that the council was considering 12 “revenge scenarios.” “Even if there is consensus on the weakest scenario, carrying it out can be a historic nightmare for the Americans,” Shamkhani is quoted to have said in the semi-official Fars news agency.
Some security observers of the Middle East say the Iranian attack targeting Iraq’s al-Asad airbase in Anbar and Irbil airbase in Kurdistan region represent a major escalation between the U.S. and Iran, likely followed by a wave of proxy Iranian violence against U.S. interests and its allies in the region.
“It’s clear that this is a significant event in terms of the Iranian regime’s credibility,” said Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. He said the significant role Soleimani played in Iran’s expansion in the Middle East made it hard for the country to absorb his loss without reacting.
Soleimani was considered Iran’s most powerful figure after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under his command, the IRGC-Quds Forces unit successfully expanded Iran’s influence in the so-called “Shiite Crescent”— a term referring to a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East where Shiite communities reside.
Iran, which has called the U.S. attack an act of war, has already declared the day of Soleimani’s killing “National Resistance Day.” Throughout the country, thousands of black-clad mourners attended the funeral. News footage showed Khamenei sobbing as he led the funeral prayer in Tehran on Monday.
Monday night, the U.S. reportedly placed its forces and air-defense missile batteries across the Middle East on high alert for possible Iranian drone attacks, U.S. officials told CNN. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned Saturday against “homeland-based plots” against U.S. infrastructure, including cyberattacks.
According to Nicholas Blanford of the Atlantic Council, the Iranian regime will likely depend on a string of friendly militias it has promoted across the Middle East over years of interference in the region.
“There are plenty of American forces in the Middle East that could potentially be targeted. It’s possible we’ll see something on Israel’s borders. Possibly Islamic Jihad firing some rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Possibly some of the Iraqi (Shiite) groups, or even (Lebanese) Hezbollah that are now in Syria,” Blanford told VOA.
Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian regime has made the Quds Force responsible for Iran’s external operations to advance its revolutionary values. Over the years, the Quds force has supported pro-Iran paramilitary groups in Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. interests in the region are particularly at risk of attack from Hezbollah, which has gained considerable strength at home and abroad since its appearance in 1982, according to Thomas Abi-Hanna, a security analyst with Stratfor Threat Lens.
“Hezbollah is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, political actor within Lebanon,” he said. “It has a rocket arsenal of over a 130 rockets and mortars, and a history of conducting attacks both against the U.S. and other targets within Lebanon and elsewhere.”
Abi-Hanna said Hezbollah could strike U.S. forces in Syria or Israeli targets.
Hezbollah in Latin America
Abi-Hanna said Hezbollah has developed over the years “a fairly robust cyber unit,” which it can use to launch cyberattacks against the U.S. Moreover, the group’s global presence in regions such as Latin America and Europe give it a much wider set of options to retaliate against the U.S.
“Hezbollah has been linked to attacks and operations everywhere from Argentina in South America to Bulgaria in Eastern Europe and even India in South Asia. So, there could potentially be attacks really anywhere in the world. And what we are talking about (are) kinetic attacks, like a bombing or an armed assault, or something of that nature,” Abi-Hanna said.
Samuel Ramani, a Middle East researcher at Oxford University, told VOA that the Persian Gulf region is yet another area where U.S. interests and allies such as Saudi Arabia could be vulnerable to attacks from Iran and its ally, Yemen’s Houthi militia.
The most likely scenario, Ramani charged, is a Houthi major strike on Saudi Arabia, “as Iranian policymakers see the Saudi influence in Washington as instrumental in U.S. decision-making, even if Riyadh was not consulted on the Soleimani killing.”
The Saudi Aramco oil facilities came under an attack in September, which temporarily shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production and cost it $200 billion. U.S and Saudi officials have blamed Iran, despite Tehran’s denial of the accusations.
VOA Persian’s Katherine Ahn contributed to this report from Washington.