The decision to go off script and strike directly at Soleimani and Muhandis has been termed “regime disruption,” a purposeful attempt to confuse Tehran by doing something unprecedented. Iran’s initial reaction was muted despite is boasts of “hard revenge,” because it doesn’t know what to do. It wants to keep an open account with the U.S., as a threat to do more. But Tehran’s usual attempt to control the tempo of conflict in the Middle East has been blunted.
Lesson learned: Iran does best when it gets to set the narrative through its good-cop/bad-cop strategy of military bluster and political sweet talk, played by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. But what does Iran do when it faces complex challenges? In Syria, Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets, and Iran has responded with desultory rocket fire. The attacks appear to have reached a point where Iran expects them and shrugs them off, because, as with Soleimani, it doesn’t know how to respond to Israel. It has provided Hezbollah with a massive arsenal of rockets and wants to equip them with precision guidance, but Tehran must know that you get to use this massive arsenal only once before you provoke a war with Israel. That means that Hezbollah has one shot and that Iran must preserve that threat for a rainy day.