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How Iran could retaliate against the United States

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Hezbollah fighters hold flags as they attend the memorial of their slain leader Sheik Abbas al-Mousawi, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992, in Tefahta village, south Lebano, on Feb. 13, 2016.   -   Copyright  Mohammed Zaatari
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WASHINGTON — For two decades, Qassem Soleimani methodically built a global web of proxies, militias and allies capable of doing Iran's bidding while operating largely in the shadows. Now that same network is likely poised to avenge his killing, posing a threat that could strike just about anywhere in the world.

As Iran vows "harsh retaliation," Soleimani's killing by a U.S. drone strike has ricocheted across the world, triggering embassy security alerts throughout the Middle East and stepped-up security in U.S. cities. As the world braces for a potentially spiraling escalation, U.S. defense officials said another 3,500 troops were headed within hours to the Middle East.

And at Mar-a-Lago, where President Donald Trumpwas vacationing, the activity level has been intensifying, as officials try to prepare for any potential retaliatory options, said a source familiar with events at the Florida club.

Soleimani, the longtime commander of Iran's elite Quds Force and a revered figure in Iran, largely engineered Iran's strategy of using asymmetric and paramilitary tactics to overcome its major disadvantage: Its formal military is no match for major fighting forces like the U.S.

"What the Iranians have in front of them is a menu of potential routes they could take. It could be directly or indirectly," said Naysan Rafati, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Iran's response could take many forms, targeting U.S. individuals, assets, interests, allies, or some combination. It might not be immediate, and could play out in the Middle East, elsewhere, or in cyberspace.

Nick Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and an NBC News contributor, said Iran's overseas capabilities can be viewed as three concentric circles.

In its immediate neighborhood, Iran could put together a response almost immediately, such as this week's assault on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. In the broader Middle East, it might take Iran more time, but its proxies could still threaten U.S. personnel, businesspeople or tourists, Rasmussen said. In the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia and in Latin America, Iran's capabilities are less advanced — but not negligible.

"The point is they're not starting from zero almost anywhere. There's always something they have, almost everywhere," Rasmussen said. "It's hard to defend against that because it could be almost anywhere."

Here are some potential targets for retaliation by Iran:

U.S. military assets

The United States has troops currently staged throughout the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, including in Iraq, Syria, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Since the 1980s, Iran has armed and trained a web of Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, staging lethal attacks on American targets and allies. The proxies allow Iran to exert military and political influence at relatively low cost, while forcing adversaries to think twice before launching a direct attack on Iranian soil.

Iran wields extensive political influence in predominantly Shiite Iraq, where Soleimani's Quds Force built up and armed militias that targeted U.S. troops.

Iran's partners in Iraq could stage attacks on the 5,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the American consulate in the northern city of Erbil, Americans working in the oil industry or the hundreds of contractors that support U.S. troops and maintain the Baghdad embassy compound.

Khalid Mohammed
Iraqi Shiite militia group called Imam Ali Brigades chant slogans against the Islamic State group at the battlefield in Tikrit, Iraq, Saturday, on March 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)Khalid Mohammed

In Syria, where a small U.S. force is deployed, Iran has a large contingent of Shiite fighters backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers that could target the American troops or their Kurdish allies.

U.S. embassies

Although heavily fortified in the Middle East, U.S. embassies are a prominent projection of American global power and have been attacked by Iran before.

Only a few days before Soleimani's killing, as U.S.-Iran tensions were escalating, the U.S. Embassy was attacked by pro-Iran protesters in Baghdad — the same city where Soleimani was later struck. President Donald Trump on Twitter blamed Iran for "orchestrating" the attack.

The storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 with Americans taken hostage for more than a year became a powerful symbol of Iran's revolution and the end of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations. Several years later, Iran and its proxies were implicated in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait.

Persian Gulf

Apart from attacks by proxies, Iran could use its growing missile and drone arsenal to inflict damage on America's Persian Gulf allies by hitting oil facilities and tankers at sea. If Iran wanted to take more drastic action, it could fulfill its threat to effectively shut down oil shipping through the Strait of Hormuz by attacking tankers and planting mines.

U.S. allies

Iran could hit one of America's regional allies, many of whom happen to be enemies of Iran anyway, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In Lebanon, Israel's neighbor, Iran helped create the Shiite Hezbollah militia, which has grown into the country's single most powerful military and political force. Hezbollah could launch attacks on American interests in Lebanon, or renew its rocket attacks in neighboring Israel.

Aziz Taher
Supporters of Lebanon\'s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gesture as they listen to his televised speech in Baalbeck, Lebanon Oct. 19, 2019.Aziz Taher

In Saudi Arabia, a September 2018 attack on a key hub of the kingdom's oil infrastructure was blamed by the U.S. and European governments on Iran, highlighting Tehran's ability to penetrate Saudi air defenses with precision.

American citizens

Clément Therme, a research fellow at Sciences Po, a Paris-based political science institute, said another potential response was for Iran's proxies to capture Americans overseas.

"The reaction could be hostage taking," Therme said, particularly in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. In Iraq, the U.S. Embassy has already told all Americans to leave the country immediately, in an implicit acknowledgement of that possibility.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's significant control over the airport and certain regions of the country could create more turf where Americans could be vulnerable, security experts said. And Hezbollah's reach isn't limited to the Middle East: Terrorism analysts have tracked the group's planting of organizational roots across Africa and Latin America, and to a lesser extent in the United States.

Cyber

Iran will likely employ its growing cyber warfare prowess to strike at the United States directly, former U.S. officials say. But staging a terrorist attack on U.S. soil presents a tougher challenge for Iran, and it could take some time to organize and plan, former intelligence officials said.

Iran has really been upping their A-game as far as their cyber capabilities and to be able to use those cyber capabilities to be able to use those capabilities to conduct espionage, to conduct intelligence gathering, as well as to conduct mayhem," said Theresa Payton, former White House chief information officer and CEO of the cybersecurity firm Fortalice Solutions.