New Delhi: The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani has been killed during a US airstrike on the Baghdad airport in Iraq.
“At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” said a statement released by the US’ Department of Defence.
For a long-time, the US has accused Iran of supporting Shia militia groups across West Asia in order to maintain its regional influence. And given that Soleimani’s Quds Force is responsible for all of Iran’s overseas covert special operations and proxy wars, many consider him to be the second most powerful individual in Iran.
He reported to only the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and was considered to have enjoyed more power than Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
Amidst deteriorating relations between the US and Iran, analysts argue that this might be the most severe escalation from the American side till date.
“Just imagine how we’d react if some adversary assassinated a member of the Joint Chiefs, an Undersecretary of State, or the DNI (Director of National Intelligence),” tweeted scholar Stephen Walt, trying to give Soleimani’s killing some context.
Soleimani, the man who established Iran’s Middle Eastern sphere of influence
Soleimani was born in 1957 in the Kerman province to a destitute peasant family. He was a construction worker before he joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guards following the 1979 revolution. So, his military career started only after the Islamic regime had been established under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But even before he joined the military, Soleimani reportedly spent his free time listening to Khomeini’s revolutionary lectures.
Once the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, Tehran began its quest to establish a sphere of influence across the region. And from the very start, Soleimani was the key architect of Tehran’s Middle Eastern foreign and security policy.
“More than anyone else, Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence — which Iran terms its “Axis of Resistance”— extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea,” notes Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent for a journal by the think-tank Combating Terrorism Centre at the West Point.
The idea was simple: Support Shiite powers and non-state actors in order to challenge the regional hegemony of the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni powers. And Soleimani evolved a lethal modus operandi to achieve Iran’s foreign policy goals.
“Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago (in 1998), and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq,” noted journalist Dexter Filkins in a 2013 profile of Soleimani for The New Yorker.
His role in Iran and Syria
From overseeing Iran’s military efforts against the Afghan Taliban in the late 1990s to advising Lebanon’s Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel to the Houthis in post-Arab Spring Yemen, Soleimani’s fingerprints were everywhere.
But in recent times, two of Soleimani’s key interventions had been in Iraq and Syria.
Once the Saddam Hussein regime fell in 2003, Iraq quickly moved to Tehran’s remit. As the recent Iran Cables highlighted, most of Iraq’s political class are essentially “clients” of Iranian power brokers. And among those Iranian power brokers, Soleimani has been the most prominent.
Moreover, when ISIS took Iraq in 2014, it was essentially Soleimani’s Shia militias drawn from across West Asia that helped oust the Islamic State caliphate. And at one point, US jets provided air cover to Soleimani’s militias fighting against ISIS in Iraq.
Soleimani was also the leader of Iran’s “direct and indirect military effort” in Syria after the 2011 revolution against its leader Bashar al-Assad. And, if today Assad can claim victory in Syria, many argue that it was predominantly because of Soleimani’s strategy.
“His (Soleimani’s) rapt audiences consist of Shi`a militiamen from various countries who fight in support of the Assad regime or against the Islamic State group, but there is never any doubt as to where their principal loyalty lies,” writes Soufan. “Not only do these groups sing songs about Soleimani, they produce music videos featuring militants doing parkour stunts and saluting the general’s image.”
Iran’s national hero
While Soleimani managed most of Iran’s regional policies, until a few years ago he remained a relatively elusive figure even in the Iranian public discourse — often operating from the shadows.
“The man who, until a couple of years ago most Iranians would not have recognised on the street, is now the subject of documentaries, news reports and even pop songs,” notes a 2015 report in the BBC.
Given that he was often photographed with the soldiers and militias on the battlefield, attended funerals of soldiers in both Iran and Iraq — over the past few years Soleimani had emerged as a national hero among the Iranian citizenry.
“Switch on the television in Iran these days and it won’t be long before you see General Qasem Soleimani,” adds the report.
Considering that Iran’s economy has continued to struggle and as citizens’ income dwindle, Soleimani’s regional antics were sold as acts of restoring Iranian civilisational pride.
Iran’s reaction on Soleimani’s killing
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called his killing an “act of international terrorism” and went on to declare that “the US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism”.
Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Khamenei tweeted “A #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night. Martyr Soleimani is an Intl figure of Resistance & all such people will seek revenge.”
His efforts & path won’t be stopped by his martyrdom, by God’s Power, rather a #SevereRevenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night. Martyr Soleimani is an Intl figure of Resistance & all such people will seek revenge. /3
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 3, 2020
As mentioned above, Soleimani was not just Iran’s second most powerful individual, he was also a celebrated national figure. Many analysts argue that it is this combination of factors that makes some form of Iranian retaliation imminent.
Although several other analysts argue that the killing of General Soleimani is such uncharted territory, that it is nearly impossible to speculate what future course of action might look like.
“Let’s be honest. No “hot take” makes any sense now. None of us who work on Iraq closely ever anticipated a scenario without him,” tweeted Iraqi journalist Rasha al Aqeedi.