A year without Soleimani: Will Iran retreat regionally?

The assassination of Qassem Soleimani was one of several major setbacks for Iran in 2020. Can it recover?

People in Tehran walk near a poster of General Qassem Soleimani,
People walk near a photo of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on the one year anniversary of his assassination by a US drone, in Tehran on January 1, 2021 [Majid Asgaripour/WANA via Reuters]

Iran had a difficult 2020. The year began with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and architect of Iran’s regional power projection.

Two months later, the country announced its first cases of the novel coronavirus which threw the healthcare sector and the economy into disarray. The crisis was exacerbated further by the tough US sanctions the Trump administration had imposed.

In the summer, things only got worse for Iran. In July, the Natanz nuclear plant was targeted by its regional adversaries, causing extensive damage. In August, Gulf states announced they were normalising relations with Israel, a move which Iran saw as a threat to its national security.

As the year was coming to an end, the Islamic Republic received another painful blow that was almost as devastating in its impact as the assassination of Soleimani. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the most important figure in the Iranian nuclear programme, was assassinated. Iran accused Israel, which had previously threatened to target him and had repeatedly mentioned him in its reports on the Iranian nuclear programme.

While Iran was experiencing these setbacks, an internal debate was raging at the highest levels, including the corridors of the National Security Council, regarding the strategic priorities of the Islamic Republic. These discussions continue and the Iranian response to foreign aggression will certainly be coming, but the timing is not clear yet.

Tehran is navigating cautiously regional and international developments. It does not want to be dragged into an all-out war that might destroy the entire project on which the Islamic Republic was built. That is why it has been investing heavily in regional power projection.

Soleimani played a central role in laying the groundwork and building the structures of Iranian regional influence. While it is important not to underestimate the impact his assassination has had on the Iranian regional project, it would be naive to assume that Iran will retreat regionally as a result.

What it may do instead is go back to conducting its regional dealings in the shadows and reverse the practice of advertising the Quds Force activities abroad, as it did during the last few years under Soleimani’s leadership.

It is important to remember that Soleimani was a shadow figure who did not appear in the media for years. His appearance in the public sphere was a decision that was meticulously studied before it was made by the IRGC.

There was a need to build a public image of a capable and powerful Iran in the region and there was no better figure than Soleimani to be its face. He had a wide and complex network of relations with heads of state, government officials, politicians, and militia leaders. He moved constantly between Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He was able to enter Gaza several times, according to senior Hamas leaders whom I interviewed for my upcoming book on Hamas and Iran.

Despite his assassination, he remains a central figure in domestic Iranian politics and a role model adored by many Iranians. His death has inspired the production of films, paintings, sculptures, and theatre plays. His severed hand, his ring, and his torn body have been mentioned in martyrdom texts dedicated to the Battle of Karbala and the death of Imam Hussein, which have a central place in Shia tradition and theology.

In accordance with Soleimani’s will, Esmail Qaani, who was largely unknown to people inside and outside Iran, was appointed to lead the Quds Force. Qaani was close to Soleimani and fought alongside him in the Iran-Iraq war.

In a rare interview that Qaani gave to the Ramz-i ‘ubur journal, he talked about his memories of the Iran-Iraq war and his relationship with Soleimani. Describing their friendship, he said: “We were war comrades. War brought us together since 1982. After the war, we have always met. Friendships that occur in times of war are stronger and last longer. We belong to the same generation. I am a year older than he is, but this is not important because he is better than I am at many things. Age is not important in matters of experience, preparation, understanding and sincerity.”

Qaani’s name first surfaced in domestic politics in 1999 as one of the signatories – along with Soleimani – of a notorious letter sent by 24 IRGC commanders to then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in the wake of the Tehran University protests of that year. The letter warned Khatami “to resolve the matter today because tomorrow will be too late, and tomorrow’s regret will be futile” and that “their patience was wearing thin”.

Although there are few pictures of Soleimani and Qaani, the two worked together closely. Qaani has played a significant role in developments in the countries where the Quds Force is active. He was reportedly involved in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, as well as during the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza.

In March 2019, Qaani was featured prominently in the media during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran, which was carried out without coordination with the government and the foreign ministry, leading to Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s resignation. In an official statement, Qaani insisted that keeping the foreign ministry out of it was the right thing to do: “Bashar al-Assad was brought to Tehran by the Quds Force. Those who had to know were told and those who did not have to know were not told. It was a delicate matter.”

Over the past few years, Qaani was responsible for financing and arming resistance movements in the region. He is one of the few leaders who have actively called for supporting Ansar Allah (the Houthis) in Yemen, declaring in 2018 that they have missiles with a range of 400km (about 250 miles).

Many doubt Qaani’s ability to fill the void left by the assassinated commander and maintain the vast and complex networks of relations he built over decades. But conclusions about his performance and aptitude would be premature at this point.

After the announcement of Qaani’s appointment, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei said of him: “Commander Qaani joined the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard Corps before Commander Soleimani. He has close knowledge of all the figures of the resistance front. He has always been at the forefront and one of the main decision-makers.”

Since he took over the command of the Quds Force, Qaani visited Syria, Lebanon and Iraq several times. It is clear that he has been effective in the region, despite US pressure, Gulf hostility and Israeli aggression. He continues to push forward with Iran’s plan to remove American forces from the Middle East, as evidenced by the constant targeting of American interests in Iraq.

Well-manned Iraqi factions have had street parades, sending a message to Baghdad that managing the Iraqi interior will not be an easy task for any Iraqi government without cooperation with Tehran. The behaviour of some Iranian-backed Iraqi factions ostensibly may seem chaotic, but this does not mean Iran has lost control over them. Rather, the IRGC has started a process of restructuring and strengthening control over these factions to make them more disciplined and influential.

The Iranian strategy in Iraq may extend geographically to other countries.

Iran’s allies in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen have also demonstrated their strength over the past year. Hezbollah and Hamas have unveiled advanced weapons that will be put into use in any confrontation with Israel.

In Yemen, the Houthis have become closer to Iran than ever before. They represent a successful Iranian investment, a security threat to Tehran’s adversaries and a central player in any upcoming political solution to the Yemeni conflict.

In Syria, Israel’s numerous attacks on Iranian targets have not succeeded in achieving their goal of driving Iranian forces out of the country. In fact, Iran has sought to institutionalise its active involvement in Syria through military and economic agreements with Damascus. Although the IRGC had made a decision last year to reduce its forces in Syria while increasing their effectiveness, today Iran and its allies in Syria are closer to Israeli territory than ever before.

On the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, the IRGC once again pledged to avenge his death. IRGC commander Hussein Salami specifically addressed General Qaani, talking about “a new type of jihad against authoritarian regimes and their lackeys”, with an emphasis on the central role of the Quds Force.

Whatever Iran has planned for the future, it is clear that the Quds Force led by Qaani will play a central role. Its confrontation with the US and its regional allies has certainly weakened Tehran but it has not lessened its determination to fight to maintain its powerful position in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.