The United States’ killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, one of the most important figures in the Islamic Republic, marks a major escalation in the ongoing standoff between Washington and Tehran, which the Islamic Republic will not likely suffer quietly.
As the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, Soleimani was directly responsible for much of Tehran’s activities throughout the region over the past two decades, establishing and building up Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East and allowing the Islamic Republic to project its power far beyond its borders, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“This is a step up in the conflict between the United States and Iran. This is certainly significant,” Orna Mizrahi, former Israeli deputy national security adviser for foreign policy, told The Times of Israel on Friday morning.
The Israel Defense Forces has accused Soleimani of personally directing attacks against the Jewish state from Syria, including a failed drone strike last year, and he is considered one of the major supporters of Hezbollah, helping the Lebanese terror group turn from a relatively minor player in the Middle East to one of the key political and military organizations in Lebanon, with weapons arsenals rivaling those of sovereign nations. Soleimani claimed to have personally assisted Hezbollah develop its tactical strategies for fighting Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
While another commander will take Soleimani’s position as head of the Quds Force, his death strikes a serious blow to Iran and significantly raises the potential for conflict in the region, as Tehran and its allies may seek to avenge him. Indeed Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, following the airstrike on Soleimani’s convoy, quickly threatened “vigorous revenge… for the criminals” behind the attack.
Soleimani was “one of few truly irreplaceable” figures in Iran, who masterminded many of the country’s military endeavors abroad and who was seen as a potential future leader of the Islamic Republic, according to former Israeli deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich.
“His death will not fundamentally affect Iranian expansionism, but Iran will have lost a grand strategist and possible future national leader,” Freilich said.
Over the past year and a half, tensions between the United States and Iran have been rising, following US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the resumption of heavy US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Tehran retaliated to these measure with violations of the accord and, since this summer, with direct violence against the US military and American allies — in addition to its ever-present support for Shiite militias throughout the Middle East.
However, save for its so-called maximum pressure campaign of financial sanctions, the US has largely refrained from retaliating against Iranian aggression in the region, drawing occasional criticism from Israeli officials, who ordinarily abstain from publicly disagreeing with the country’s most important ally America.
According to Mizrahi, the strike on Soleimani — which also killed the deputy commander of a powerful Iran-backed Iraqi militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — demonstrated that the United States is still capable and willing to act militarily against Iran.
Soleimani, a key enemy to not only the US and Israel but also Sunni nations throughout the Middle East, had been threatened with assassination by a variety of state actors over the years. Last year, Iran claimed to have thwarted an “Israeli-Arab” attempt on Soleimani’s life, arresting three people connected to the plot. The Quds Force commander also claimed to have survived an Israeli airstrike during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Soleimani’s survival over the years can be attributed to both a reluctance by his enemies to bear the burden of killing such an important Iranian figure as well as his own caution in his movements and activities as he traveled through the region, meeting with key allies.
Indeed the Quds Force commander reportedly used multiple decoys in leaving the Baghdad airport on Thursday night, having just arrived from Beirut. However, this safeguard was apparently for nought, as the US military was able to specifically strike the vehicles in which he and al-Muhandis were traveling, demonstrating an impressive level of intelligence.
“Now the Americans have shown that they know how to respond when they want to respond,” Mizrahi said. “This is a major achievement for the United States.”
According to Mizrahi, who served in a variety of senior intelligence positions in the IDF and Prime Minister’s Office, the United States would likely want this strike to serve as something of a knock-out punch, rather than an opening gambit into a wider war. Under both Trump and Obama, the US has been working to disengage from the Middle East, not get involved deeper into regional conflicts.
At this early stage, it is not clear how Iran’s retaliation will be carried out. Due in large part to Soleimani’s own efforts over the past 20 years, Tehran has many options and venues at its disposal for reprisals through its proxies in the Middle East — Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
While the United States claimed direct responsibility for the airstrike, Tehran or its proxies may seek their vengeance by striking US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Speaking to Iranian state media, IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif explicitly threatened the State of Israel with retaliation.
“The fleeting happiness of the Americans and the Zionists will in no time turn into mourning,” Sharif said.
Though Iran has typically refrained from launching large-scale strikes directly from its territory for fear of direct retaliations against the country itself, preferring instead to conduct attacks from the countries in which its proxies operate — such a strike is by no means outside the realm of possibility.
In addition to any physical reprisals, Tehran could bring to bear its extensive offensive cyber capabilities against the United States and its allies.
The fleeting happiness of the Americans and the Zionists will in no time turn into mourning
Iran, which was already expected to announce a further violation of the JCPOA next week, may also decide to further step up its uranium enrichment as a response to Soleimani’s assassination.
However, nothing is inevitable or certain. Though Soleimani was undoubtedly a key figure in the region and the US killing him presents serious potential for a wider and deadlier conflict between the American and Iranian alliances, recent Middle East history contains several cases of hugely important officials being killed without earth-shattering retaliations.
In 2004, Israel killed Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin in an airstrike in Gaza. The following period saw a decrease in Palestinian terrorism and an eventual end to the Second Intifada. In 2008, senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed with a car bomb in Damascus in an operation attributed to the Mossad and the CIA. Despite bellicose threats of “open war” by Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the northern borders remained relatively calm.
While Israel and Iran’s other enemies in the region must prepare for potential Iranian retaliation, it is not yet clear what the full ramifications of Soleimani’s death will be in both the short and long therm.
“At this stage, we should be using more question marks than exclamation points,” said Mizrahi.