In Soleimani Aftermath, Iran is Weakened at Home and Abroad

The Prospect of a Punishing Blowback Appears to Have Evaporated

In the immediate aftermath of the American military operation which killed Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, the prospect of punishing blowback appears to have evaporated. The U.S. task force in Iraq, initially viewed as vulnerable to expulsion by pro-Iranian parties in Baghdad’s parliament, has resumed anti-ISIS operations. Meanwhile, Tehran has come under new pressure at home as protests erupt in response to the government’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane which killed 82 Iranian civilians.




Shortly following the assassination of Soleimani, pro-Iranian elements within the Iraqi ruling class redoubled their efforts to expel American troops from Iraq. These efforts culminated in a vote on January 5 to end the American military presence. Although touted as evidence of unanticipated blowback to President Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, it soon developed that there was less to this vote than met the eye.


Early coverage of the vote often failed to note that the decision was non-binding, and that Coalition presence in Iraq was governed by an executive-to-executive agreement. Indeed, Prime Minister Abd al-Mahdi softened his tone in a recent speech before parliament, noting that only a new government with full authorities would possess the legitimacy to alter the Coalition presence. As if to underscore this point, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on Friday that “any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.”


And, as of yesterday, Coalition forces announced that anti-ISIS military operations were officially resumed. This followed a ten-day pause in Coalition activity that had been initiated to mitigate the likelihood of reprisal attacks on U.S. troops by pro-Iranian militias, several of which had explicitly threatened retaliation. 




Far from launching a counter-offensive against American interests in the region, Tehran appears to be desperately grappling with the fallout of having mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 172 onboard, including 82 Iranians. Protesters took to the streets to denounce the government for corruption and incompetence. "They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here," one group of protesters chanted near one of Tehran’s universities.


In short order, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged that the government had misled Iranians for several days following the incident, with construction teams actively working to bury evidence of Iranian culpability in the plane’s downing. "In the last few nights, we've had people in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the fact that they were lied to for a couple of days," Zarif admitted.


The incident appears to have breathed new life into the Iranian protest movement, which had hitherto been stalled by a campaign of violent repression which has reportedly claimed up to 1,500 victims. It has also emphasized the fundamental weakness of Tehran’s counter-offensive against Washington’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign. Far from delivering a crushing blow to America’s military or political positions in Iraq or the Middle East, the Iranian government has delivered only symbolic strikes against the former and a stillborn lobbying campaign against the latter. And all while undermining its own political legitimacy at home.