For the Iranian regime, Qassem Soleimani was much more than a high rank commander. He was the equivalent of Iran’s Wali al-Faqih in the region. As the top reference of all of Iran’s proxies, every Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni Iran-backed militia turn to him for orders, logistics and plans. He was the glue that kept everything together, and meticulously orchestrated Iran’s regional operations; military, ideological and economic. With Soleimani out of the picture, Iran has lost more than they can admit, but most significantly, they will have to face a new era of American pressure, without the man who could’ve fathomed a strategy to counter it.
In the past two decades, and as Al-Qaeda and ISIS threats against the US increased, Iran’s regional operations were put on hold by the US because Iran’s regional behavior was not considered a direct threat to the US as much as the Sunni terrorism did. That attitude allowed Iran to expand exponentially through Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, without any considerable containment by the international community. Except for the recent sanctions by the US on Iran and some of its proxies, Iran’s regional hegemony did not have to suffer major losses.
However, the assassination of Soleimani has turned the tables and it seems that after years of military leniency, the US has moved Iran’s terrorism up to the level of serious threat to the US. Accordingly, there will be multiple challenges that Iran will have to deal with in the coming months.
As its role in the region expanded and strengthened, Hezbollah used the opportunity to take over Lebanon. They forced themselves onto state institutions, won the 2018 parliamentary elections, and formed the government of their choosing. The only two challenges that Hezbollah had to face were the repercussions of the sanctions on Iran – leading to their own financial crisis, and the recent street protests – which hit their credibility and lead to the resignation of their government.
However, all in all, Hezbollah was able to maneuver these challenges and did not have to abandon its access to sate institutions. With Iran steadily winning over Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah felt secure in its own vulnerable – yet sheltered – bubble.
With Soleimani’s assassination, Hezbollah feels more exposed than ever. Not only they have lost their interlocutor and leader, they have mainly lost their military commander.
When Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria in 2016, no official appointment was made to replace him. Instead, Soleimani became the default military commander for Hezbollah and other Shia militias fighting under his jurisdiction. Afterward, Soleimani apparently decided to adopt a more hands-on approach to Hezbollah’s military operations. While veteran commanders such as Ibrahim Aqil, Fuad Shukr, and Talal Hamiyah have become Soleimani’s link to Hezbollah’s military divisions, they do not enjoy the trust and advisory capacities that Imad Mughniyah and Mustafa Badreddine held.
In this sense, Hezbollah has lost two major leverages: First, its military commander that knew exactly when Hezbollah should be deployed and used, and when they shouldn’t. Second, Hezbollah has lost the man who was their link to other militias throughout the region.
Without Soleimani, Hezbollah will have to look more internally, to their Lebanon’s challenges, and probably let go of their regional role until Khamenei decides otherwise. But even in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s formula of stability vs. change is not working anymore. The international community which has always preferred the stability of Lebanon to any effort to contain Hezbollah is today clearly reconsidering this priority. Lebanon’s stability is in danger anyway with the failing economy and the State’s near bankruptcy. This could be an opportunity for the international community – mainly the US – to contain Hezbollah. Recent developments in the region might push for more pressure on Hezbollah.
Lebanese demonstrators south slogans in the capital Beirut on December 15, 2019. (Getty)
Like Lebanon, the US absence allowed Iran to fill in the gap and protect the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Soleimani was the master-mind who lead his Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani troops throughout the country to achieve two goals: maintain the Assad regime, and boost Iran’s interests in Syria. In fact, the Syrian crisis was a good opportunity for Iran to enhance its regional presence, thereby creating the Shia Crescent that allowed an interrupted presence and power of Iran’s IRGC from Tehran to Beirut.
Despite the Israeli attacks and the Russian involvement – both of which caused Iran a number of problems – Soleimani still managed to maneuver most of them, by maintaining a considerable presence on the ground and a strong influence over the regime.
Without Soleimani, Iran’s power in Syria today will be jeopardized. Who is going to lead the militias? Who will negotiate with the Russians? It is important to note that right after Soleimani’s assassination, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unplanned visit to Syria – an indication of him messaging the Iranian regime that Syria is under Russia’s control and that Iran should not think of attacking any US bases in Syria.
This is a sign of the challenges that Iran will face in Syria moving forward. In addition, it has become clear that the Shia crescent – with its land bridge – will be interrupted one way or another, mainly around the Iraqi-Syrian border at Al-Bou Kamal in Deir Ezzour, which Soleimani himself celebrated not long time ago.
Soleimani’s operatives in Syria will continue implementing his plan, until policy or military shifts occur and throw everyone off.
Iraq is the most interesting story in Iran’s saga. Soleimani was killed in Iraq. He was assassinated along with PMF leader Abdel Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Still, all that Iran could do is attack US military bases without causing any US casualties. Iran understood Trump’s administration redline, and while its media was celebrating the “victorious” revenge against the US, more Iranians were killed: 56 Iranians were killed during a stampede at Solimani’s funeral, and then 176 were killed during the Ukrainian plane crash.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s PMF leadership seem to be both terrified and divided. The US threats of more military responses seem to be deterring them from any retaliation, but the Iranian pressure on their leadership to respond could also put them in a difficult position. No matter what they do, they are challenged – and will remain challenged – by the continuing street protests in Iraq that have increased and intensified in terms of anti-Iran rhetoric.
Iran can push for more access within Iraqi state institutions, and further influence government formation – in a similar way that Hezbollah’s is doing in Lebanon. However, the street has established itself as a very powerful tool that will also impose itself on Iraq’s political dynamics, especially that it has become clear that the US is not going to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
As soon as the Iranian government acknowledged responsibly for the Ukrainian plane crash, multiple demonstrations took off and turned into anti-regime protests. For the first time, the Iranian regime is facing multiple challenges in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon at the same time, and it doesn’t seem that they have many options to counter these challenges.
This crisis is by far the worst crisis that the regime has faced, and without Soleimani, it looks like they are stumbling for a plan. As long as the protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon continue, this crisis will only deepen.
Although the assassination of Soleimani was probably not part of a new American strategy for the region, it has started a new era in the US-Iran conflict, where maximum pressure will continue, accompanied with a strengthened US presence, and an increased Iranian deterrence. The Iranian regime was certainly shaken by the moment of Soleimani’s assassination. And despite the victorious rhetoric and conspiracy theories, they know very well that any action against US interests in the region or elsewhere will only lead to a devastating response. Iran is crippled by both the US deterrence and internal protests, and no option is a good option.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy