As possible scenarios for an Iranian response to Qassem Suleimani’s assassination continue to circulate, the last time the US killed an operative as remotely important to Tehran’s foreign operations may offer clues on how the country will move forward.
In the last, and reportedly only, television interview by Suleimani, he focused on his affinity to a linchpin figure whose killing also constituted a huge blow to Iran’s clerical rulers, depriving them of a chief regional enforcer.
He was Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah mastermind killed by a bomb that tore apart his golden Mitsubishi Pajero next to the Iranian Cultural Centre in Damascus in February 2008.
Suleimani was the de facto boss of Mughniyeh, and was much closer to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, than his Lebanese subordinate, who was not officially a member in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But Mughniyeh’s assassination showed how much Iran weighs options carefully when it comes to the possibility of direct confrontation.
The assassination, US media reports later said, was carried out by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad. At the time, Iran and Hezbollah blamed Israel as the perpetrator.
In the immediate aftermath, the IRGC said Israel would soon be destroyed by Hezbollah, which threatened Israel with open war. The Quds Force, which was led by Suleimani, is a division of the IRGC.
But no direct hostilities by either side ensued. Two years earlier, Hezbollah had come under domestic criticism in Lebanon for starting a month-long war with Israel in which 1,200 Lebanese civilians were killed and significant infrastructure in Lebanon was destroyed.
It was not until the Syrian civil war, which was ignited by the crackdown on the 2011 revolt against Bashar Al Assad that violence between Hezbollah and Israel resumed, though it remained limited.
Mughniyeh was Lebanese but Suleimani saw him as one of Iran’s own, and unlike other Arab clients of Tehran, a near equal. In 2019, Suleimani called Mughniyeh a “legend”, Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV reported.
A US drone attack killed Suleimani in Baghdad last week, along with his Iraqi right hand militiaman Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, in the first overt violence between Iran and Washington in decades.
US President Donald Trump warned Iranian leaders against acting on their vows for revenge, saying the US military would pulverise 52 sites in Iran, equal to the number of Americans in the 1979 hostage crisis.
After Suleimani’s assassination, Iran vowed “severe revenge” for the general, later clarifying this would come in a military form.
Iranian officials made similar emotional pronouncements mourning Mughniyeh in 2008. But Tehran’s thinking quickly recalibrated and focused on long-term gains.
At the time, Iranian officials said they would conduct their own investigation into Mughniyeh’s killing, prompting a rare public spat with the Syrian regime.
But the assassination occurred as a potential route for compromise was emerging in the form of the US nuclear deal, despite tension with Washington remaining high and several Iranian nuclear scientists being assassinated.
The nuclear deal was signed in 2015. Under the Trump administration the US pulled out and over the past year has intensified sanctions on Tehran.
Suleimani was a central figure in Iranian brinkmanship, whose tenet has been to avoid open ended escalations.
In a lengthy interview with Iranian television in October, Suleimani recalled some of his perceived achievements with Mughniyeh.
He recalled how under threat from Israeli spy planes he crossed with Mughniyeh into Lebanon from Syria during Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel to whisk the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to safety at an undisclosed location.
Diplomats and security officials in the Middle East said Iran and Hezbollah eventually exacted their own version of revenge for the killing of Mughniyeh.
The sources said Tehran and Hezbollah encouraged Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza to ratchet up rocket firing on Israel throughout 2008.
The rockets contributed to the outbreak of a Gaza war on December 27, 2008, which was followed a few days later by Israel’s invasion of the strip.
Up to 1,400 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians, compared with few Israelis.
It may have been an indirect, almost arcane retribution for the killing of one of the most wanted men in the world. It cost thousands of Palestinian casualties between dead and wounded - people Tehran supposedly back - yet not one Iranian.