The killing of Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani by the US in Baghdad has been met with mixed reactions around the world. Some have expressed their grief, while others were overjoyed at the death of the man they call “the butcher of Aleppo” and the killer of Sunni Muslims in the region.
Soleimani was commanding Iranian forces and their Shia militia allies at the siege of the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016, during which almost 1,200 people were killed. Around 31,000 have been killed there over the course of the battle for the city from 2012 onwards. As the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), he was responsible for overseeing and directing the ongoing assault on Idlib province in north-west Syria, as well as the Shia militias across the region who are blamed for numerous atrocities, particularly against local Sunni Muslim populations. Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad himself praised Soleimani, saying that his contribution to the regime and its military campaigns “will not be forgotten.”
It is not his contribution to foreign policy which makes Soleimani’s death have such an impact in Iran, though, but his standing within the country and its government. The IRGC is the guardian of the revolution and Iran’s most powerful military force. Soleimani was thus effectively one of the most prominent and influential men in the country, arguably second only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and on a par with President Hassan Rouhani.
For US President Donald Trump to order an air strike to kill such an important Iranian figure was reckless. It has been described as an act of war, and yet despite the hysteria about it sparking World War Three, the fact is that Iran has been shocked into silence, for now at least. It is in a quandary both militarily and diplomatically in a way which it has never been since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the seizure of ships in the Gulf, the tit-for-tat downing of Iranian and US drones last year, and the seemingly endless sanctions regime imposed by the West on Iran have not perplexed Tehran over the future of its foreign policy as much as the assassination of Soleimani. The Iranian government is, in effect, short of options for any retaliation, if it is going to retaliate at all. It is in a no-win situation: failure to respond will be seen as a weakness by the US, but it knows that it may not survive the consequences of any military response, if US President Donald Trump’s aggressive tweets are anything to go by.
Iran was always taking a gamble by opposing US policy in the region and attempting to control Iraq and undermine its popular protest movement. However, America’s direct assassination of Iran’s top military figure has brought that game to an end.
Nevertheless, those who were not upset at the killing are furious at the US for overstepping the unwritten prohibition on targeting senior political and military figures. Most Iranians regard the assassination as a clear example of American terrorism.
Iran’s subsequent threats have surpassed its usual rhetoric. Despite its desperation, Iran is not entirely toothless. It could, for example, mobilise the Shia militias that it backs in Iraq and the Levant, creating problems for the US and its allies in the region. It has gone ahead and announced that it is abandoning the crumbling 2015 nuclear deal; pushed Iraq into announcing that all US and other foreign troops should leave the country; threatened to attack US targets and ships in the Middle East; and even threatened to launch an attack on the White House in Washington.
Tehran also has its diplomatic and military alliance with Russia up its sleeve. Although Tehran has very few solid allies in the international community — and those it does have, such as Syria and Iraq, pose very little threat to anyone — it can still count on Russia and possibly China for support in the event of any major attack by the US. This was demonstrated by Russia’s condemnation of Soleimani’s assassination, while China accused the US of abusing its power. Their mutual mistrust of the West means that the three nations may need each other in the near future.
With Soleimani’s assassination, the US has partially succeeded in reasserting its dominance in the Middle East at a time of increasing Russian influence; Iran and surrounding countries have to acknowledge this. Despite predictions of a direct military confrontation, however, Iran and the US will most likely stick to the current pattern of relatively small skirmishes, albeit slightly more intense. A major conflict would bog down both sides, which neither really wants.
Even so, with two players who are very unpredictable despite their wild rhetoric — Trump and Iran — it is hard to predict what will happen. One thing is certain, though: Iran has been cornered politically, militarily and diplomatically, as well as wounded severely; unless caution prevails, it is thus likely to lash out, which isn’t likely to satisfy any except those seeking revenge. No matter what that entails, it wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.