Brace yourselves. In an unexpected move on January 3, the United States carried out a drone strike that killed a key military figure in Iran, General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, the architect of Iranian military influence across the Middle East and the second most powerful figure in Iran after the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei. The strike also killed Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a largely autonomous paramilitary arm of the Iraqi armed forces.

This event signals a major escalation of US-Iranian tensions. The US’ strike is the first direct military confrontation with Iran resulting in the death of a high-ranking military official. The strikes were part of an escalating cycle of retaliation carried out by both sides over the past few weeks.

How might Iran respond?

Iran is expected to respond, if not immediately, then after a short period of calm. The response is most likely to come through proxies, rather than a direct confrontation with the US. Iran’s goal will continue to be to harass and drive US troops out of the region while keeping the theatre of conflict away from their homeland to preserve its scarce military resources for a future war.

We believe Iranian attacks on US military bases will intensify. Previously, Iran’s attacks were carefully designed as a show of power while drawing a firm line at intentionally killing any Americans. With the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian general, the rules of engagement seem to have changed. The Iranian regime could start striking with an intent to kill. If that happens, it could eventually lead to direct military confrontation between the US and Iran.