Qassem Soleimani connected all the dots in Iran’s strategy of aggression

Qassem Soleimani receives a medal from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Shimon Shapira and Michael Segall

(JCPA) — On Jan. 3, an American drone targeted the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who had arrived in Baghdad on a regular civil flight from Damascus after meeting Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut two days earlier. He was killed together with senior officials in his delegation and senior leaders of Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Prominent among them were Jamal Mahmad Jaafar al-Tamimi (aka Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces and the commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, the Iran-affiliated Shi’ite militia responsible for rocket fire on the Kirkuk base, where an American contractor was killed on Dec. 27.

Prior to Soleimani’s killing, the Americans attacked a KH base on the Syrian-Iraqi border on Dec. 29, resulting in the deaths of at least 25 terrorists (based on their funeral procession in Baghdad). Two days later, under Iranian direction, Shi’ite militiamen broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad’s “Green Zone.” The incursion, according to intelligence on Iranian-Soleimani intentions, was meant to challenge American presence in Iraq as well as repeat the scenario of the capture of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. The incident led to the American decision to eliminate Soleimani and his Iraqi partners. Following Soleimani’s death, the United States attacked Shi’ite militias in Iraq, striking Shibel al-Zaydi, the commander of the Imam Ali militia.

Red flag over the ‘messianic’ mosque in Jamkaran

In response to Soleimani’s killing, senior Iranian regime officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, joined the heads of the IRGC and Iranian Army to warn of “painful revenge.”

IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami called Soleimani the “architect of how to defeat America and thwart all its plans against the Islamic world,” and said Soleimani would be more dangerous to the United States as a martyr than he was while alive. Salami warned, hinting at Israel, “We have a strong will and we will burn down places that America loves and protects, and it knows what we mean… They have burned everything they have capitalized on [in the region] with this crime… Today marks the beginning of the era of struggle against America… Soleimani’s martyrdom is the beginning of a swift end of the American presence in the region.”

Mohsen Rezaee, Expediency Discernment Council secretary and former IRGC commander, warned that “if the United States responds to Iran’s revenge, we will totally erase Tel Aviv, Haifa and major [Israeli] army bases.”

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said, “To date, 13 scenarios for revenge have been suggested… Even if there is a consensus on the weakest scenario, implementing it can turn into a historic nightmare for the Americans.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a Khamenei adviser on international affairs, has warned that the United States will face “another Vietnam if it does not leave the Middle East… Experience has shown that they have always been defeated by plans of Iran and the Resistance Front.”

Khamenei paid a condolence call to the family of Soleimani, who was buried after a funeral procession from Baghdad to the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, then to Tehran, Mashad, and Qom before finally arriving at his birthplace of Kerman. Soon after his death, Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Ghaani, was appointed by the supreme leader to replace him. Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani stated that “the supreme leader has granted his permission” to grant €200 million ($222.8 million) from the sovereign wealth fund to boost IRGC-QF external operations. “The funds will be used to support the IRGC-QF, which is responsible for resistance across the region,” he said.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s deputy, Naim Qassem, paid condolences and declared that after Soleimani’s death, Hezbollah bears a greater responsibility since Soleimani had played a much larger role than just Iranian affairs; he had played a role for “all the resistance movements” fighting Israel and the United States.

Iran’s propaganda trumpets are presenting Soleimani as a Shi’ite saint whose martyrdom deserves religious glorification. For the first time in Iran’s history, a symbolic red flag representing revenge has been raised above the Jamkaran mosque in Qom above the well where, according to Shi’ite belief, the messianic Mahdi is hiding. According to Shi’ite belief, the Mahdi’s return is a symbol for expectations of revenge.

The executor of Iranian strategy in the Middle East

Soleimani, who was 62, served as head of the Quds Force for 20 years, beginning in 1998. He was the protégé of Supreme Leader Khamenei and answered only to him. He translated the Iranian revolutionary philosophy into practice via a policy of strengthening Shi’ite concentrations all over the world, and in the Arab world in particular.

Soleimani knew how to connect all the dots of Iran’s military, terrorist and political strategies. He trained, armed and provided funds to terrorist organizations and groups in the Middle East. He provided Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza with rockets, anti-tank missiles and sniper rifles, and formed the groups into what is known as the “Resistance Front.” He accomplished this by taking advantage of regional instability in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Iraq War and the war against Islamic State.

Soleimani forged solid bonds with Hezbollah’s Nasrallah and Imad Mughniyeh, the organization’s former military commander, who was assassinated in Syria in 2008. He gradually transformed the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group into a role model for proxy forces in various conflict areas where Iran has religious, military and political interests.

A strategy of patience and long-range planning is the central ingredient in Iran’s national security policies, which seek to distance the front lines from Iran’s own borders. Concomitantly, Iran strives to place the jihadi front as close as possible to Israel’s borders in the Golan Heights, Lebanon and Gaza, to those of its rival Saudi Arabia (by aiding the Houthis in Yemen) and to Shi’ite areas ruled by Sunnis (such as Bahrain).

The missile warehouse in Lebanon

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Soleimani co-managed the war plan with Mughniyeh and Nasrallah. They were in the Hezbollah operations room in the Dahiyeh neighborhood of Beirut 24/7. When Israeli bombing got too close, Soleimani and Mughniyeh took Nasrallah, the religious and civilian face of Hezbollah and, in Soleimani’s words, “the leader of this place,” out of their redoubt and wandered between buildings seeking shelter, before eventually returning to the operations room.

From the end of the war, Soleimani scrupulously worked on refurbishing Hezbollah’s missile force, with the aim of deterring Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Soleimani invested great resources in filling Hezbollah’s missile stocks. In recent years, Soleimani expended most of his efforts in converting a large part of Hezbollah’s missile stockpile into precision missiles.

To that end, Soleimani built an operational, technological infrastructure in Syria, from which he transferred missiles to Lebanon in convoys. When the missiles’ routes between Syria and Lebanon were uncovered, the Quds Force commander decided to build precision-guidance system factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon. At first, the secret facilities were in the Beirut area, but when Israel discovered them, they were moved to the Baalbek region. Soleimani’s vision was to turn Lebanon into Hezbollah’s missile warehouse.

Using the opportunity in Syria

In the case of Syria, Soleimani knew how to take advantage of the violent uprising against Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad during the Arab Spring in order to advance Iran’s strategic interests and to make Syria an Iranian dependent. Because of internal Iranian considerations, Soleimani decided not to utilize Iranian soldiers to save Assad’s regime, and instead devised a plan to establish a “Shi’ite foreign legion” that would consist of more than 100,000 Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Soleimani cynically used the plight of Afghani refugees who had no resident status in Iran, offering them and their families citizen status if they joined the Shi’ite legion. Thus, he was able to recruit thousands of Afghani and Pakistani fighters for the militias, the Fatemiyoun Afghan Brigade and the Zaynabiyon Pakistani Brigade.

To improve the chances of saving Assad’s regime, Soleimani also demanded Hezbollah fighters from Nasrallah in Lebanon. Thousands of Hezbollah fighters actively participated in battles in Syria and, in some cases, made the difference. But the price Hezbollah paid in Syria was very high. More than 2,000 Hezbollah fighters died and 8,000 were wounded. The long Hezbollah deployment in Syria — which ended only recently — led to criticism from Shi’ites in Lebanon, who said Soleimani had used Hezbollah as cannon fodder in Syria.

The dissatisfaction reached a climax in a sharp dispute in May 2016 between Soleimani and Mustafa Badreddine, the commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria, who objected to the overuse of Hezbollah fighters in Syrian battles under Iranian command. Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot revealed that the rift led to Soleimani personally murdering Badreddine near the Damascus airport. It should be emphasized that the claim that Soleimani was personally involved in the crime is debated.

The Hezbollah model copied in Iraq

After the 2003 Iraq War, Iran feared the United States would continue with a campaign against it. The IRGC’s Quds Force began organizing violent opposition by Shi’ite groups in Iraq, which were transformed into armed militias. Soleimani requested that Nasrallah dispatch instructors to train the forces as a way of overcoming the language barrier — Iranian instructors did not speak Arabic.

Mughniyeh sent 120 instructors, led by Ali Mussa Daqduq, Mugniyeh’s representative in Iraq, to train the local militias in tactics used against the IDF in southern Lebanon, especially EFP (explosively formed projectile) roadside bombs. He was also tasked with organizing the militias in political-military units, copying the Lebanese Hezbollah. Daqduq was captured and sent to the United States. He was released and returned to Hezbollah’s ranks.

