Soleimani’s heavy-handed approach to bolstering Iran’s influence in Iraq ultimately catalyzed a chain of events that led the Trump administration to decide to assassinate him on January 3, 2020 in a drone strike outside Baghdad’s international airport. Beginning in October 2019, an Iraqi protest movement emerged whose grievances largely centered on Iran’s continued meddling in the country’s political affairs and the unchecked influence of Iran-backed militias. Notably, the protesters were predominantly Shi’a, showing that Soleimani’s efforts in Iran had actually alienated the core constituency that Iran purports to defend in order to justify its meddling in Iraq.
While Soleimani had cultivated relationships with the leaders of Iran’s political, ethnic, and sectarian factions and was adept at strong-arming them into doing Iran’s bidding, Iraqis themselves rejected Soleimani’s explicit sectarian approach in favor of Iraqi nationalism and more inclusive politics. The failure of Iran’s revolutionary ideology to take root in Iraq points to a wider failing of the Islamic Republic: It is bad at governance and providing for the welfare of its constituencies and therefore is increasingly reliant on repression for retaining an iron grip on power, whether within Iran or in the surrounding countries where Soleimani helped carve out spheres of influence.
The outbreak of the protests in October triggered panic in Tehran, which quickly dispatched Soleimani to Baghdad to advise Iraqi politicians and security officials on his best practices for quelling unrest. Soleimani reportedly ominously warned, “We in Iran know how to deal with protests. This happened in Iran and we got it under control.” Soleimani set about orchestrating the Iraqi Security Forces and PMF’s brutal suppression of the protests, demonstrating that Iran was truly calling the shots in Baghdad.
In parallel with Soleimani’s efforts to quell the nascent Iraqi protest movement, Iran-backed militias under his control undertook a concerted campaign of rocket attacks targeting U.S. military targets in the country. With Iran backed into a corner due to economic sanctions and facing mounting protests domestically, in Iraq, and Lebanon, it returned to a familiar playbook of external aggression to shift focus from its own shortcomings. According to a U.S. military official, forensic analysis of the rockets and launchers used during the spate of at least ten attacks indicated the involvement of Shia militias, most notably Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. The attacks placed the U.S. on a collision course with the Iran-backed militias and Soleimani himself.
The situation reached a boil in late December 2019 and early January, 2020. On December 27, 2019, more than 30 missiles were fired at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops as well as two members of the Iraqi security forces. The U.S. accused KH of being responsible for the attack, and retaliated by launching strikes against 5 KH targets in Iraq and Syria including weapons depots and command and control centers. The U.S. strikes reportedly killed at least 25 KH militants.
On December 31, 2019, protesters, including members and supporters of KH, attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Demonstrators threw stones and torched a security post, prompting embassy guards to respond with stun grenades and tear gas. The militia supporters withdrew from the embassy after prominent commanders reportedly spoke to them. On January 1, 2020, following orders from Mohammed Mohyee, KH’s political spokesman, thousands of protestors dispersed from the American Embassy in Baghdad.
The KH rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor and subsequent embassy attack proved to be a fatal miscalculation by Soleimani, who had progressively pushed the envelope without engendering significant U.S. reprisals to that point. In the early morning hours of January 3, 2020 President Trump greenlit a drone strike targeting Soleimani’s convoy shortly after his arrival in Baghdad.
Soleimani’s death at the hands of a U.S. drone strike came just weeks after Iran quelled massive demonstrations against the regime, killing an estimated 1500 citizens in the process. Despite his alignment with the regime, Iranians thronged the streets in cities around the country to honor Soleimani including in underserved regions such as Ahvaz, which faces an Arab separatist movement. While it is difficult to gauge the true sentiment of the populace in a repressive, authoritarian society such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Soleimani did seem to be regarded as a nationalistic defender of Iran’s citizenry by a segment of Iran’s population.
The Iranian regime has sought to use Soleimani’s death to distract from its own shortcomings, and to galvanize the public around anti-U.S. sentiment. Iranian officials, including the Supreme Leader, have frequently pointed to Soleimani’s assassination as evidence of the U.S.’s perfidy and untrustworthiness. The regime frequently refers to Soleimani as a “great martyr” and has called his assassination “the gravest crime committed by the Americans against Iran after the Revolution.” The regime has sought to turn to Soleimani into an enduring symbol of resistance to the U.S. In August 2020, as the U.S. tried to galvanize support for extending the arms embargo against Iran contained in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, Iran unveiled a new ballistic missile named the “Martyr Hajj Qassem” with a range of 1400 km.
