Only a few hours after U.S. forces killed the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced that the second in command, Esmail Ghaani, would be the successor. The new chief, who has been in his post with the Quds force since 1997 – will have to quickly fill Soleimani’s large shoes.
He'll have to demonstrate Iran’s resolve in continuing its policy in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, countries where the Quds force has power. He’ll have to plan the Iranian response to the assassination, the “crushing revenge” promised by Khamenei. Most importantly, he’ll have to preserve Iran’s strategic assets beyond the country’s borders.
In the West, Arab countries and Israel, analysts are drawing up terrifying scenarios for the expected response from Iran. The plot lines range from rocket attacks on American and Saudi targets and missiles on Israel from Lebanon. Or maybe assassination teams will be sent to Europe and Arab countries to attack specific targets, as Iran has done in the past. Or there might be a complete withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and a renewal of uranium production to the level before the accord.
But on the flip side, Iran must take into account the implications of its response in Iran and Iraq. Iran’s oil terminals in the Persian Gulf, most of which are controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, are an easy target for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. The bases of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq proved their sensitivity this week to American attacks, while a decision to completely withdraw from the nuclear deal would play right into the hands of Israel and the United States. In the extreme case, they could launch a campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Soleimani’s exit could also have implications for Iran’s ability to dictate its policies in Iraq. This arena kept Soleimani busy over the past few months; it’s a sphere the Quds force chief and Khamenei considered even more important than Lebanon in expanding Tehran’s influence in the region.
This is where it was revealed that despite Soleimani’s talents and experience, he didn’t predict the extent of the protests against Iran and the Iraqi government, and their threat to the Iraqi cabinet that Soleimani has shaped via pro-Iranian militias and parties. In recent weeks, Soleimani drew harsh criticism at home over the failure of the campaign to quell the protests in Iraq, and over the loss of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who's resigning. Abdul-Mahdi was considered Iran’s hold on power in Baghdad.
This wasn’t the first time Soleimani took a direct hit. Four years ago, he was pulled from Iraq because of his failure to foresee the invasion by the Islamic State. Khamenei limited his operations to Syria; only later did Soleimani return to run the Iraqi front, too.
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According to reports from Iraq, the demonstrators have dispersed in Baghdad. But it’s too early to predict the response by the protest movements, which see Iran and Soleimani as the main cause of the crisis in the country. Political leaders in Iraq are trying to shape the pro-Iranian patriotic narrative, as expressed in Abdul-Mahdi’s statement where he described Soleimani’s assassination as a severe violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, even a direct attack on the country. But this declaration has another aspect, one that links Iraq’s fate to that of Iran, and in doing so could actually reignite the protest movement.
On the other Iranian fronts, especially Syria and Lebanon, Tehran is expected to maintain its policy of holding back other players: to prevent Russia and Turkey from reaching into its Syrian spheres of influence, and to halt the political shift in Lebanon, where Tehran can still rely on Hezbollah’s power to dictate politics and look after Iran’s interests. On these two fronts, Iran possesses direct and indirect military capabilities that could tempt its leaders to escalate the situation along the Israeli border.
In Syria, however, Iran must take Russia’s interests into account; Moscow has already denied Tehran most of the economic spoils, and Russia is unlikely to stand idly by if Syria becomes a theater for a total Israel-Syria war. In this context, it’s interesting to note the reaction from a Russian senator, Konstantin Kosachev. Kosachev, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, called Soleimani’s assassination “the worst-case scenario” and said the Iranian response “will not take long.”
But his statement contained no condemnation or threat, and mirrors the position of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said the assassination would increase tensions in the Middle East. Such watered-down statements show how removed – and even indifferent – Russia’s policy is on the conflicts Iran is driving in the region – as long as they don’t target Russian interests. This is the policy that also resulted in the military coordination between Israel and Russia that lets Israel strike Iranian targets with virtually no restrictions.
The way Iran frames the assassination will be key to understanding its policy now. Will it see it as a limited, though severe, event that requires tough but focused revenge? Or will it consider the strike a mortal blow to its prestige and security apparatus, a catalyst for a wide-ranging war?