The first reactions from Iran to the killing of its commander General Qassem Soleimani in a US air raid ordered by President Donald Trump, has been one of fury, promising ‘severe revenge’ and retaliation. But Iran’s room for manoeuvre is severely restricted, and what we hear coming out of Tehran is merely impotent rage.
Who was Qassem Soleimani
In terms of power he wielded, Qassem Soleimani was the de facto viceroy of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, second only to supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In many ways, he was the “Shia Crescent” – a term used for the rise of Shia governments opposing Sunni monarchies. That crescent was crafted in large part by Soleimani’s unique understanding of Iran’s weaknesses and strengths, and driven by his deep fanaticism.
As a young man, Soleimani had participated in, and was deeply influenced by, Operation Fath ol-Mobin, the turning point of the Iran-Iraq war. This particular assault was successful, because until then, the Iranians had fought on the back foot. The Imperial Iranian Forces had been the most technologically advanced in West Asia until the Shah’s departure in 1979 following the Iranian Revolution. It was staffed by excellent officers from the elite families of Iran. The subsequent purges of this elite meant that the officers chosen to replace them had no operational or command experience. This was when Iran turned to tactics like human wave attacks by massed infantry, and suicidal frontal assaults to liberate areas but at far greater human cost to Iranians than the enemy.
This is where Soleimani came to embrace a callous disregard for human life and never cringed from using it and fusing it with the Shia concept of ‘martyrdom’. He became the US and Israel’s greatest foe precisely because these two countries were sensitive to human losses. At the martyrs’ cemetery opposite Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum in Teheran, which I visited in 2018, the caretaker told me that, according to his estimate, about 7,000-8,000 bodies had come from Syria, a sign of how inured to loss Iran had become as a society. But not everyone had.
In 2006, when Hezbollah’s abduction of Israeli soldiers triggered a full-fledged Israeli invasion, Hezbollah, using Soleimani’s tactics, fought the Israeli military to a standstill. The campaign was considered a failure by Israel, and a huge success for Hezbollah, but the Lebanese, unlike the Iranians, had no stomach for such massive human losses. Despite this, Hezbollah had no choice but to join Assad in Syria under Soleimani’s command, because much of its military strength depended on geographical contiguity through Syria and Iraq with Iran.
Why was Qassem Soleimani killed now
If killing him had been off the table for much of George Bush and Barack Obama’s presidency, Donald Trump decided to change Soleimani’s calculus, the same way Soleimani had upended the US-Israeli calculus. My sources in Washington DC told me that eliminating Soleimani had been on the table for a while. Working with flight schedules from and into Syria, US intelligence had figured out the code words used for Soleimani’s travel at some point in 2013. Initial reports seem confused about how many people were killed, but it turns out that there was some kind of a mini-conference of Shia militia leaders at Baghdad airport Friday morning. The US airstrike was clearly a planned decapitation of the Shia militias.
Wow! Not one but several explosions …. so it WAS a decapitation strike pic.twitter.com/GpRyEikbfK
— Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval) January 3, 2020
The reason Soleimani wasn’t assassinated earlier is twofold: first was Obama’s refusal to escalate, given that he needed to bring Iran to the table and for the Iran nuclear deal to succeed. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s fury at the Obama nuclear deal was understandable as they were being forced to accept Iranian sponsored terror and sub-conventional actions, effectively footing the tab for Iranian restraint on the nuclear front. The deal was therefore accurately described by both countries as a “license for terror” given to Iran.
The second was after Trump took over. Despite withdrawing from the nuclear deal, he needed Syria pacified and realised that this could not be done without Bashar al-Assad winning the civil war – that is to say, for Soleimani to win the war for Assad. In a sense, it is the impending conclusion of the Syrian civil war and the almost assured victory of the Syrian government that made Soleimani dispensable for the US. Given both leverages – the nuclear deal and Syria – were no longer of any value to the US, the shield around Soleimani (and Iranian sub-conventional actions) disappeared.
What Iran can do
There is little substance in Iranian fury. First, the US is technically on solid legal ground, having conducted proportionate retaliation for an attack by Iran-backed Shiite militias on its embassy compound in Baghdad. Second, Iran simply does not have the wherewithal to take on the US conventionally. Any conventional action by Iran will result in massive retaliation, with Trump itching to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Moreover, as the 1988 Operation Praying Mantis and the shooting down of Iran Air 655 flight demonstrated, the US can sink the Iranian Navy and shoot down a civil airliner with near-total impunity. With Iran’s forces severely stretched from Yemen, through Iraq and into Syria, there really are no viable options for retaliation by Iran; whatever retaliation happens will at best be a pinprick that will be easily absorbed and countered.
Iran could have retaliated through “sub-conventional” actions – the kind of terror or asymmetric warfare that Qassem Soleimani specialised in. But the 3 January US airstrike closed that option – with America clearly saying that if Iran engaged in terrorism against it, the US would escalate to the conventional level and target Iran’s leadership.
In short, the entire Iranian geopolitical playbook of the last 40 years just got thrown out of the window. All up: game, set and match trump.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.