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, 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 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. 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.”
Since Qaani’s visit, Iraqi militias have 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.