Iran can capitalise on Soleimani's legacy in the short-term, but the Islamic republic has no replacement on the horizon.
On 3 January 2020, days after the world celebrated the dawn of a new year, the sun set for the last time on the life of Iran’s most infamous and powerful military commander of the modern era, Major General Qasem Soleimani.
The Iranian general had just landed in Baghdad International Airport and was on his way into the Iraqi capital with several of his most trusted lieutenants when an American drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump explosively ended the career of the one man who has arguably shaped much of the Middle East’s major conflict zones today.
A year on, Trump is almost on his way out of office, with the survival of his strategy to contain Iran hanging in the balance as the more Tehran-friendly Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency of the United States - a prospect that undoubtedly has Iranian leaders breathing sighs of relief.
While Soleimani’s death punctuated the point of American power with alarming effectiveness, it is arguable that Soleimani’s influence remains intact even though his effectiveness has been lost to the Iranians.
Soleimani’s influence remains
Often sensationalised in the world media, and not for no reason, as Iran’s “shadow commander”, Soleimani was the dominant figure in many major conflicts in the Muslim world.
As commander of the Quds Force, the unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for clandestine and extraterritorial operations, Soleimani was involved in every major conflagration in the 'war on terror' era in a bid to carve out a Shia sphere of influence, now part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance”.
Immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks, Soleimani directed Iranian diplomats to urge the United States into a war with the Taliban and to invade Afghanistan.
At one point, Soleimani ordered his operatives to hand over tactical maps to the invading Americans, outlining Taliban positions and advising where to strike them to cause maximum damage.
Of course, this did not later stop the Iranians from providing safe harbour and military support to the same Taliban they had earlier betrayed while simultaneously offering to instrumentalise their Afghan Shia Fatemiyoun proxies, fresh from Syria’s battlefields, to support the Afghan government, showing the self-serving pragmatism Soleimani was renowned for and whose influence remains even after his death.
Less than two years after the Taliban were toppled, Soleimani was again involved in the invasion of another Muslim country, this time Iraq.
A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, that ended in the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, dramatically likening the ceasefire of 1988 to drinking poison, Soleimani despised the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein that had contained the Iranian revolution and gladly assisted the US in toppling it.
In its place, Soleimani deftly outplayed the American occupiers and ensured that pro-Iran politicians would hold sway in a divided and weakened Iraq, supported by the guns of more than a hundred IRGC-backed Shia militias and death squads who proceeded to fan the flames of sectarian conflict by persecuting and murdering Sunnis. This directly led to the rise of Daesh, embroiling Iraq and Syria in a bloodbath of sectarian carnage that Soleimani, once again, was on hand to quell working in concert with the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition who finally defeated Daesh in Iraq in 2017.
After aligning Iranian interests with those of the American “Great Satan” to topple two regional adversaries, Soleimani expanded Iran’s operations in the Levant by not only stepping up support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, who now dominate the diminutive Mediterranean country but also stepping in to crush the Arab Spring that had reached Syria and threatened long-standing ally Bashar al Assad.
Using radicals recruited from both Afghanistan and Iraq, commanded by IRGC officers, Soleimani rescued the Assad regime and laid the groundwork for Iran’s long game in Syria today, leaving it as the dominant force deciding the fate of this Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nation despite the presence of Russia since 2015.
Soleimani’s effectiveness has gone
Soleimani was so successful at serving the Islamic Republic’s strategic aims that he was dubbed the “Darth Vader” of contemporary Middle Eastern politics by a senior US diplomat. Such was his impact that his pervading presence could be ominously felt wherever Iran had interests.
However, there has been nobody of Soleimani’s calibre capable of filling his shoes. His successor, Esmail Ghaani, lacks the charisma, presence, and strategic planning Soleimani was known for.
Ghaani was so deterred by what happened to Soleimani that he did not visit Iraq for months even though Iran’s proxies there were fracturing and turning against one another, and when he finally did, he did so secretly.
Where Soleimani would have easily smoothed over tensions between the Shia-led government and the plethora of IRGC proxies in Iraq, Ghaani has failed to restrain militias such as Kataib Hezbollah from directly threatening Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi.
Notably, in recent weeks, another Iranian proxy Asaib Ahl ul-Haq warned they would “cut off the ears” of the prime minister after he arrested one of their number for planning an attack against the US embassy in Baghdad, the same action that led to Soleimani’s assassination.
This total lack of control in what is arguably the lynchpin of Iranian power and the crown jewel of its expansionist crown, Iraq, demonstrates that Iran has failed to fill the void left by Soleimani’s leadership.
By losing the US elections, fortune has favoured the Islamic Republic once again with the imminent departure of Trump whose “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign was seeing results. Iran’s economy is in tatters and its ability to maintain support for its proxies was receding, leading to discontent and anger.
It is conceivable that a second term for Trump would have forced Iran to make great concessions with regards to paring back its military and nuclear ambitions. With an incoming Biden administration, however, Tehran will be seeking to make good on the diplomatic power granted to it by the influence carved out bloodily by Soleimani over two decades.
Even a partial rapprochement with Biden would come not a moment too soon, as Iran no longer has another figure of similar capability and stature that could buy it greater bargaining power like Soleimani was able to do.
As his effectiveness is now permanently gone with none to fill his shoes, the impact of his legacy and influence will slowly be eroded and, should Iran find itself in a similar strategic predicament against a determined foe again, it may not be able to extricate itself so easily.
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