His killing has hardened resolve among Iran’s leadership against resuming negotiations with the U.S. on its nuclear program and malign regional activities. In December 2020 remarks ahead of planned commemorations of the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death, Supreme Leader Khamenei warned that Iran’s enmity toward the U.S. will continue despite America’s transition to the Biden Administration. He clarified that his preferred path for Iran to gain sanctions relief is not through a negotiated process, but by forcing the U.S. and Europe’s hand by continuing to advance its nuclear program and destabilizing regional pursuits.
Soleimani’s killing sparked fears of a massive retaliation which could spiral to a full-blown conflict between the U.S. and Iran with no offramp of diplomacy or negotiations in sight. In the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, Iran’s leadership pledged the U.S. would face “harsh retaliation.” Iran followed up on this threat by firing a salvo of over a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi airbases housing U.S. troops in the early morning hours of January 8, 2020, causing over 100 soldiers to suffer traumatic brain injuries. Supreme Leader Khamenei intoned that while the ballistic missile attack represented a “slap on the face” for the U.S., “military action like this (ballistic missile) attack is not sufficient,” indicating that Iran remained determined to carry out a decisive retaliation for Soleimani’s killing targeting U.S. interests at a time of its choosing.
In the months following, however, Iran refrained from major attacks against the U.S. Iran-backed militias carried out sporadic rocket attacks against U.S. troops and interests in Iraq throughout 2020 and in September 2020, U.S. intelligence officials revealed a plot to assassinate the American ambassador to South Africa, but caution has thus far prevailed. Still, in December 2020, Khamenei promised “yet more severe slaps to come” with the ultimate goal of avenging Soleimani by completing his project of expelling the U.S. from the region.
A confluence of factors explain Iran’s blustery, yet cautious approach. Facing twin economic and public health crises due to sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, the regime can ill afford a regime-destabilizing response to an act of retaliation if it pushes the envelope too far. More significantly, however, Soleimani’s death has caused material setbacks to Iran’s project of regional dominance. Iran feels it needs to regain its footing in the region before it can manage a confrontation with the U.S.
Following Soleimani’s death, Khamenei appointed his principal deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani as his successor as Quds Force commander. Under their division of leadership, Qaani was primarily responsible for the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia portfolios, relative backwaters in terms of Iran’s regional strategy. Replacing Soleimani has been a monumental, uphill undertaking for Qaani. Soleimani was a charismatic figure who had Khamenei’s full trust, which ensured he was universally feared if not respected. Soleimani operated with an unprecedented degree of independence, forging relationships across the region with political and militia leaders in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon that could not easily be replicated.
As such, Hezbollah has had to fill the void created by Soleimani’s death, taking over coordination of militia operations in Syria and Iraq. In April 2020, the U.S. State Department announced a $10 million reward for information on Hezbollah operative Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, alleging he had “taken over some of the political coordination of Iran-aligned paramilitary groups” that had previously been Soleimani’s purview. Tehran’s command and control of the various militia groups it backs has been degraded as a result. Its ability to dictate outcomes in its neighbor’s political affairs has been set back as well.
These trends have been evident in Iraq, which has served as the primary flash-point for confrontation between Iran and the U.S. in recent years. In late March 2020, Qaani made his first visit to Baghdad seeking to establish continuity with his predecessor and reassert the Quds Force’s influence. His visit was widely seen as a failure. He sought to unite Iraqi militia and political factions in supporting an anti-American, pro-Iranian prime minister, but Iraq ultimately selected former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is viewed as supportive of U.S. interests. Qaani was snubbed on his visit by Moqtada al-Sadr, who refused to meet with him. Such a snub would have been unheard of for Soleimani, and demonstrated that Tehran no longer commanded the fear and respect it previously engendered.
In the final months of the Trump administration, Iran has sought to restrain the Iraqi militias it backs from attacking the U.S., seeking to wait out the clock and avoid any escalations. In November 2020, Qaani reportedly visited Beirut to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to secure his assistance in reining in Iran-backed Iraqi militias. Qaani then went to Baghdad to meet the Prime Minister and several militia leaders to urge restraint. While some militias have followed Tehran’s orders, most notably Kataib Hezbollah, others have openly defied Tehran. Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali gave a TV interview after Qaani’s visit in which he vowed to continue confronting the U.S., declaring, “The Americans occupy our country, not yours. We will not listen to you anymore because our motives are 100 percent nationalist. The truce with the Americans has ended due to its conditions not being met.”
