A year ago today, a U.S. drone strike killed the Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani, and his longtime Iraqi comrade-in-arms, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The Trump administration assassinated Soleimani to compel change in Iran’s behavior and to throw a wrench in the gears of Iran’s expansive regional influence. Twelve months is too short a period to measure its impact in the realms of longstanding policy and force posture. Outside of some signs of disunity among some of Iraq’s Shiite militias, not much has changed. The impact of Soleimani’s death is therefore impossible to accurately gauge. What we can say is that his death unleashed an emotional and political wave that has surged from his legacy. It is driven almost entirely by his benefactors in Tehran and clients across the region and it is fueled by their desire to shape the memory of the man, myth and legend they helped create.
How you feel about Soleimani is in part determined by how you experienced him and the foreign militias he helped train, supply, and lead in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Those, such as myself, who observed Soleimani’s career from afar, have had the luxury of viewing the man and the policies he enacted through distance and abstraction, recognizing the black and white, while acknowledging the sea of gray that surrounds them. To some, his death was small justice, an emphatic ending to the life of a man who served as the backbone of Assad’s brutal war against the Syrian people and facilitated the empowerment of corrupt, coercive militias in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon. To others, particularly his supporters and patrons, Soleimani was a hero: a leader in the war against ISIS and a champion of the Shiite Muslim minority.
For Iranians, perceptions of Soleimani are more complex, and generally filtered through one’s view of the ruling regime. Soleimani was a rare figure in that he was both firmly part of the establishment as well as someone who had briefly transcended it. His loss was met with mixed emotions, and felt on a personal level across the nation. The regime has produced an endless stream of propaganda celebrating Soleimani as a martyr, but that view is singular and state-produced. For everyone else, it is clear that Soleimani stood for something, but there is no consensus on what that was precisely.
To appreciate the complexity threaded throughout varying perceptions of Soleimani, it’s essential to understand what he symbolizes to Iran, to his military, and to the foreign groups he worked so closely with. His story, in a sense, begins with the Islamic revolution, and everything it was responding to.
The 1979 revolution was fueled by both desperate frustration and an abundance of hope. Across the various ideologies and sentiments that shaped the revolutionary movement, there was a common desire to break Iran’s subservience to foreign powers. This desire is often described as anti-Americanism or even anti-imperialism, and while that accurately reflects the language used by the revolutionaries at the time, it is also a reductive view.
The U.S. was certainly the most influential foreign power in Iran during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the main target of revolutionary vitriol, yet the U.S. was neither the beginning nor the end of the problem. The problem was injustice. The Shah’s injustice and cruelty in suppressing dissent, whether from Islamists, liberals or leftists. Corruption, the lack of opportunity, and the fear of retribution for whispering the wrong words to the wrong neighbor, colleague or classmate, motivated millions of Iranians to agitate against the Shah and take to the streets to call for his end.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s arrival in February 1979, and the Shah’s departure weeks earlier, signaled the revolution’s success. Yet, as everyone soon learned, the victors of the revolution had little interest in establishing a fair and just system. Rather, under the stewardship of Khomeini, the architect of Iran’s theocracy and first supreme leader, justice was perceived much more broadly. It was primarily about two things: establishing an Islamic system at home and overturning the U.S. dominated status quo in the region, with an emphasis on countering Israel.
That starting point in foreign policy dramatically shifted Iran’s international orientation. Prior to the revolution, the Shah had situated Iran as a bulwark to the Soviet Union and the spread of communism. Iran’s regional relations were driven by Cold War considerations and by the Shah’s desire to transform Iran into the predominant power in the Persian Gulf. The Shah inherited an Iranian throne that had bled territory and ceded autonomy to foreign powers. In the 19th century, the Qajars lost their domains in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and western Afghanistan to the Russian and British empires. In the first half of the 20th century, both the Soviet Union and Britain could interfere in Iranian domestic politics whenever it suited their interests. When Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951, the British, who had controlled that industry, encouraged the United States to have Mossadeq overthrown. The 1953 coup d’etat was just one in a string of indignities that had been eroding the Iranian national character since the 18th century. It also marked the United States’ entrance into the Middle East, and the beginning of the love-hate relationship between Washington and Tehran.
When the Islamic Republic was established, Iran had already become a regional heavyweight. That power had been contingent on U.S. support and military sales. Yet, after Washington broke relations with Tehran in response to the siege of the U.S. embassy and subsequent hostage crisis, Iran was left without the means to support its regional position. Khomeini and his lieutenants disregarded the ramifications, believing, with true revolutionary hubris, that they were on the right side of history, and either God or fate would carry them over any hurdles that stood in their way.
