The American government’s targeted assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, is one of the most significant events in the turbulent 40-year history of US-Iran relations.
Although he has long been on the radar of policymakers around the world, Soleimani’s profile had only recently come to public attention in the West, owing largely to his instrumental role in expanding the Islamic Republic’s sphere of influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. He was particularly known, and feared, for his seemingly omniscient presence on battlefields across those countries, and for his cultivation of a transnational network of fighters and recruits stretching from southern and central Asia to the eastern Mediterranean. As a much-cited 2013 profile of him in The New Yorker noted, “Among spies in the West, he appears to exist in a special category, an enemy both hated and admired: a Middle Eastern equivalent of Karla, the elusive Soviet master spy in John le Carré’s novels.” The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for years referred to him as “a living martyr of the revolution.”
Soleimani was not merely a cunning operative, however. As the enterprising leader of the regime’s foreign military-intelligence arm accountable only to the Supreme Leader, he was both the architect and executor of Iran’s grand strategy in the Middle East and beyond. For this reason, his stature and powers were considerably greater than even the Iranian president and his cabinet. A rare public glimpse of this disparity was offered in late February 2019, when Soleimani ferried Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into Tehran for a visit with the Supreme Leader without informing Iran’s highly respected Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. This embarrassed the government and forced Zarif to tender his resignation (which, after reassurances from Soleimani, he later rescinded).
Given the breadth of Soleimani’s portfolio and trans-regional connections, it is understandable that many Iran experts are worried about the torrent of retributive fury that might engulf US-Iran relations in the aftermath of his killing. Reactions have ranged from fears of rapid escalation toward direct military conflict to predictions about the heightening of existing proxy wars, and to arguments about the continuity of familiar patterns The most ominous prediction, perhaps, draws comparisons with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event that triggered the First World War.
The Trump administration justified Soleimani’s assassination as a preemptive “response to imminent threats to American lives,” even as multiple timelines of the decision-making process behind the strike cast doubt on the “imminence” of any such threats. By all accounts, the hit on Soleimani was yet another instance of impulsive decision-making by a president unburdened by deliberative process and allergic to nuanced exercises of statecraft. Not only was the sovereign government of Iraq not informed or consulted about the operation in its capital, NATO allies and key coalition partners were also left in the dark, as were most congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. Trump’s erratic taunts via Twitter (where else?) afterward – threatening to even wage war crimes on Iran’s cultural sites should Iran retaliate – are once again revealing of his impoverished approach to politics, history, and strategy.
Inside Iran and across the territories controlled by its proxies, the levels of official and public anger have been unprecedented. In response to the attack, the Iraqi parliament immediately adopted a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of US troops from its soil, decrying the violation of its sovereignty. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, declared his organization’s intention to avenge Soleimani’s killing by targeting American military bases, personnel, and assets in the region. For its part, the Iranian government supplemented its vows of revenge by officially discarding the last of its technical obligations under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive plan of Action, the landmark Obama-era nuclear agreement from which Trump withdrew in 2018.
The wisdom, efficacy, and the (un)intended consequences of killing Soleimani will be debated for some time, as should the legacy of his own killings and contributions to myriad forms of tyranny. But the meaning of Soleimani’s elimination is deeper than its immediate geopolitical implications, grave and uncertain they most certainly will be. This targeted assassination is especially momentous because Soleimeini’s legend simply would not exist but for the trail of US strategic missteps and repeated military blunders in the Middle East. In an irony lost on nearly all hawkish and neoconservative voices celebrating Soleimani’s demise, his commanding influence was largely made possible by the ruins left behind in the illusory pursuit of their own ideas.
Those ideas – a collection of incoherent ideological antipathies (e.g. against “radical Islamist terror”) and prescriptions (e.g. to confront “terrorist regimes” and promote a “Freedom Agenda”) – constituted the core of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy after 2001. Like many American allies, Iran initially supported the pursuit of these aims in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In fact, Soleimani, through his personal friendship with the popular Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Masoud, played a pivotal role in facilitating the campaign against the Taliban.
Iran’s domestic political landscape in this period, it should be remembered, had only begun to stratify into distinct ideological groupings between reformists, pragmatist-centrists, and hardliners. Although the Revolutionary Guards exercised some influence within each of these factions, as the legitimacy of the regime was increasingly challenged from within, the IRGC closed ranks with the hardliners and increasingly led the efforts to crackdown on dissidents and opposition movements both internally and outside Iran’s borders.
