One Year After Soleimani’s Death, Iran’s ‘Resistance’ Paradigm On Life Support

January 3, 2021 will mark the one year anniversary of the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike that targeted his convoy shortly after he landed at Baghdad’s International Airport. The attack also killed Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful Iran-backed Shi’a militias in Iraq and Soleimani’s right-hand man in the country. Muhandis was also deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).  

A year after Soleimani’s death, the Iranian regime’s position has become more precarious both at home and in the region. The Islamic Republic’s promised retribution for Soleimani’s killing has yet to materialize despite Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s promise of “yet more severe slaps to come.” Many feared that Soleimani’s killing would escalate the long-simmering tensions between Iran and its proxies and the U.S. and its regional partners into a full-blown conflict. This has not come to pass as, over the past year, Iran has been dealt a series of devastating blows that began with Soleimani’s death. The regime now confronts simultaneous economic and public health crises and continued challenges to its legitimacy at home and its shadow rule abroad. Revolutionary fervor, anti-U.S., and anti-Israel sentiments have helped the regime weather storms in the past, but they have failed to deliver good governance in the region. In sum, the ‘resistance’ paradigm championed by Khamenei and the regime, of which Soleimani served as its most potent symbol, has been discredited and is now on life support, a victim of the regime’s incompetence, mismanagement, and authoritarianism.

Soleimani’s Significance

Qassem Soleimani was by some accounts the second-most consequential Iranian regime figure behind Supreme Leader Khamenei. As Quds Force commander, Soleimani served as the architect and public face of Iran’s regional strategy predicated on asymmetrical means, including terrorist attacks, covert operations, and outsourcing fighting to foreign militias, to threaten and destabilize the U.S. and its regional allies and establish spheres of Iranian military, diplomatic, and political influence in neighboring countries. Soleimani built, funded, trained, and/or partnered with an ever-growing array of sub-state, militia and terrorist proxies known as the “axis of resistance.” Soleimani coordinated the battlefield activities of Iran’s veritable foreign legion of proxies, destabilizing the region and inflaming sectarian tensions in doing Iran’s bidding to enhance its own influence and diminish that of the U.S. and its allies.

Despite Soleimani’s passing from the scene, the terrorist and proxy militia networks he helmed endure and pose an ongoing threat to the U.S. and its allies. However, the events of the last year demonstrate that Soleimani’s death constituted a massive setback to Iran’s regional ambitions that it has yet to recover from.

Replacing Soleimani has been a monumental, uphill undertaking for his successor, Brigadier General Esmail 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, assisting with coordination of militia operations in Syria and Iraq. 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.

Domestic and Regional Context

Soleimani’s assassination occurred as Iran’s regime was weathering domestic protests against its corrupt, heavy-handed rule, and in Lebanon and Iraq against its interference through Hezbollah and other Shi’a militia proxies. The unprecedented challenges to Iran’s revolutionary ideology point 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.

Whenever Iran has felt backed into a corner, it has resorted to a tried-and-true playbook of demonizing the U.S. and its allies and responding with external aggression. This playbook ultimately cost Soleimani his life. In the months leading up to his death, Soleimani sought to distract from Iran’s economic bind and the mounting protests by ramping up aggression against the U.S. in Iraq. Iraqi militias under Soleimani’s command stepped up rocket attacks against U.S. personnel and interests in the country, with one such attack on December 27, 2019 killing a U.S. contractor and wounding four U.S. troops as well as two members of the Iraqi security forces. Days later, after the U.S. launched strikes on Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria, protestors tied to Iraqi militias attempted to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This series of events proved to be a fatal miscalculation by Soleimani, who had progressively pushed the envelope. In the early morning hours of January 3, President Trump greenlit the drone that ended Soleimani’s life.

Failure of the Resistance Paradigm

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 air bases housing U.S. troops in the early morning hours of January 8, 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 since, however, Iran has refrained from major attacks against the U.S. Iran-backed militias have carried out sporadic rocket attacks against U.S. troops and interests in Iraq 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 despite Khamenei’s blustery promises of “yet more slaps to come.”

For all of Khamenei’s bluster, Iran is loath to provoke the U.S. at present. 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, Soleimani’s death has caused material setbacks to Iran’s project of regional dominance and Iran feels it needs to regain its footing in the region before it can manage a confrontation with the U.S. In November, Iran faced a further humiliation when Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of the country’s past nuclear weapons program, was assassinated in Absard, presumably by Israel. Despite the U.S. and Israel going on the offensive against Iran, Tehran has urged restraint from its proxies, fearful of further retaliation by the outgoing Trump administration and desperate for sanctions relief from the incoming Biden administration.

The various crises Iran currently faces underscores that its ‘resistance paradigm’ is imperiled. Dissatisfaction remains high over the regime’s corruption, economic mismanagement, and inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Since Soleimani’s death, Iran is less able to shape political outcomes in Lebanon and Iraq amid ongoing protests over its continued interference. Iran’s destabilizing regional activities and sectarianism have meanwhile made it politically palatable for several of its adversaries to take the unprecedented step of normalizing ties with Israel, further eroding Iran’s standing in the region. Since Soleimani’s death, regional currents are trending in favor of technocracy, and stability, and against the stale authoritarianism and sectarianism offered by the ‘resistance’ of Khamenei and his aging, revolutionary cohort.

Jordan Steckler is a Research Analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Follow him on Twitter @JordanESteckler.