The first test for that way of thinking was Iran’s war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran in September 1980 with the intent to reset the balance in Iraqi-Iranian relations. Iran was caught off guard by the invasion, and its military had been significantly weakened by the revolution, with much of the officer corps purged, jailed or worse. Political infighting in Tehran further weakened the military’s response, which was disjointed and poorly managed. This created space for the Islamic Republic’s upstart military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to make its mark. Clerical leaders spoke of the IRGC as the revolution’s military, but in 1980 it was a military in name only. When war came to Iran, IRGC units were among the first to deploy. With little training and spare resources, their response was sporadic and innovative.
What they lacked in capabilities and training, they compensated with zeal and fearlessness. Eventually the IRGC began to use the tactic of “human wave” assaults that showcased those qualities on the battlefield. IRGC forces would charge en masse into Iraqi defenses, overwhelming the defenders by being able to absorb mass casualties without relenting the advance. Iraqis fired until they ran out of ammunition and then were forced to retreat. The IRGC used this tactic to impressive effect, winning battle after battle and eventually forcing a full-scale Iraqi retreat in the summer of 1982. It was a vindication of Khomeini’s vision for an independent Iran. But Iran wasn’t done. With Saddam Hussein still in power, Khomeini was encouraged to continue the war into Iraqi territory.
Iran’s counter-invasion of Iraq in 1982 was met with trepidation across the region. The Islamic Republic promoted both Shiite Islamist and anti-monarchical positions, and its leaders loudly proclaimed their intent to export their revolution across the region. Monarchies, secular authoritarian regimes, and countries with sizable Shiite populations, all feared the spread of Khomeini’s ideology. Iran’s aim to topple Saddam Hussein and bring the revolution to Iraq gave credence to those anxieties. Support flowed to Saddam Hussein as a result. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bankrolled the Baathist war campaign, enabling Iraq to procure advanced weapons and platforms from France and the Soviet Union, and withstand the Iranian onslaught. The United States similarly backed Iraq by sharing intelligence on Iranian positions, and by intervening directly to counter Iran’s attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, a part of the conflict known as the Tanker War.
Whereas much of the region and foreign powers were supporting Iraq, Iran was virtually alone in fighting the war, with only Syria providing it any meaningful political support. The war ended as a stalemate in 1988. Iran saw itself as up against the world and it could not overcome the vast amount of support buttressing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The war left a bitter taste for Iran’s leaders. Khomeini died within months — a broken man, and his successor, Ali Khamenei, never forgave his neighbors for backing Saddam. Over the next decade, Iran’s attention turned mostly inward. Rehabilitating the economy and rebuilding the country took precedence. Iran’s strategy against its adversaries also began to shift. Khamenei emphasized Iran’s need to build its own domestic military industry, to prevent it from ever having to rely on foreign powers, and the need for Iran to expand its influence abroad. Both efforts became central to the IRGC’s mission. And as Khamenei’s main support base, the IRGC grew into a formidable political actor within Iran, and the primary strategic arm of the regime. Many of the young men who joined the IRGC during the war also rose to become commanders and officers with it. This included Soleimani, who became a rising star in the IRGC’s Quds Force division, which was responsible for all foreign activities and operations.
The Iran-Iraq War exposed Iran’s regional alienation and the lack of broad sympathy, much less support, for Iran’s revolutionary ideology. Within that mass of disinterest, however, were elements of the Shiite activist community that did respond to the Khomeinist message. The IRGC found strong support among a segment of Islamist-minded Shiite activists in Lebanon, who looked for support and aid during Lebanon’s Civil War, and after Israel’s 1982 occupation of southern Lebanon. This resulted in the establishment of Lebanese Hezbollah, which became Iran’s chief proxy against Israel. The IRGC had similar success with Iraqi expatriates residing in Iran, primarily in the establishment of the Badr Brigade, which operated as an Iraqi division of the IRGC, and was utilized mostly for overseeing intelligence and smuggling networks inside Iraq.
Outside the militant groups it sponsored, Iran’s regional influence was muted. It wasn’t until the U.S.-led 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq that Iran was provided an opportunity to change its regional position. Soleimani, who had by then become the leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force, saw opportunity and peril in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Iran’s allies benefited from the end of the Baathist regime, but a longstanding U.S. military presence in Iraq was also a threat to Iran. Soleimani championed a policy that sought to exploit both the political landscape and the shadows of the new Iraqi frontier. He encouraged political participation of Iran’s Shiite allies while also developing an insurgent network that waged war against the U.S. and coalition forces, killing or maiming hundreds of servicemembers in the process. The effort was largely effective. When U.S. forces departed Iraq in late 2011, Soleimani’s clients were among the most powerful political actors in Iraq and Iran was the most influential outside power in the country.
