The fateful final journey of Qassem Soleimani — through Beirut, Damascus and, ultimately, Baghdad airport — resembled a pilgrimage to the localities upon which he repeatedly unleashed carnage and chaos during his 30-year tenure. Former CIA Director David Petraeus described Soleimani’s death as “more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden or even the death of (Abu Bakr) Al-Baghdadi.” In half a century of global state-sponsored terrorism, Soleimani is without rival.
The liberal media detests US President Donald Trump, so the almost universal reaction to Soleimani’s death was one of scandalized horror — as if the only possible outcomes must be catastrophic. My own crystal ball is no more lucid than that of other pundits, but this killing puts Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in an unenviable position. For personal prestige, Khamenei must retaliate, and the word on the lips of every Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah official is “revenge.” Even Soleimani’s grieving daughter was wheeled out to warn “crazy Trump” that a “dark day” was coming for America and Israel.
Yet any resulting loss of American or Israeli life could trigger an exponentially greater response, with Trump already threatening to hit 52 sites inside Iran. Tehran’s announcement that it will no longer abide by any of the restrictions imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal may make a military showdown with Israel and the US inevitable. Meanwhile, the use of terrorist proxies in unexpected locations would be unequivocally viewed as a hostile Iranian act.
Sanctions-impoverished Iran can ill afford war, and the political situation in the preferred conflict theaters of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq is so precarious as to make any conflagration self-defeating. There will certainly be cyberattacks and perhaps strikes against Gulf shipping. But, in Trump, Khamenei faces an unnervingly irrational actor who could respond with hellfire and fury — or may neglect to respond at all.
There is the ugly whiff of schadenfreude from European capitals, with officials believing that Trump has brought any likely consequences upon himself. But Tehran views British and European assets as legitimate, lower-risk targets in strikes against the “Great Satan.” Europe must play a constructive role in managing the fallout from Soleimani’s death, or risk getting caught in the crossfire.
Soleimani wasn’t driven by radical religious fervor. Over the broken backs of Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, he desired a Greater Persia bristling with nuclear and ballistic rockets, capable of threatening America, Israel and the Arab nations on equal terms. He and Khamenei fell for the same deranged hubris of history’s other expansionist dictators: Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar and Cyrus the Great. Iran — its economy shattered by sanctions — is succumbing to the same imperial overstretch as ancient Persia. Its people are starving while warmongering leaders struggle to pay the wages of overseas proxies.
Iranians have been fed decades of relentless propaganda portraying Soleimani as a national hero who singlehandedly safeguarded and expanded the nation’s borders. However, recent protests testify that citizens see through this facade, denouncing him for squandering the nation’s wealth on futile, unaffordable conflicts.
The deaths of Al-Muhandis and Soleimani leave a gaping hole in Tehran’s ability to ideologically and politically dominate the region.
One consequence of Soleimani’s death is that his Quds Force successors won’t be making ostentatious trips to Baghdad airport several times a month, knowing themselves to be fair game for American or Israeli assassination operations. In 2007, when the US stepped up its operations against Shiite militants, Iran withdrew almost all of its Quds Force personnel from Iraq. Militant leaders like Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Muqtada Al-Sadr were forced to flee to Tehran. Trump should thus capitalize on this killing to ensure that no Quds Force personnel feel safe operating in Iraq or any other Arab capitals.
Like a Mafia don, Soleimani was arguably the most powerful player in Baghdad because of the strong personal relations he cultivated. His word was law, whether stipulating the appointment of a parliamentary speaker, sacking a regional governor, ordering paramilitary deployments or extracting oil-smuggling concessions. Iran’s threats and demands won’t cease, but can Soleimani’s successors dream of wielding his unquestioned Machiavellian omnipotence?
Soleimani, Al-Muhandis and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hail from a generation of militants who collaborated closely to export Iran’s revolution throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Younger Iraqi and Lebanese militants who haven’t spent much time in Iran are consequently often less ideologically committed to Tehran. Young people from Hezbollah’s traditional strongholds are increasingly challenging its self-contradictory and discredited rhetoric. The deaths of Al-Muhandis and Soleimani thus leave a gaping hole in Tehran’s ability to ideologically and politically dominate the region.
Baghdad is fated to be the arena of a titanic struggle for regional alignment. But will Tehran have prevailed before anti-Iran powers even comprehend what is at stake? Iran has already goaded its loyalists in Iraq’s Parliament to commit to “ending the presence of all foreign troops on Iraqi soil” — regardless of the fact that this paves the way for Daesh’s return and prompted Trump’s threat of “very big sanctions.” Meanwhile, paramilitary assets and others on Tehran’s payroll will be readied to play their part in striking back against Western regional influence.
With Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigning, Al-Sadr’s bloc siding with the protesters, President Barham Salih vetoing the pro-Iran choice of PM, and Soleimani and Al-Muhandis dead, who is currently running Iraq? Iran’s proxies are best placed to exploit this vacuum, but supporters of a sovereign and independent Iraq must do everything in their power to challenge this.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and numerous political blocs are calling for fresh elections. The pro-Iran Fatah Alliance won only 13 percent of seats in 2018 and these forces’ role in killing hundreds of Shiite protesters inevitably further undermines their support. Efforts to place pro-Iran figures in government positions should be blocked. There must be urgent efforts to demobilize Iraq’s vast paramilitary armies, which owe their primary loyalty to Khamenei, and their $2 billion budget should be slashed.
The majority of Kurdish, Sunni and moderate Shiite political blocs desire a lessening of Iranian interference. Without Soleimani to bully, bribe and threaten political leaders, there is a narrow but perceptible window of opportunity in Iraq for something like the Euromaidan Revolution, which in 2014 saw Ukraine spectacularly break away from Russian hegemony. However, just like Ukraine, Iraq is perilously close to plunging back into conflict. Stabilizing it as a sovereign nation and supporting constitution-based governance should be top priorities for the international community.
The vast majority of Lebanese are horrified by the prospect of ruinous conflict with Israel resulting from escalating tensions. Yet this sword of Damocles will always dangle over Lebanon’s head as long as the country is politically dominated by the “Islamic Resistance,” which has spent recent days urging death to America and Israel. Nasrallah refrained from specifically threatening Israel, stressing instead that US military assets were “fair targets” and American soldiers would “go home in coffins.” These explosive dynamics leave Lebanon dangerously vulnerable and in urgent need of international support to overturn a hated sectarian system that perpetuates Iranian dominance, despite a majority of Christian, Sunni, Druze and moderate factions.
Nevertheless, I am pessimistic that US, European and Arab decision-makers have the requisite awareness and readiness to engineer such a dramatic transformation. The US Embassy in Baghdad’s capacities have declined from 2,000 diplomats to a pitiful 10 political officers. Trump’s recent measures against Iran occurred in a strategic vacuum, and his distaste of traditional diplomatic methods reduces the chances of multilateral action. The potential benefits of Soleimani’s elimination risk being tragically squandered.
We should furthermore hope that Soleimani’s death is a moment for Iranian soul-searching. Is the demise of the architect of Iran’s regional ambitions not a lesson in the ruinous consequences of seeking to dominate far-flung territories beyond their borders? Perhaps the best form of defense is not to be an aggressor in the first place.
We can agree with Nasrallah that Soleimani’s death marks a “decisive moment and new phase” for the region; perhaps no less earth-shattering than the events of 9/11. However, instead of terrorizing ourselves over the worst-possible scenarios of how Khamenei may choose to respond, we would be wise to act decisively in support of the best-possible outcomes — enhanced regional stability and the curtailment of Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions.