The elimination on Jan. 3 of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, showed that the United States can and does reap its foes. Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of at least 600 American soldiers and civilians in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, as well as the carnage unleashed by the IRGC and its associates upon the peoples of those three nations. The military organization he spearheaded also harmed Israel, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration last year designated the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, meaning that Washington could unilaterally impose a death sentence.
Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed that Soleimani “attained martyrdom” and threatened to take “tough revenge.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed “Iran will tap into all its political, legal, and international capacities … to hold the criminal and terrorist regime of the US accountable for this blatant crime.”
Soleimani’s death is indeed a devastating blow to Iran’s chain of command -- not only within official channels, but across the array of paramilitary groups sponsored and supplied by the Islamic Republic. The “pilgrim,” as supporters dubbed Soleimani for his constant presence on the front lines of Iran’s battles, was a highly effective commander whose skills on the field were honed during Iraq’s war against Iran from 1980–1988. His political prowess manifested itself over the years as he bent politicians in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to Iran’s will.
The blow is significant, but it remains to be seen how reckless Iran’s leaders will be in seeking to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Despite their rhetoric in public, the elimination of Soleimani does much to aid elements within Iran’s political factions.
Soleimani’s power and influence had grown vast, both through his own efforts and through the IRGC’s financial network. Khamenei already had begun responding by reducing the military’s clout and thereby seeking to avert a possible coup. Since January 2018, the armed forces and their foundations have been under orders to either divest economic holdings on the country’s capital market or sell them to the private sector. Generals have also been reshuffled by the Supreme Leader in an attempt to focus the armed forces on martial rather than political activities.
Iran’s National Security Council convened an emergency meeting within hours of his demise to chart a way forward. The Revolutionary Guard, its Quds Force, and their associates have another reason to target the lives and interests of Americans and American allies with added fury and fervor.
Soleimani’s killing provides another line of argument for hardliners pressing Iran to completely abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, exit the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and deploy nuclear weapons. The U.S. strike against Iran’s most prominent commander will help the pro-nuclear hardliners to galvanize additional public support for their cause, ostensibly to protect Iran from further American attacks.
Moderates in Iranian political circles stand to gain as well. Soleimani had joined other IRGC offices in threatening then-president Mohammad Khatami with a coup unless student demonstrations were quashed in 1999. Later, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoyed Soleimani’s support while putting down the popular revolt against his rigged presidential re-election in 2009; the two men had bonded three decades earlier while brutalizing Kurds in Iran’s northwest. More recently, in 2019, Soleimani led the IRGC’s suppression of nation-wide protests sparked by an increase in the fuel price. He even allegedly bragged to Iraqi security officials: “We in Iran know how to deal with protests.”
Within the context of Iran’s cutthroat domestic tussles, the United States has done Tehran’s political elites a favor by removing a potential rival from the scene. While they will not acknowledge benefits from Soleimani’s elimination, the Islamic Republic’s leaders should not bring his fate upon themselves as well. They should choose prudence over direct conflict—after all, Iranian forces are no match for US fire power.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University. The views expressed are the authors' own.