The Arab Spring followed that achievement. It both threatened Iranian interests and opened up new areas for the expansion of influence. Again, Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s response to that regional tsunami. Unlike the other countries hit by Arab Spring protests, the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria was of acute concern to Iran. Syria was not only Iran’s sole state ally, it was also the facilitator of Iranian support to Hezbollah, and by extension, central to Iran’s strategic leverage with Israel and the United States. Iran knew that both Israel and the United States had to factor in potential attacks by Hezbollah were they ever to strike Iran, and Syria was the lynchpin for Iran’s sustained influence on the Lebanese organization. Syria was therefore key to Iran’s larger deterrence strategy vis-à-vis the United States and Israel.
Soleimani did not hesitate to throw the full weight of his support behind Assad. The IRGC moved soldiers and weapons into the country, and as the rebellion grew, facilitated the entrance of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias into the conflict. The IRGC also developed and trained Syrian paramilitary forces, which fought under IRGC command in the war. As the conflict developed, the IRGC and its proxies began to think of Syria as another front against Israel. A day when the IRGC could threaten Israel with missiles and drones based on Syrian soil seemed to be only a matter of time.
The irony of Soleimani’s successes in Syria and Iraq is that they prepared the ground for the rise of ISIS. The Islamic State’s explosion into Iraq should have been recognized as the product of Soleimani’s myopic view of Iraq and Syria as simply battlegrounds for Iran’s advancement. Yet, Soleimani and the IRGC seized the moment and self-consciously rebranded their enterprise. Iran was the first outside state to support Iraq’s war against ISIS, and Soleimani let the whole world know of his role. What appeared on social media as authentic and spontaneous pictures of Soleimani on the frontlines with Iraqi troops and commanders, was actually a deliberate effort by the IRGC to recast Soleimani’s image. He was no longer a shadow commander, but a MacArthur-esque figure almost single-handedly fighting the dark forces of ISIS. A national hero in Iran, and the savior of Iraq and Syria.
Soleimani’s rise from the shadows to the forefront of regional power marked that of the Islamic Republic’s own. His persona encapsulated an Iran that was no longer in retreat, no longer bowing to the whims of foreign powers, and able to be, by force of will alone, the master of its own destiny. He was killed because he was important. He was killed because Iran was important.
The IRGC increased their investment in Soleimani after his death, using his persona to rebrand themselves and the regime to a new generation.
The IRGC increased their investment in Soleimani after his death, using his persona to rebrand themselves and the regime to a new generation. Soleimani became the archetype of the Islamic Republic’s self-conception. His figure symbolizes how the regime desires to be seen by the Iranian people and by the world. Soleimani has been cast as brave, selfless and humble; a warrior, a believer and a patriot. His is a transnational community that connects Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen with Iran. He justifies Iran’s regional activities by casting them as an essential part of Iranian patriotism and national identity. To be Iranian in the narrative promoted by the regime is to be part of a larger Islamic enterprise. Not the umma or global Islamic community, but rather, the resistance: the militant groups and personalities who share the Islamic Republic’s enemies and its political aspirations.
The mythologizing of Soleimani has not only been aspirational, it has also been driven by concerns within the IRGC that the regime is losing support and legitimacy among the Iranian people. This is particularly true for the younger generations, which know nothing of the Shah’s brutality, the sense of injustice that enveloped Iran during its war with Iraq, or the hope that accompanied President Khatami’s reformist platform in the 1990s. Instead, what they know is Iran’s 21st century experience, which has been one of near-constant antagonism and increasing privation. As Iran’s regional influence has grown, so has its tensions with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. As a result, Iran has only gotten poorer and less secure. Jobs have become scarcer, apartments have gotten more expensive, and the daydreams of getting married, moving out of the house, and starting your own life have become only more distant and clouded by real-life worries for Iran’s youth.
It was these factors that fueled the explosion of protests across Iran in 2018 and 2019. Iran has experienced episodic protest movements in the past, but these protests were different. They were strongest in poorer, traditionally more conservative areas of the country. They were also more violent and more overtly anti-regime, advocating slogans that both damned the supreme leader and the IRGC’s regional adventurism. The IRGC confronted the protests head-on and with unrelenting brutality. Using machine guns, tanks, and direct fire to murder Iranian youths in the streets and hunt them down in alleyways.
