How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Islamic Republic of Iran has suffered a loss with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, its most prominent military general. The nature and dimensions of that injury, however, are not a simple function of Soleimani’s high-profile regional role. The Quds Force, the external operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will outlast its erstwhile commander, as will Iran’s regional security policy. But Soleimani’s assassination must still occasion soul searching within an establishment that failed to foresee the danger to his person and that has now lost a conspicuous star from its firmament.
Viewed from Tehran, the success of the U.S. air strike on Soleimani and his longtime colleague Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, looks like a counterintelligence and security failure on the part of the Islamic Republic. An increasing number of unofficial accounts and news media reports suggest that intelligence leaks and breaches in Soleimani’s security protocol made the general’s effective elimination possible.
“We know that the Americans have been chasing the two men for a long time, but without success,” an Iraqi paramilitary leader said on January 4. “It is clear that they [the Americans] have recruited some people close to the two to follow their movements and determine the place and time to assassinate them.” Two people who were aboard the plane that transported Soleimani have reportedly been detained by Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces for further investigations.
Such incidents suggest that, as I argued in these pages in November, Iran’s revolutionary core, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the country’s security apparatus more generally, have been compromised. But the loss of Soleimani speaks to even deeper and more important problems.
Iran’s leaders failed to imagine that tensions with the United States could escalate to a new level.
A fundamental failure of imagination and a fatal miscalculation blinded Iran’s leadership to the imminent attack. Distracted by the controversy surrounding the suppression of nationwide protests at home, and emboldened by having adopted a more offensive posture in the region, Iran’s leaders failed to imagine that tensions could escalate to a new level. They were altogether too sanguine, given that U.S. President Donald Trump, erratic in the best of times and now entangled in a discrediting impeachment plight and surrounded by Iran hawks, had just ordered the fatal targeting of Iranian-backed paramilitary fighters in Iraq and explicitly threatened Tehran over the ensuing breach of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Such overconfidence led Tehran, rather than undertaking special precautions, to arrange a business-as-usual security protocol for the commander of a force that the United States had designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization last April.
“In this trip, he traveled to Baghdad upon the invitation of Iraqi government officials. This time in particular, he traveled from Syria to Iraq and on a passenger plane [at that], which could even be tracked on aviation websites,” the IRGC Deputy Commander in Chief General Ali Fadavi said on state TV on January 3, after the assassination news spread.
Such a relaxed protocol should be surprising. Not only had the organization he helmed been designated a terrorist one but Soleimani enjoyed a celebrity status that made him, personally, an obvious target. He had acquired his star power with the help of voluminous state propaganda after leading the successful fight against the Islamic State, known as ISIS. In the leaked intelligence documents on Iran’s “spy complex” in Iraq, disclosed by the Intercept and The New York Times in November, agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence clearly warn about the likely consequences of the public spectacle and personality cult forming around him.
Soleimani’s loss is a wakeup call for the IRGC, which would be wise to study its lessons. But the general’s absence will not undermine the elite force or derail the domestic and regional policies that it executes on the Islamic Republic’s behalf. Iran’s parliament has just underscored this fact by designating the entire U.S. military a terrorist organization and dedicating an additional $223 million to the Quds Force. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, lost no time in appointing General Esmail Qaani the new head of the Quds Force, indicating that the system under his watch has no shortage of people for leadership roles and that, as he stated, “Soleimani’s path will continue.”
At least to save face, the Iranian leader will do all he can to show publicly that the “enemy” did not succeed in degrading the Quds Force. He has long shown himself to be preoccupied with image management and the projection of authority. Back in November, he refused to back down in the face of popular protests and parliamentary objections to an untimely hike in gasoline prices that the state had sanctioned. And he has consistently sought to demonstrate that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy is not succeeding in making the Islamic Republic buckle.
Khamenei’s recent message of condolence conveys a similarly resolute intention. “Martyr Soleimani is an international figure of Resistance, and all devotees of Resistance are now his avengers. Let all his friends—as well as all his enemies—know that the line of Resistance Jihad will continue with greater motivation,” the leader said.
Khamenei will do all he can to show that the “enemy” did not succeed in degrading the Quds Force.
Fortunately for Khamenei and Qaani, the IRGC is a complex institution with deep roots, making it less than susceptible to “leadership decapitation.” Qaani lacks Soleimani’s charisma and sense of humor, and since leading a vast network of militia groups depends as much on informal connections and friendships as it does on organizational discipline, he might never become as smooth and popular as his predecessor. This deficiency alone, however, will not detract substantially from the Quds Force’s effectiveness under his command.
Qaani had officially served as Soleimani’s deputy since 2007. He has directly overseen operations and worked with paramilitary groups in various terrains. Over the course of more than two decades of collaboration and companionship— since Soleimani was first appointed to spearhead the Quds Force in 1997— Qaani and his commander were on almost the same political and ideological wavelength. Both generals were among the signatories of a notorious letter from IRGC commanders to the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami following student protests in Tehran in 1999. The letter lashed out at the Khatami administration for sympathizing with antiestablishment protesters and emboldening Iran’s nemeses. It demanded that the West-friendly president take action against anti-revolutionary forces and warned that the signatories were “running out of patience.”
Because Qaani does not have the same propensity for pragmatism and independent action that Soleimani did, he might end up acting in more rigid and hard-line ways than his predecessor. Moreover, during this period of mourning, he will probably rush to capitalize on the fresh emotional wounds and enhanced fraternal sentiments of the Shia militia fighters in order to inspire their sympathy and secure their personal allegiance.
The IRGC has suffered a trauma to which it will need to adapt both psychologically and operationally. And Soleimani’s absence leaves a void that Qaani will have to exert real effort to fill. He will probably not be accorded his predecessor’s celebrity status. But given Qaani’s closeness to Soleimani, along with Khamenei’s determination to project steady authority, the assassination is unlikely to have a moderating effect on the IRGC’s overall policy or methodology, let alone interfere with its efficacy.
If anything, the soul-searching that the general’s elimination will inspire within the juggernaut will prompt it to act more ruthlessly and with greater calculation. A costly understanding has been forced on Iran’s leadership that the rules of engagement that used to govern relations with adversaries, not least the United States, no longer apply, and a new modus operandi is being established. What is at stake is less and less the pride and prestige of the revolutionary cause that the establishment has been tasked to uphold, and more and more the very survival of that establishment in power.
Ultimately, the most significant loss to the Islamic Republic is that of a world-famous, popular military commander with the potential to ease the state’s religious ideology into the wave of secular nationalism that has broken across the society, particularly among young Iranians who experienced neither the 1979 revolution nor the Iran-Iraq War. For this reason, the state-run media had begun to promote him as an ideal candidate for Iran’s presidency—and enormous crowds of all kinds showed up for his funeral across Iran.
The Islamic Republic has not groomed many such figures. For this reason, it will sorely miss Soleimani for his distinct political value—more, ultimately, than for his leadership acumen in conflict zones.
What Tehran Is Likely to Do Next