The Targeting Of Soleimani Is A Major Blow To Iran
Executive Summary: The targeting of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force and arguably the second most powerful man in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a major blow to the Islamic Republic of Iran. His death will likely result in a devastating chain of suspicion and insecurity in Iran’s nodes of power.
At first glance, one might think otherwise. The Islamic Republic and its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon have been, in the past two months, the target of massive demonstrations against the Iran-backed militias. Iranian consulates have been burned in, of all places, the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. Instead of “Yankee Go Home”, the protesters chanted “Iran, bara, bara” - “Iran Go Home” in Arabic.
To deflect popular anger away from Iran, Kata’ib Hezbollah, a major militia in the larger pro-Iranian Hashd militia conglomerate, killed an American contractor. The intention of this killing was presumably to goad the US into a retaliatory strike that would defuse the anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iraq.
The US did indeed retaliate, and its attack was no doubt a good deal more than the militia had bargained for. In a devastatingly precise helicopter strike, at least 25 militia fighters were killed and twice that number wounded. Even less did the militia or its Iranian patron anticipate that Washington would keep going.
In a far more dramatic move, the US killed Qassem Soleimani as well as Kata’ib Hezbollah commander Abu Hadi al-Muhandis, together with 13 others, in a targeted drone strike on Soleimani’s car and an accompanying minibus as they left Baghdad airport.
The coffins were paraded through Baghdad from where they proceeded to Najaf and Karbala. The intention of the spectacle was not only to arouse major demonstrations against the continued American presence in Iraq, but also—in keeping with Tehran’s original intention in goading the US—to terrorize and silence the demonstrators who have been protesting Iran’s control in Iraq.
Some might argue that the drone strike at Baghdad Airport was another example of a high-tech operation by the US against its foes that was a tactical success but a strategic failure. Holders of this view might infer, in light of the Iranian regime’s newly strengthened ability to stir outrage against the US, that it is coming out of this series of clashes as the winner despite the loss of Soleimani. This is an erroneous reading.
Soleimani’s death is a major blow to Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei’s designation of Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s secondin-command, as Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force is an indicator of the magnitude of that blow. Ghaani is in his sixties (as was Soleimani)—not the ideal age to take over a major undercover organization with tentacles throughout much of the Middle East and beyond.
Over 20 years ago, sometime between the fall of 1997 and the first months of 1998, a younger, more vibrant Islamic revolutionary leadership chose 40-year-old Soleimani over his superiors to head this elite unit. Khamenei is older and less willing to take the risk of choosing a daring young commander, but that is not the only reason why he did not do so.
Even if the ayatollah were inclined to select a younger replacement, the targeting of Soleimani prevents him from making such a choice. The killing proves beyond doubt that the Iranian security system is riddled with informants.
They knew when Soleimani left his secret hideout in Damascus, what plane he boarded, at which airport he was going to land, which vehicles he and his retinue entered upon landing, and exactly what time those vehicles were heading out of the airport.
This suggests an information flow involving tens if not hundreds of informants closely connected to the upper echelons of the Quds Force. These informants could and did provide this information to their American counterparts in real time to get the US helicopters in position for the kill.
The killing of Number Two in any country creates a devastating chain of destructive suspicion and anxiety in the corridors of power. Khamenei’s only choice in naming a successor was to choose from among old stalwarts who are above suspicion. Every individual who is newer to the organization and to the wider security network is now suspect.
Many will no doubt be removed if not executed as Iranian counterintelligence teams try to identify the informants. The problem for the regime is figuring out who is going to replace them. Khamenei also understands the destructive relationship between imperialist expansion and the danger that the state’s security services will be penetrated.
If Israel could uncover secret nuclear installations in Tehran, consider how much more readily the Americans, who have a massive presence in Iraq and Lebanon, can recruit Iraqis and Lebanese to penetrate the Iranian labyrinth in both states and from there work their way into Iran itself.
The killing of Soleimani suggests that just as thousands have shown themselves willing to demonstrate openly against Iran, many others are choosing to be informers at a time when the Iranian rial is worth twothirds of its value less than two years ago.
Most Iraqis love neither Iran nor the US and are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see which state’s influence prevails over their country. The killing of Soleimani was a massive show of American force because he was touted by Iran as invincible.
Photos of the funeral cortege show vehicles moving down a narrow Baghdad street, not a wide avenue. Had the cortege moved down a wider street, the relatively small number of mourning participants (in the hundreds to thousands) would have been revealed. This suggests that the many Iraqis, including Shiites, sitting on the sidelines are not with Iran.
This interpretation is bolstered by Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s decision to refrain from condemning the killing, a choice that no doubt reflects his reading of Shiite Iraqi opinion. Between “Yankees Go Home” and “Iran, bara, bara”, the second chant seems more attuned to the future.
Thirty years ago, Yale historian Paul Kennedy wrote of the dangers of over-extended empires. Britain was his prime example. Tehran’s dwindling coffers as a result of US sanctions and this clear demonstration of American military supremacy suggest that a terrible fate awaits the Iranian ayatollahs: not only imperial retrenchment, but oblivion.