Soleimani’s assassination occurred in that domestic context and provided the regime a rare opportunity to build sympathy for its cause. He became a martyr extraordinaire who was destined to join the pantheon of Shiism’s greatest heroes. His funeral was a national event and appeared to be a moving moment for millions of Iranians. There was indeed something personal about Soleimani’s death. No matter what he represented, he was an Iranian. That he was singled out and murdered by a foreign power sat uncomfortably with most of his compatriots, regardless of their politics.
Had the regime allowed Soleimani to be remembered in this way, it may have gained a measure of sympathy. However, the regime soon transitioned to seeking vengeance by launching a ballistic missile barrage at U.S. forces in Iraq. Anticipating a response from the U.S., and in the confusion of the moment, the IRGC shot down a passenger jet, killing everyone on board. The narrative of the assassination was instantly overtaken by the grief and shock of the everyday Iranians who struggled to make sense of a preventable tragedy. Iran’s leaders attempted to skirt blame and cover up the IRGC’s catastrophic error. Family members who spoke out and demanded answers were cruelly silenced. Soleimani’s image was everywhere, yet justice was nowhere to be seen.
Soleimani’s legacy is far from written. The policies he pursued across the region remain unchanged, and the client militias he worked side-by-side with remain powerful. The Assad regime continues to make progress in its gradual suffocation of the rebellion, Shiite militias continue to operate with impunity in Iraq, and Hezbollah has retained a dominant position in Lebanon. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has depleted Iran of resources and made the country poorer, but it has not meaningfully strained or curtailed Tehran’s support to its proxies. Rather, Iran has remained as committed to its foreign investments as ever. Yet, the network of proxies which has afforded the Islamic Republic regional influence and power is a double-edged sword. It is both Iran’s strongest deterrent and the reason for that deterrent’s necessity.
Although the Trump administration aggressively pursued its campaign against Iran, it showed no appetite for engaging Iran or its proxies militarily. The assassination of Soleimani might be considered as such, but it wasn’t. If anything, it was a stab in the dark. There is little doubt that Soleimani was effective in his role, but his foremost accomplishment was refining the state machinery that oversaw and supported Iran’s network of proxies. Just as Apple carried on without Steve Jobs, the IRGC will retain the ability to manage its proxies and exert influence beyond Iran’s borders without Soleimani at the helm. The law of inertia also applies. Unless the IRGC and its proxies are challenged directly, momentum will carry them forward.
The Biden administration is poised to adopt a softer approach with Iran, looking to reengage on the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reduce heightened tensions. U.S. and European leaders have acknowledged the importance of dealing with Iran’s support to proxies, but it is unclear if there is sufficient will to mandate progress on the proxy issue as part of a restart of the JCPOA or negotiations toward a more expansive agreement. Iran’s leaders will aim to keep any formal discussions focused squarely on the nuclear issue, and unless the U.S. and EU form a united front in seeking a broader deal, it is unlikely that important issues such as proxies, ballistic missiles, and the arbitrary arrests of foreign and dual nationals will be addressed. A return to the JCPOA in exchange for the removal of sanctions has merits in terms of proliferation concerns, but it will not tackle the underlying sources of Iran’s adversarial relationships.
Iran’s regional relationships are therefore not in any serious danger from the outside. Rather, their main challenges will come from within. Soleimani spent his career building up militias to gain power through violence, coercion, and corruption. They are skilled at twisting arms and breaking skulls, and using those skills to advance their interests in warfare and politics. They are less adept at what comes next, particularly governance. Both Lebanon and Iraq have been hit by intense protest movements over the last year, with much of the anger of the younger generations being aimed at the political elite and their foreign backers. Even though Iran’s influence has helped empower Shiite elites in each country, an increasing number of younger Shiites appear to have soured on Iran and blame it for their country’s morass. This is especially true in Iraq, where young Shiites make up the vast majority of the protest movement that has railed against government corruption and the political power of Iran-backed militias. Iraq’s militias also remain divided, and while Iran has held its clients mostly together, militias not backed by Iran are increasingly finding ways to distance themselves from those that are. Syria has far greater challenges. Assad’s rule is tenuous, discontentment has been spreading within his Alawite base, and the country is suffering from a decade-long economic collapse.
In other words, while Soleimani helped expand Iranian influence in the region, that influence rests on shaky ground. The height of Iran’s influence — at least as presently expressed through the IRGC — has probably passed. Whether we’ve entered a period of stasis or decline is as yet unclear, but the latter seems more probable. As the protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq have shown, Iran and its allies are increasingly seen as part of the problem, not the solution. Whereas wars provided the context for Iran’s regional rise, the corruption and poor governance of Iran’s allies are setting the scene for its decline.