Following Qaani’s visit to Baghdad in November 2020, Iraqi militias carried out at least three attacks on U.S. interests. On November 17, militants targeted the U.S. embassy with a volley of rockets. On December 10, two convoys carrying logistical equipment to the U.S.-led coalition were attacked by roadside bombs. On December 20, the embassy was targeted with another salvo of eight rockets. The repeat violations of the tenuous cease-fire have been condemned by Kataib Hezbollah and other factions close to Iran, but show that the Iran-backed militias remain divided in their approach to confronting the U.S. and that under Qaani, the Quds Force can no longer enforce discipline among their ranks. With Soleimani’s departure from the scene, the networks of militias and terrorist organizations that he stood up, trained, and armed pose an enduring threat that will keep the region on the precipice of conflict for the foreseeable future.
Two years after Qassem Soleimani’s departure from the scene on January 3, 2020, it is clear that the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate him via a drone strike has stymied Iran’s regional management. No singular figure could replicate Soleimani’s blend of charisma and intimidation, as well as his stature as a trusted representative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which enabled him to forge relationships and enforce discipline among the leaders of the web of Iran-backed militias and terrorist groups comprising the “axis of resistance.”
According to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment from April 2021, Soleimani’s death “degraded Iran’s relations with its array of partners and proxies in the region because he was the primary interlocutor with many regional groups.” It also predicted that Esmail Qaani “is more likely than Soleimani to delegate responsibilities, including to his deputy Mohammad Hejazi.” Numerous reports have circulated in 2021 about Qaani’s lack of skill—compared with Soleimani—in managing Iran’s Axis of Resistance and increasingly aggressive and defiant militia off-shoots, particularly after the drone attack on the home of Iraq’s prime minister in November 2021. However, that does not necessarily mean Tehran has lost influence. For example, in the attack on the home of Iraq’s prime minister, Reuters reported that “Tehran had knowledge about the attack before it was carried out, but that Iranian authorities had not ordered it.”
Qaani also no longer has Hejazi as a deputy, who died under somewhat questionable circumstances in April 2021. The Quds Force thus lost another senior officer—particularly someone with Hejazi’s seniority as he was a former deputy commander-in-chief of the IRGC in its entirety. Qaani now has to rely on a less seasoned deputy, Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh.
But current U.S. strategy may embolden Iran. The U.S. has failed to pursue a coherent strategy of its own to contain Iran’s malign regional meddling, responding instead in a piecemeal fashion to individual provocations by Iran and its allies, which have stepped up destabilizing drone and rocket attacks in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. With the U.S. intent on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, which would rescue the Iranian regime from an economic precipice, and militarily disengaging from the region, the Biden administration risks providing Iran with an unintentional lifeline in its efforts to fulfill Soleimani’s lifelong ambitions of spreading Iran’s revolutionary ideology and supplanting U.S. influence from the Middle East.
Iran and the region are currently at a crossroads, and it remains to be seen which of two competing visions will win out. The first vision is that of moderation, peace and stability represented by the Abraham Accords, the landmark deals to normalize relations between Israel and several major Arab nations. The other is the extremist vision of “resistance” to Western influence, economic integration and political liberalization pursued by Iran and its terrorist and militia partners that Qassem Soleimani embodied like no other figure.
The impetus for the Abraham Accords was a shared recognition that the greatest impediment to regional security comes from Iran, whose regional destabilization and overt sectarianism made it politically palatable for Arab leaders to codify the quiet cooperation with Israel that has been ongoing for several years. A secondary factor behind the Abraham Accords was a recognition of the U.S. desire to play a more hands-off role in the region, which led the Arab states and Israel to take a more proactive role in shouldering the burden for their collective defense.
The Abraham Accords have paid dividends for its signatories in terms of arms sales from the U.S., economic benefits and innovation, cultural and touristic exchanges, and military and intelligence cooperation. While Arab-Israeli unity poses a setback for Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions in immediate terms, the most important and possibly overlooked facet is that normalization of Israel’s role in the region provides a sustainable blueprint for peace, coexistence, and improved standards of living that are truly the antidote for the Iranian regime’s “resistance” vision, which can only thrive in conditions of hopelessness and immiseration.
The regional dialogues ongoing between Saudi Arabia and Iran—and sponsored by Iraq—show little chance of succeeding, as Iran is demanding gestures, like the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Riyadh, in exchange for no concessions of its own. The United Arab Emirates has also been increasingly engaged in de-escalation with Iran since 2019—with the U.S. failure to respond to Iranian attacks on Saudi energy infrastructure—but the posture of the Quds Force remains unchanged in the region, and earlier in 2021 reports emerged of Iranian forces casing Emirati embassies in Africa for targets to attack. While Washington has applauded this dialogue under the cover of regional integration, Iran’s desire to dominate the region remains to this day. Endless diplomacy with Tehran—which results in no movement on the ground—without more robust U.S. support for its allies and partners in the Middle East plays into Iran’s hands as it can use the talks to buy time and space for the IRGC in the region. Sanctions relief via U.S. reentry to the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2015 would provide the regime a windfall to continue the very malign activities U.S. allies and partners are concerned about and undermine their leverage in negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
Iran has also been helped on its course by the changing U.S. posture toward the region. The haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent rapid reconquest by the Taliban have called into question America’s commitment to its allies and upholding the mantle of global leadership.
