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Moment that mattered: Qassem Soleimani is assasinated

A man carrying a portrait of Qassem Soleimani during a remembrance rally for the major general in Tehran, 6th January


A man carrying a portrait of Qassem Soleimani during a remembrance rally for the major general in Tehran, 6th January

When Arash Azizi heard that Major General Qassem Soleimani, widely regarded as Iran’s most powerful military figure, had been killed by a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport on 3rd January, he knew that his carefully laid plans for the next twelve months had been upended. “I thought it would be a very calm year,” says the New York University academic, who planned to spend his time slowly finalising The Shadow Commander, his upcoming biography of Soleimani. His publisher moved forward the release date and there was another chapter to write: the story of Soleimani’s death. It is a section Azizi didn’t think he would have to create. “I was just in disbelief. I thought it was just impossible [that he would be killed],” he says. “He really had this kind of aura, like he would never die. That he was invincible”.

But Soleimani was dead, and many feared what would come next. “There really was the worry that a war might break out,” says Azizi of the initial reaction to the assassination. In the five days of tension and escalation that followed, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei vowed revenge, while US president Donald Trump threatened to destroy 52 Iranian targets, including cultural sites, if any American lives were taken (the 52 was a reference to the number of US hostages held during the Iran hostage crisis between 1979 and 1981). On 8th January, Iran launched Operation Martyr Soleimani which saw missiles fired at the Ayn al Asad air base in Iraq, where US forces were stationed. While the US reported 110 injuries, there were no deaths.

” I felt for the first time in years how close war can be and how destructive it could be”

Later that day, a Ukrainian International Airlines commercial jet taking off from Tehran airport crashed, killing all 176 people on board. At first the Iranian government claimed a technical error had brought down the plane. But mobile phone footage recorded by people in the area showed that a missile had hit Flight 752. After three days of denials, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] admitted that it had accidentally shot down the plane, mistaking it for a cruise missile.  When the cover-up was revealed it sparked anti-government protests across the country.

And then Covid-19 swept the world, hitting Iran particularly hard. The first case was reported on 19th February and by June nearly 200,000 people had been infected, including dozens of parliamentarians. The prospect of World War Three appeared to recede. “We kind of had a sigh of relief,” says Azizi. “I felt for the first time in years how close war can be and how destructive it could be.”

Known for being a ruthless and brilliant strategist, Soleimani rose to prominence in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. Whilst still in his twenties he was promoted to division commander, overseeing tens of thousands of soldiers fighting on the southern front. Since 1998 he had been the elusive commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the IRGC that operates like a cross between MI6, the SAS and the Foreign Office. Soleimani – who spoke fluent Arabic and travelled widely to promote Iranian interests – excelled at the role.

“What made him an influential commander was the ability to seamlessly unite different groups,” says Azizi. It was Soleimani who helped turn the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah into a force to be reckoned with on Israel’s northern border. He also turned the tide in the Syrian civil war, coming to the aid of president Bashar al Assad by helping to arrange Russia’s intervention and organising disparate forces on the ground. “In the Syrian civil war he was really able to do what a lot of others couldn’t,” says Aziz. “To unite this large number of Islamist militias. The way he connected them is not easily replicated.” Iran’s involvement was ideological – Iran is a Shia theocracy and Assad is a member of the Alawites, a Shia sect. But it was also strategic, with Syria providing a vital corridor between Tehran and Beirut.

As much as Soleimani’s quiet charisma and cunning were appreciated, many – including figures within Iranian military intelligence – were wary of his use of brute force. But it appealed to one person in particular. “I think what impressed Putin was his ruthlessness,” says Azizi. The Russian president met with Soleimani in Moscow in 2015. “I interviewed people on both sides of that meeting ,” continues Azizi. “Putin [saw] that Soleimani was a man who will get the job done no matter what. Someone who can be very quiet and kind but also be very brutal.”

It was this efficient brutality that made him a hated figure in Washington. Although Soleimani’s forces would sometimes find themselves on the same side as the US, such as when Isis snatched huge swathes of territory or when he was fighting the Taliban on Iran’s eastern border, in Iraq the two sides came into conflict. Soleimani rallied pro-Tehran Shia militias in the country, coordinating a guerilla campaign that killed hundreds of American soldiers. “The Iraq War, for the Americans, was unsuccessful,” says Azizi. “And who made it fail? To a large degree guys like Soleimani. He really ruined the American presence in Iraq … Soleimani had a lot of American blood on his hands.”

“Soleimani’s four-day funeral was reported to be the largest in Iran since 1989”

There had, Azizi says, been many opportunities for the US to take out Soleimani before, but it was the arrival of American president Donald Trump that changed the calculus. Barack Obama had tried to minimise the threat from Tehran with the Iran nuclear deal, which would have halted the country’s attempts to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for being reintegrated into the world economy. Trump instead chose the path of “maximum pressure” by ending the deal, introducing punishing economic sanctions and green-lighting shows of military strength, like Soleimani’s assassination.

Azizi says Soleimani was so well-loved that he had been considering a run for president before he was killed and his four-day funeral was reported to be the largest in Iran since the founder of the Islamic Republic, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was mourned in 1989. The numbers were too large for the authorities to control and a stampede erupted, killing at least 56 and injuring over 200 more.

For Azizi, Covid-19 is only part of the answer of why the killing of such a popular figure by the US didn’t trigger a war. “The main reason is Khamenei’s prudence, in a sense,” he says. “He attacked the American base, but no soldiers got killed. Iran could claim that they had done something. They kill your top commander. You have to do something that saves face, but also something that doesn’t lead to a war. And I think he read the sweet spot with that action.”

The assassination also raised the question of whether Trump had been vindicated. His maximum pressure policy has destroyed the Iranian economy whilst militarily he managed to remove a man who had long been a thorn in the side of the US and its allies with no significant comeback – for now.

Soleimani will be difficult to replace. The new head of the Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, has struggled to maintain the same connections with disparate groups that Soleimani had formed, especially in Iraq. “He [Ghaani] doesn’t have charisma. He doesn’t really speak Arabic, he doesn’t have the same experiences or the same relationship with the Shia militias,” says Azizi.

In the initial aftermath of Soleimani’s death, the conservative Iranian regime boosted a more unlikely successor to carry on Soleimani’s legacy: his 28-year-old daughter, Zeinab. “She’s smart and a genuine party believer,” says Azizi. “I think she was her dad’s main political successor in many ways. She’s the one who accompanied him on trips across the Arab world and believed in his Iranian-Arab revolutionary cause. She’s the one who learned Arabic and who’s as respected in Beirut as she is in Tehran.”

In the weeks after her father’s death Zeinab met with Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, and declared – in perfect, Lebanese-accented Arabic – that “the spider nests of America and Zionists will collapse.” She was later appointed the head of the Qassem Soleimani Foundation, a newly established entity dedicated to honouring the general’s legacy. “It was a very calculated decision of the regime to make her a sort of lodestar,” adds Azizi. But these attempts to push Zeinab to the fore have receded in recent months as it’s become clear she’s unlikely to be a unifying force. “Since then we haven’t heard much of her,” says Azizi. “She doesn’t have the main thing that her father had: flexibility. You know, she really sounds scarily pro-Khamenei, frankly.”

But as Azizi points out, the Iranian regime is a master of the long game. “One hundred percent, the price has yet to be paid,” he says of the potential consequences of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. “Any deal with the  Americans is much harder now. If you look at Iraq now, you have all these new little groups that are fighting against the American presence. They’re all Iran-backed groups. The slow burn tactics against America continue.”

The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions (Oneworld) by Arash Azizi will be published later this year.

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