Tehran lost its most valuable strategic mind and if the past two years are anything to go by, he will not be replaced any time soon.
When I think back to this day two years ago, I still remember the surprise I felt to see all the reports declaring that the feared and enigmatic leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, Major General Qasem Soleimani, had been killed in an American drone strike. In many ways, that sense of surprise has not dissipated.
I always knew that, if any US president would deal any serious damage to Iranian ambitions, it would have to be Donald Trump. The former president was unconventional by almost every metric of the word, but I thought that even someone like him would perhaps be reined in by his coterie of advisers. How wrong I was, and any expert, scholar, or analyst who claims they saw it coming can safely be discounted as not serious.
Two years on, and much of Tehran’s bluster and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s vows to avenge his most favoured son have yet to materialise, with grave consequences for Iran’s self-image.
The retaliation that never was
There was, of course, a flurry of events that took place in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s order to kill Soleimani. However, it is also important to note that the assassination did not occur in a vacuum, and it was in fact instigated by none other than Soleimani himself.
In late 2019, Soleimani and his Iraqi Shia proxies were busy escalating against Washington in a vain attempt to force Trump to return to the ill-fated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned a year earlier.
After a period of tit-for-tat attacks on one another, Soleimani took a decision that would ultimately spell his doom – he ordered the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah and other militias to storm the US embassy in Baghdad. The Shia militants breached the building’s security and set fire to not only the embassy, but what it represented in terms of American hegemonic power.
The symbolism and the optics were not good for the US, and one can only imagine an incensed Trump ordering a swift retaliation from the Oval Office, advice be damned. His orders went against 16 years of established US policy across both the Republican and Democratic administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama, who never dared to strike at the Iranian commander.
However, when Trump’s retaliation came, not only did Washington eliminate the second-most powerful man in Iran, but it also took out some of Iran’s top lieutenants in Iraq, particularly Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who was not only KH’s leader, but also the deputy commander of the Hashd al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
In the immediate aftermath, Iran launched a large ballistic missile attack against an Iraqi base that housed American troops but caused no fatalities. Tragically, they then also shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner, leading to the senseless deaths of 176 innocent civilians.
Iran lost its best strategist
Although Iran only managed to kill civilians days after the loss of Soleimani, and Khamenei vowed to his dead general’s family that his assassination will not go unanswered, nothing has materialised since. Indeed, the only tangible evidence of change is the disarray felt since Soleimani’s death.
The loss felt by Iran on a strategic level in particular cannot be emphasised enough. As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was responsible for most of Tehran’s extraterritorial operations in key strategic theatres, beginning firstly with Afghanistan in 2001 – where he helped the US topple the same Taliban Iran has recently praised – followed by Iraq in 2003.
His success at completely subverting the Iraqi state to transform it into a puppet regime subservient to Iranian interests paved the way for his intervention into the Syrian conflict in 2011 and the Yemeni civil war on the side of the Houthis around the same time. Under Soleimani’s watch, Iran’s “Shia crescent” was thus consolidated via a land bridge stretching from Tehran to Beirut, and expanded to threaten key strategic locations such as the Gulf of Aden.
Since his death, however, his replacement, Esmail Ghaani, has lacked Soleimani’s panache and masterful strategic direction (barring, of course, his critical error in ordering the attack on the US embassy).
Iran’s coterie of loyal Iraqi Shia militias have been expressing discontent in a manner previously unheard of as they jockey against each other for power in Iraq’s shattered political system. In Syria, even the feckless Joe Biden has managed to strike against Iranian assets with little response, and Israel similarly bombs IRGC targets at will. Lebanon has shifted from crisis to crisis, with the economy in total freefall, public anger against Iranian proxy Hassan Nasrallah, and Hezbollah blamed for the deadly Beirut port blast.
Iran would also face similar problems in Yemen were it not for its opponents in Saudi Arabia being hampered by their own poorly planned and executed military campaign, unfortunate strategic decisions, and the fact that Riyadh is itself being undermined by their supposed allies in the United Arab Emirates.
Soleimani was not only a master strategist, but he was also extremely adept at pursuing his own strategies and implementing them. It is a testament to his skill that the long-term plans he put into place are still functioning despite the catastrophic and sudden change in leadership that has fumbled the ball continuously since his death.
With Iranian displays of strength failing spectacularly in recent days with a botched space launch, and with the nuclear negotiations still on the line, the only thing that may save Iran’s strategic position is today’s American leadership which has an almost single-minded focus on appeasing the ayatollahs almost as a snub to yesterday’s Trump administration.
Still, Iran’s strategic power will never be the same again, whichever way the negotiations go. Unless a new Soleimani emerges from within the depths of Iran’s repressive state system, Tehran lost its most valuable strategic mind and if the past two years are anything to go by, he will not be replaced any time soon.
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