And yet Iran’s thirst for revenge is surely not slaked. Even if they avoid overt forms of aggression, the Revolutionary Guards are likely to pursue other tactics, including cyber-attacks, suicide- bombings by proxies, assassinations of American officials and an array of means they have honed over the years. These reprisals could take months to unfold. As the killing of General Suleimani recedes, Iran will once again begin to probe the willingness of America to use force. In an asymmetric world weak parties often retreat in the face of force, only to return. They have more patience and a greater tolerance of pain than a distant superpower does.
The second test is whether America’s strike weakens Iran’s grip on its neighbours. Iran has a network of militias, proxies and forward bases for its Quds Force, across an area that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. This is about projecting Iranian power, regardless of the atrocities committed by its clients, such as Bashar al-Assad, who used nerve gas on his own people without a whisper of complaint from Iran.
General Suleimani’s death deprives this grim network of its architect and orchestrator. It is too soon to judge the calibre of those who are taking his place, but if the general was as exceptional as his reputation, then his loss will be felt. It may also deprive the Quds Force of funds. The Iranian state is desperately short of money. Ordinary Iranians have noticed that resources which are going on guns and mortars might be better spent on schools and hospitals.
But there are complications here, too. After the assassination, Iran is hellbent on pushing America out of the Middle East. It will start in Iraq, where it has mostly outmanoeuvred America. The government in Baghdad is dominated by Shia politicians in thrall to Iran. On January 5th Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to start evicting foreign troops, including 5,000 or so American soldiers. The vote is not binding, many Iraqis resent Iranian influence, and American money and weapons are valuable to Iraq. Even so, it increasingly seems more a question of when, rather than if, the troops finally go.