The 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent descent of that country into total chaos – marked by sectarian conflict and high-intensity asymmetric warfare – was a decisive turning point for Iran’s geopolitical fortunes in the Middle East. The Soleimani-led Quds Force not only succeeded in mitigating the security vacuum in Shi’i-majority cities and provinces by funding and arming local militias, but also gradually built up a fairly entrenched patron-client network between Tehran and the Iraqi political class. Soleimani’s deft cultivation of these connections, it must be said, was aided at every turn by the ideological rigidity and strategic shortsightedness of American officials in Washington who were loath to acknowledge any role whatsoever for Iraq’s neighbors, and who held fast, despite all evidence to the contrary, to the illusion of impending regime change in Tehran.
Those dreams were put to rest after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (favored by the IRGC) in 2005, which consolidated security and regional policy decision-making under the auspices of the IRGC and the Quds Force. It was during Ahmadinejad’s presidency that Iran substantially expanded its nuclear program and Soleimani’s shadowy command of battlefields in Iraq at the height of sectarian battles there caught the attention of the US military. Notably, Soleimani’s conspicuous role in aiding the insurgency against American troops in 2007 brought him in the crosshairs of the lead commander of the US military in Iraq, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, who opted not to attack his convoy so as “to avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow.”
It is largely forgotten now, but Barack Obama’s successful bid for the presidency was launched and made viable largely because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. Obama defiantly criticized the judgment of his fellow Democrats for voting to authorize the war and, controversially, questioned the wisdom behind the Bush administration’s policy of non-engagement with Iran. Just four months into his presidency in May 2009, Obama authorized secret back-channel talks between American and Iranian diplomats that paved the way to more productive talks over Iran’s nuclear program in the years after. Crucially, in the aftermath of the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad in June 2009, the Obama administration offered only tepid and general statements of support to protesters and jailed dissidents inside Iran. The restrained response to those crackdowns, combined with Obama’s renewed commitments to allies and multilateral institutions, helped to reassure Iranian leaders of a fundamental change in Washington’s longstanding approach to the Islamic Republic under the Obama administration.
In regional terms, this attitudinal shift in the conduct of American foreign policy amounted to a tacit acknowledgement of a new order in which Iran was once again a major actor. Traditional American allies in the region – principally Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – were deeply unnerved by this new reality, especially in light of the Obama administration’s lackluster support of the status quo during the (counter)revolutionary ebb and flow of the Arab Spring.
The latter also took Iran’s major Arab allies by surprise, and nowhere more viciously so than in Syria, where Assad’s brutal crackdown on a nationwide uprising in 2011 plunged the country into a prolonged civil war that continues to this day. The Syrian regime’s survival during this time was completely owing to Soleimani’s support. He was instrumental in cobbling together a coalition made up of an assortment of transnational militia groups, proxies such as Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah, and perhaps most critically Russian weaponry and airpower, to defeat ISIS and fortify Assad’s power. The result was the total collapse of ISIS in Mosul in July 2017, followed by the liberation of its self-proclaimed capital Raqqa, in December of the same year.
Soleimani’s role in the dismantling of ISIS in Syria and Iraq sits atop his revolutionary credentials in the annals of the Islamic Republic. Given his already accomplished (by regime standards) resume as a veteran-hero of the Iran-Iraq war and determined foe of the State of Israel, that is quite notable. The reason for this is straightforward: ISIS represented a dual threat to both Iran’s national interests in the region and its Islamic identity. Soleimani’s decisive actions helped preserve Iran’s footholds in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and also eliminated a false caliphate that was aided and abetted by Iran’s regional rivals. The abnormally large number of mourners at his multi-city funeral procession are a testament to this latter-day image of him as a patriot-warrior who was felled at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s longstanding nemesis, the United States.
As with any hagiography, however, the ultimate source of renown must necessarily be disguised by proximate reasons for adulation. Soleimani’s legend owes its potency to the trail of carnage and misery left in the wake of the Iraq war. That desolate terrain served as his playground and stage, in and onto which, as “a living martyr of the revolution” is wont to do, he (re)enacted rituals of resistance and glory with abandon. His targeted assassination born out of obliviousness is a reminder that the carnage is ongoing, the misery a constant.
Hussein Banai is an Assistant Professor at the School of Global and International Studies and an Affiliate for the Study of Global Change, Indiana University. His research is focused on Iran’s political development as well as on US-Iran relations.