There are four consequences to America’s assassination of General Kassem Soleimani, the former head of the Quds Force, Iran’s arm of international military and intelligence interventions.
The first is operational. Soleimani’s role in Lebanon was never more than advisory. In Syria, the objective he was working for, a largely unified country under the Assad regime, has almost been completed. In Yemen, his role was never hands-on, but primarily giving advice and commenting on direction. It is in Iraq, however, where Soleimani was killed, that his role had been operationally critical. There, Soleimani was orchestrating the responses to the revolution raging, for months, in the country. This revolution against the entire political structure that has dominated Iraq since the mid 2000s, following the US’s invasion, is a direct threat to Iran – for two reasons. One: that political structure rests on different forms of political Shiism, which is the basis of rule of the Islamic Republic in Iran. Two: with its Shii majority, and many political and social features, Iraq resembles Iran in several areas. And so, the fall of political Shiism in Iraq could cause strong vibrations in Iran. As such, Soleimani’s operational role in Iraq was not only crucial for Iran’s influence in Iraq, but also for the stability of the Iranian regime itself.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, has promptly replaced Soleimani with a new head of the Quds Force. But this transition will not be smooth. To start with, Soleimani was that rare leader who is a brilliant strategist, details-oriented operational manager, innovative intelligence officer, and savvy user of communications and narrative arts. Add to that, he had a strong charisma that augmented a long career. His name has become a brand and the Force’s strongest asset. His absence will lessen the effectiveness that has characterised the Quds Force in the past decade. In addition to that, under Soleimani, the Quds Force has amassed major resources and operated largely independently from the body of the Iranian armed forces. Maintaining that autonomy will prove difficult. And so his absence might also result in an overhaul of how the Force operates in the future.
The second consequence relates to Iran’s internal politics. Kassem Soleimani was, arguably, the second most powerful man in Iran after Ayatollah Khamanei. He was not qualified to replace the Supreme Leader. But his influence and reach within the country’s closed power circles put a brake on potential ambitions, whether in Tehran, or in Qom, Iran’s seat of Shii learning and the concentration of a number of the country’s leading theological figures. To a large extent, he was a stabilising factor, especially between the military and theological sides of the regime. Now that that centre of gravity is gone, and as Ayatollah Khamanei approaches 80 years old, some in those two sides might begin to play at the top slot. Internal political confrontations are unlikely, particularly as the regime of the Islamic Republic faces an internal revolt. But in the coming period of transition at the very top, friction between different wings of the system is now more likely.
The third consequence concerns positioning. Part of the success of Iran’s expansionism in the past 15-years has been built on creating and sustaining the perception that: Iran knows how to win. This perception was largely anchored on reality, for Iran, indeed, did realise significant achievements: in its negotiations with the West (until Donald Trump became US President), in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and to a large extent in Yemen. This perception aimed to give Iran an aura of success that makes its opponents cautious in dealing with it. ‘Brand Soleimani’ was part of that perception. His assassination in Baghdad, almost immediately after the storming of the American embassy in the city and following Trump’s threat that those responsible will pay for it, will lead many to believe that Soleimani’s network of operations was infiltrated, monitored, and easily attacked. This dilutes the perception that Iran has worked hard to create.
The fourth consequence relates to Iran’s response. Given the weight of Soleimani’s legacy, the Iranian response to his assassination must, in the eyes of the regime’s constituencies domestically and internationally, be serious. Here, we will enter a situation in which both, the US (and with it, Israel and potentially Saudi Arabia) and Iran (and with it, Hizbollah and the Assad regime) respond to each other’s attacks in a game in which both are compelled to take actions against the other while both are trying to avoid war. This is a dangerous dynamic, especially in a year of US presidential election when no American president can risk appearing, in the lingo of US politics, weak.
Observers of the Middle East must weigh these consequences carefully, for they could well affect Iran’s domestic politics, war and peace in the Gulf, and the Eastern Mediterranean strategic landscape.