At the head of one of the units trained by Daqduk in 2006 was Qais al-Khazali, today the head of one of the Iraqi militias, Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Daqduk was al-Khazali’s personal adviser. His militia downed American and British helicopters in 2006 and 2007; in July 2007, they broke into a base in Karbala, killing an American soldier and then executing four more they had captured. He was later captured and turned over to the Iraqis. His militia fought with Lebanese Hezbollah in 2011 against Syrian rebels. In 2019, he was added to the American sanctions list.

This pattern of action epitomizes the long-range strategy that Soleimani specialized in — investing in local militias to benefit the general Iranian interest by pushing the campaign against the U.S. presence in Iraq — then and today.

A parallel foreign policy

Soleimani, with Khamenei’s blessing, ran a foreign policy parallel to Iran’s foreign ministry, especially in Middle East affairs, sometimes even leap-frogging the IRGC’s chain of command. He visited Russia in 2015 to coordinate strategy to save Assad; conducted the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq; acted in Iraq to further Iran’s political-military interests; managed, with Hezbollah’s help, the supply of rockets to the Palestinians; and built the military capabilities of the Houthis in Yemen so that they could attack Iran’s sworn enemies, the Saudis, and their oil fields.

Soleimani’s activities and the campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brought him into public view after many years of avoiding the spotlight. His photogenic pictures (sometimes wearing the headgear of his foreign legion’s soldiers) turned him into an icon that was even featured in computer games, animations and songs of praise. He showed an ability to bridge diplomatic, ethnic and religious gaps (even working with American forces against the Taliban) for the benefit of Iran’s long-term strategic goals.

At the same time, his status and influence brought criticism from opposition groups in Syria who fought against Assad, and his picture was occasionally set alight during protests in Iraq and Iran. After his death, people in various areas in Syria and Iraq passed out candies to celebrate. The Gulf States had difficulty hiding their glee over his death.

An inconvenient death

Soleimani’s demise came at a very problematic time for Tehran.

In Iraq, Iran’s hold on the government has weakened with the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the growing protests against Iran’s use of local Shi’ite militias to advance its political and security interests in the country, and its transformation of Iraq into a rear logistical base for the storage and transfer of military materiel from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

The decision to transform Iraqi territory into a logistical base came after repeated attacks on the operational infrastructure that Iran tried to establish in Syria. Many sources in Iraq, including senior elements in the Arab Shi’ite community, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, have pointed out on numerous occasions the price in blood being paid by Iraqi citizens because of Iranian actions.

In Lebanon, internal criticism is growing over economic conditions in the country, and Hezbollah is openly seen as being an Iranian puppet. The Lebanese are tired of paying the price, and they receive no economic support from the West because of Hezbollah’s involvement in the government and its classification as a terrorist organization.

In Iran, despite the great esteem in which Soleimani was held by Iranian citizens and the mass public mourning for him, some regarded him as having wasted huge sums of money meant for Iranians on expensive adventures in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and with the Palestinians. As a result, in the recent protests in Iran that erupted following gasoline price increases, videos were posted on social media of Soleimani’s picture being burned. Soleimani’s targeting by the “Great Satan” may even give a push to the protestors in Iran.

The Iranian response

Iran’s entire religious, political and military leadership vowed “painful revenge” for the death of Soleimani. Iran can respond with a broad range of weapons against various American targets in the region, such as bases in Iraq where American soldiers are stationed, the U.S. Embassy, oil infrastructure (such as Exxon facilities in Iraq), American allies in the Gulf and their oil and water infrastructures. The Iranian response can also be carried out by various Iranian proxy organizations, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In a defiant speech on Jan. 5, Nasrallah said that Israel couldn’t get to Soleimani in Syria, so it turned to the United States to kill him, and for that Israel must be punished. Nasrallah revealed that he met Soleimani a few weeks earlier and warned him that his picture was appearing in American newspapers, in which he was portrayed as an irreplaceable general. Nasrallah figured that the Americans planned to kill him.

Nasrallah threatened U.S. military forces in the region, saying, “When the coffins of American officers and soldiers start to return to the United States, [U.S. President Donald] Trump and his administration will understand that they lost the region and Trump will lose the elections.”

The Hezbollah leader enumerated possible American targets: “American army bases, the American naval fleet, and every soldier and officer in the region will have to pay the price.”

Nasrallah scorned Trump as “ignorant” and his advisers as “idiots” who had no idea what he was talking about, adding that in the near future it would become clear to them.

