Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.
Iran's Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (left) with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (Wikipedia)
The targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani is not a particularly dramatic surprise in the surprise-prone Middle East. There was a reason Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called him the “living martyr.” He knew Soleimani was in perennial danger of being killed.
The powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force never stopped provoking Israel, and unlike other assassinated terror masterminds such as Hezbollah deputy commander Imad Mughniyeh, Osama Bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he never behaved like a wanted man.
He didn’t hide or live in a cave. On the contrary, he routinely traveled openly around the region, his face in full view, seen by the media. He wanted to be seen doing what he was doing, behaving how a commander should act.
He would show up to encourage, support and orchestrate the activities of his allies — whether they were the Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah forces in Syria or the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
He was full of confidence, to the point of euphoria and smugness. And he ended up paying the price.
The surprise, however, is that the killing was only carried out now, 21 years after Soleimani was appointed as the commander of the Quds Force and became one of the most dangerous and important people in the Middle East.
This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, January 3, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)
There were definitely opportunities. At one point, US president George W. Bush refused to approve an operation aimed at eliminating Soleimani and Mughniyeh, his good friend, fearing the far-reaching consequences of harming such a senior Iranian commander. (Mughniyeh was killed in a joint Israel-US operation in Damascus in 2008.)
US president Barack Obama didn’t even try, instead leading a policy of warming ties with Iran. In effect, Obama allowed Soleimani and his colleagues in the Revolutionary Guards to run wild in the region, to set up Iranian proxies in countries like Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, and to increase their influence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
An ‘export’ vacuum
Soleimani’s elimination leaves a huge vacuum in the Iranian military elite and regarding everything related to the policy of “exporting” the Islamic revolution which the regime has championed since 1979. Of course there are successors — his deputy Esmail Ghaani has already been named to replace him — but the question is whether they will be as charismatic, authoritative and visionary as he was.
Esmail Ghaani, the deputy commander of Iran’s Quds Force named as the force’s commander on January 3, 2020 after the previous chief Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike, in a photo taken on 19 May 2019. (Erfan Kouchari/Wikipedia CC-BY-4.0)
It is hard to imagine Ghaani or others will prove to have so wild a vision as Soleimani, who pursued the avowed goal of turning Iran into an empire stretching to the Mediterranean Sea, with branches in the Gulf region and the Bab-el-Mandeb strait.
And it is hard to believe they will match his audacity to initiate, for instance, drone and rocket strikes on the Saudi oil industry, acting on the assessment that the Americans and the Saudis wouldn’t dare to retaliate.
He was right about that, but fatally wrong about what the Trump administration might ultimately do to thwart him.
Soleimani’s problem was that he bit off more than he could chew. Even after the attacks on Saudi Arabia, he didn’t stop. He constantly tried to expand weapons smuggling to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and to deploy pro-Iran militias in Syria and Iraq. And he played a big part in the decisions by Hezbollah and Iraq to crack down in recent weeks on the popular protests, fearing Iran’s status could be harmed.
There is a reason protesters were seen dancing joyfully in the streets of Baghdad following the assassination. Soleimani had personally encouraged Iraqi forces to repress the demonstrations there with massive force.
However, there is no reason for celebration at this time in the streets of Jerusalem or Washington. It should be remembered that when Israel killed Hezbollah chief Abbas al-Musawi in 1992, his successor was a relatively unknown, 33-year-old upstart called Hassan Nasrallah.
In order to create deterrence against further such blows, Iran will have to find a way to retaliate — to show the Americans that it is not afraid of a confrontation and that such an operation cannot be left unanswered.
Iraqi anti-government protesters flash the V-sign of victory outside their protest tents in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square following news of the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards top commander Qasem Soleimani in a US strike on his convoy at Baghdad international airport on January 3, 2020 (AFP)
And besides everything else, there is also the personal aspect. Soleimani, who was 63, was considered a protegé of Khamenei. He was born to a poor family, idolized Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini even before the Islamic revolution, and joined the Revolutionary Guards in the year it was established.
For the regime, he was — and is — a symbol rather than just a senior commander. He implemented the policies pushed by Khamenei, who never sought to hide his admiration for him, and that connection will likely increase the motivation for Khamenei and the regime to exact revenge on the US.
Judging by the initial Lebanese reactions, it doesn’t seem Hezbollah intends to attack Israel over the assassination. The terror group may understand that this is a war it shouldn’t rush to join. However, a terror attack against an American target is definitely on the table.
Soleimani, along with Mughniyeh at the time, were both considered top experts in that field. And Soleimani’s heirs will likely be handed a clear objective: take revenge on the United States for his death, and fast.