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was an important objective of Iranian foreign policy, which Soleimani pursued by playing a double game of backing all sides, including providing arms and training to Iran’s former foe, the Taliban. The U.S. withdrawal, helped along by Tehran’s minor supporting role in backing the Taliban, marked a major victory for Iran’s low-investment proxy warfare strategy that was Soleimani’s hallmark. The marriage of convenience between Tehran and the Taliban to repel the U.S. has won Iran some influence with the group that it hopes will endure, although tensions are likely to resurface over concerns over drug trafficking, terrorism, and refugees spilling over into Iran from Afghanistan.
Against the backdrop of U.S. disengagement from the region, Iran’s hardline leadership has been emboldened and gone on the offensive, pushing the envelope on the nuclear and regional fronts. Iran has pursued a strategy of phased, escalatory violations of the JCPOA in order to gain leverage ahead of the resumption of negotiations with the P5+1, shrinking the amount of time needed to amass enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from 12 months down to one or two. Since negotiations resumed in late November 2021, Iran has sidelined the U.S. negotiating team, hewed to maximalist demands, and refused to countenance negotiating any issues outside the scope of the original nuclear deal, milking the process for additional time to advance its illicit nuclear program.
The impunity with which Iran has violated the JCPOA and the abandonment of Afghanistan has emboldened Tehran in the region as well. Seeking to bleed America and sap it of its will, Iran and its proxies have stepped up drone and missile attacks targeting U.S. interests, personnel and allies in the region from Iraq and Syria to Yemen. Seeking to keep prospects for a revived JCPOA intact and intent on changing from a combat posture to a training and advisory mission in Iraq, the U.S. has consistently failed to meaningfully push back against Tehran’s provocations, beyond two airstrikes during the Biden presidency in 2021.
While these developments paint a picture of an ascendant Iran, the regime faces problems on other fronts. Since Soleimani’s death, Iran’s leadership has had to operate in permanent crisis mode, careening from setback to setback as a result of its ineptitude and endemic corruption. Iran faces simultaneous economic, public health, environmental, and demographic crises, all of which it has responded to with further repression. Despite its failures to materially improve the lives of its citizens, Iran’s revolutionary regime’s survival through brutality seems assured.
Domestically, Iranians have largely checked out of politics, dissatisfied by the failures of ostensibly pragmatic leaders to enact needed reforms. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and his fellow hardliners in the clergy, political echelon, and IRGC now effectively control all the major power centers in Iran. They are poised to maintain their control well after Khamenei and his cohort, who have dominated the Iranian political scene since the Islamic Revolution, exit the picture, ensuring that the anti-Americanism and harsh Islamic governance that are the hallmarks of the Iranian regime will outlive the first generation of revolutionaries.
Iran has proven adept at sowing terror and chaos, but less so at governing and currying influence with populations in the Middle East subject to its destabilizing meddling. This was evidenced by the October 2021 elections in Iraq, when the Fatah coalition made up of the political wings of Iran-backed militias lost seats while the Sadrist bloc, which stressed independence from Tehran and the West, came out on top.
The election loss underscored the Iraqi pushback to Iran’s quest for hegemony. Any U.S. drawdown from Iraq risks the U.S. snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as Iran will have a freer hand to reassert its primacy in Iraq, likely through increased repression and heavy handedness on the part of its militia allies that it retains full control over.
If the U.S. is to prevent Iran, whose back is against the wall, from retaking the offensive and realizing Soleimani’s lifelong ambitions of spreading Iran’s revolutionary ideology and evicting the U.S. from the region, it must recommit to a comprehensive strategy designed to contain Iran’s malign nuclear and regional ambitions. This is why leaving the Middle East to pivot to Asia is such a shortsighted strategy. Working in concert with our allies, who have themselves opted to put aside fundamental differences to counter Iran, the U.S. must make clear that Iran will pay a price for its regional destabilization, and that it will not receive a pass for its meddling in order to keep nuclear diplomacy alive. Doing so will ensure that the path of the Abraham Accords, characterized by stability and prosperity will prevail over Soleimani’s dark vision predicated on “resistance.”