The assassination of the top Iranian general is simply the next stage in the creep of hybrid war, which sees Iran and the US battle for influence and each try to bend the other to its will.
So what led the US to assassinate Qasem Soleimani?
The events of last September, and the protests instigated by Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr against Soleimani and the conservative Iranian movement behind him, only marked the beginning of a chain of events that would lead to this outcome.
The collapse of an already-defunct Iraqi government during protests that directed its anger towards Iran and its right-hand man Soleimani was a natural outcome to the chronic struggle between Sadr and Soleimani.
The Iranian general tried and failed to prolong the government’s lifespan. What shook him more, however, was the public anti-Iranian sentiment, especially among the Shia, brought about by the protests. This necessitated an instant solution to these two dilemmas.
Soleimani sought to reason with and persuade Sadr. To this end, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei invited him to Tehran with Soleimani in attendance. The meeting was fruitless. On the contrary, the protests flared and picked up momentum, leading to repressive crackdowns by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps which also saw the use of excessive force.
Soleimani had no choice but to act quickly to avoid a dangerous fallout.
There was a need to change the Shia orientation in the streets, from opponents of Iran to enemies of America. To achieve this, he mobilised armed groups in Iraq (militias) to carry out strikes that would cause actual losses to the US. This was to push and force the US into a response contrary to the general policy maintained between the two sides in past skirmishes within Syria.
Soleimani’s step in this direction marked a dangerous new course in Iran-US relations. To an extent, it changed the paradigm from a proxy face-off to an actual military confrontation.
This was a strange shift at odds with Soleimani’s nature and usual methods. He had typically preferred the use of proxies and soft-power to realise his aims, to the extent that he was the head of a specialised school of thought on this matter within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) specifically, and the Iranian administration generally.
Not long after, Soleimani would face the winds of an unwanted dilemma once more, forcing a radical change in the strategy of the Iran-US struggle. He ordered his Iraqi contacts to carry out strikes with the targeted intent of creating American victims, in the hopes of triggering a response.
The escalation would give rise to an outcry that was intended to resonate with the Shia opposed to Iran. In turn, protests could then be turned against the US, pushing it to embody a deep anti-American sentiment and pro-Iran flavour.
From another angle, Soleimani had hopes that the strikes mentioned above would pressure the US to maintain support for the Iraqi government or at least provide an opening to install a pro-Iran prime minister.
Soleimani executed his new strategy. His affiliated groups carried out strikes on US bases, leaving several US and Iraqi personnel wounded and the death of one US defence contractor. The US response was quick and too strong for Soleimani’s appetite.
Voices called for revenge by the same groups that had acted for Soleimani, quickly moving to occupy the American embassy in the fortified Green Zone. This drew parallels the historic occupation of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.
American policymakers were informed of the change in Soleimani’s approach and by extension, that of the Iranian administration. Consequently, the US adopted a strategy of conflict management in Iraq.
With the occupation of the American embassy by Soleimani-affiliated forces, the US confirmed the general’s strategic pivot, and that he was obliged to follow the path of hot conflict with no desire to reset the game of escalation to square one.
At this juncture, the US administration was forced to decide to liquidate Soleimani, for the reason that assassination was the only means to put an end to this Iranian gambit.
The assassination followed. It wasn’t a targeted killing of an individual, as much as it was the elimination of a school of thought. In spite of what he did to the people of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, he also had considerable significance symbolically and practically within the Iranian power structure and how it exerts itself.
The Soleimani school of thought
Soleimani was the engineer and executor of Iran’s national security strategy, having occupied the world with struggles and wars outside of Iran with a high level of military acumen if only to ensure internal Iranian security. He also served as the foreign security arm of Iran.
Soleimani possessed a compelling vision of the use of soft power and wielded it expertly. In this respect, he would utilise non-violent and non-military soft power manoeuvres to realise his goals. Managing to enter Kirkuk in the manner that he did without firing a single shot speaks volumes to this.
He also exuded an air of simplicity, populism, religiosity and trust in his relationships, some of which were far removed from formal ties. This allowed him to forge enduring and influential connections, and all who know him attest to this.
He avowed himself to his cause, like no other. Soleimani could be considered one of the most knowledgeable people on the inner workings of politics and politicians in the countries he operated and moved in.
This is a summary of the most important characteristics that he based his school of thought on, which would define politics, security, relations, crisis management and struggles in Iran and abroad.
I make a note of this to emphasise that Iran has genuinely lost its external arm, and will never be able to fill his shadow. More to the point, it’s internal security has been put at risk due to the demise of his singular philosophy.
This assassination will lead to a fissure between Iranian diplomats and IRGC leadership, and specifically the foreign Quds Force. His school of soft power died and left behind an incensed mainstream movement inclined to violence and heavy-handed brutality that is entirely at odds with the soft diplomacy wielded by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Ramifications of Soleimani’s killing
To comprehend these far-reaching implications, we need to isolate its components first.
At the forefront is the change in Soleimani’s adopted strategy of confrontation with the US and by extension, that of Iran. This pivot ensured a hot confrontation would take place soon.
Another component is Iranian foreign policy and the stance it took in determining the scale of this confrontation. This was done in the shadow of troubled ties with the new IRGC Quds Force leadership, which I expect will bear diplomatic resignations including that of Zarif himself, the head of the Iranian foreign policy establishment. The spirit of vengeance and revolution found in both the IRGC and hardliners in the Iranian government, parliament and their supporters in the popular centres plays a significant role in these confrontations.
The final component is that of the effectiveness, capability and coordination of the Quds Forces' foreign branches following Soleimani’s death. The man enjoyed the full support of Khamenei, the revolutionary guard, government, and conservative popular demographic in Iran. The new leadership, however, finds itself in a crucible and must prove itself with little time to do so.
I strongly doubt the new leadership’s capability in managing the confrontation’s direction as needed, and I do not mean as it was led by Soleimani, of course, given that that is not possible.
The mechanism for execution and reaction within these groups, taken as a whole, determine Iran’s responses, and its response to this assassination, and more critically, will shape the nature of its struggle with the US.
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