In a commentary on Nasrallah’s speech, Ibrahim al-Amine, editor of the Lebanese Al Akhbar, who is close to Nasrallah, wrote that the great war against the American presence in the region has commenced. Al-Amine said that “Nasrallah wanted to harness all the energy of all [the components of] the resistance front. Martyr Soleimani is the martyr of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan as much as he is the martyr of Iran… This is not just a revenge but justice that would hasten the liberation of Jerusalem.”

Alongside a picture of the American Marine barracks in Beirut destroyed by an Imad Mughniyeh-led Hezbollah suicide bombing on Oct. 23, 1983, appeared the headline, “A New Era.”

In his address, Nasrallah marked the trail ahead: “We need to fight the American presence in every place in the region, clean out all American presence in our land in the form of advisers, technicians, diplomats, human rights workers, financial managers, civilian companies, and all other American presence.”

According to al-Amine, Nasrallah had “invited us to join in a great war of liberation to rid our lands of American presence… There is no legitimization for their presence or for those who grant it.”

“This is war,” he wrote in conclusion.

On the nuclear front

On Jan. 5, and apparently without any tie to Soleimani’s death, Iran announced the “fifth step” of its withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will set aside the final operational restrictions under the JCPOA, which is ‘the restriction on the number of centrifuges.’ This way, the Islamic Republic of Iran will have no restrictions to carry out its nuclear program in the operational field (which includes enrichment capacity, enrichment percentage, amount of enriched materials, and research and development) and Iran’s nuclear program will proceed based on its technical requirements from now on,” it said in a statement.

Iran noted that it will continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and said that “if the sanctions are lifted and Iran benefits from its interests, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to return to its obligations.” The tough Iranian announcement was not part of the reactions to Soleimani’s death, and Iran appears to be leaving the door open to dialogue.

Iran’s miscalculation and dilemma

The attack on Soleimani surprised the Iranians, who had mistakenly assessed American tolerance following a string of Iranian provocations, from the downing of a U.S. drone over international waters, to attacks on oil tankers in Persian Gulf, to drones and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities, to firing on Iraqi bases that house American soldiers and contractors.

Following lack of U.S. reaction to these incidents, Iran instructed its militias in Iraq to take the symbolic step of invading the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. It was an arrogant move that failed to take into account the American national trauma following the 2012 invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi (and the murder of four Americans), as well as the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by so-called “students.”

Under the orders of Iran’s Islamic Republican Guards Corps, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq led mob attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019. Source: Screenshot.

Evidence that those incidents played a role in the U.S. response was exhibited in Trump’s warning over the weekend that the United States has already marked 52 sites (the number of the American hostages taken in the Tehran embassy in 1979) as targets in the event Iran chooses to respond to the Soleimani killing.

The Iranian regime now finds itself in a serious dilemma regarding its possible responses in the face of U.S. threats. It must now also reconsider all aspects of its actions in Iran, Iraq and Syria—and in the entire region in general.

It is clear to the Iranians that the United States, which hitherto exhibited a reluctance to respond to aggression that surprised and troubled regional allies, can, if it chooses, threaten key regime assets and even the regime itself. Therefore, the Iranian regime will probably exercise great caution in its response, which is not likely to be immediate.

On the eve of Soleimani’s death, mediation efforts between the United States and Iran were being conducted via the Omani, Japanese and Swiss governments (Switzerland represents American interests in Tehran). It is possible that mediation efforts will continue in order to reduce tensions.

On the other hand, the lack of a response or a weak response from any “Resistance Axis” member could reveal the Iranian regime’s weakness and crack the image it has built over the years since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago that it alone is capable of standing up to American and Israeli hegemony in the region, an image that grew stronger after Saddam Hussein’s demise and the Arab Spring.

Iran is expected to continue pushing its regional objectives and its entrenchment in Syria. The regime will continue its relations with the “Resistance Front” organizations, which are a central element in Iran’s national security strategy. Iran may decide to return to the low-profile, behind-the-scenes operations that characterized its methods until Soleimani’s high-profile activities of recent years.

Cracks in the Resistance Front

Soleimani emerged in recent years as a living myth, someone whose personality unified, at least ideologically, the various camps in the “Resistance Front.” In the near term, his elimination could crack the coalition and make it difficult for all the elements to work in an organized and coordinated fashion. At the same time, the aid given by the Quds Force to Palestinian factions, especially in the area of rocketry, will continue to be a central element in actions against Israel in the future—even in Soleimani’s absence.

IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as military secretary to Israel’s prime minister and as chief of staff of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook “Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.”

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.