For many in the Middle East, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the Islamic Republic’s elite extraterritorial black-ops arm, embodied Iran’s desires, aspirations and directives with respect to the country’s operations worldwide. He was also the man who controlled the purse strings with respect to funding the weapons that have so often ignited the region.
For Iran’s friends and foes alike, Soleimani was second only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—an ailing, elderly man who sits in an ivory tower in Tehran, detached from the harsh regional reality on the ground.
Little wonder then that Iran’s regional allies—Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the leaders of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Yemen—have been left feeling orphaned by the U.S. drone strike that killed him in Iraq on Friday morning.
Presidents, defense ministers, chiefs of staff and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders have come and gone in Tehran over the past few decades, and no one remembers their names. But since Soleimani was named head of the Quds Force in 1997, he has steadily and resolutely consolidated his position within the regime, and more importantly, Iran’s grip on the Middle East.
Soleimani was the driving force behind the Russian-Iranian move to prop up Assad’s regime in Syria during the eight-year civil war that threatened to unseat him, and also behind Tehran’s decision to transform the Houthis, a mostly moderate Shi’ite faction, into a powerful, radicalized Iranian proxy in Yemen, with the power the threaten both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Soleimani’s assassination in Iraq came as he worked to complete the Iranian takeover of that country, in an attempt to push the United States out using terrorism and violence.
But even before that, Soleimani was the mastermind that came up with the concept of placing an Iranian proxy in Lebanon. Once Hezbollah was formed, the head of the Quds Force was instrumental in making it into the formidable military force it is today, possessing an arsenal of more than 150,000 missiles.
Every move, large and small, taken by Iran’s proxies in the region needed Soleimani’s approval, and he was also the creative mind behind many of them.
His death is bound to have a paralyzing effect—if only a temporary one—on these proxies, whose leaders now look to the sky, fearing they might meet a similar end.
Iran and its allies are not interested in an all-out war from which they can only emerge with nothing, so they are likely to try not to cross red lines when exacting their revenge, lest they drag the entire region into war.
Soleimani was masterful strategist and tactician alike, and Tehran will struggle to find someone as skilled, as daring and as charismatic to take his place.
To say that his replacement, his deputy Gen. Esmail Ghaani, has big shoes to fill is a serious understatement.
In the short term, the Iranian public will rally around the ayatollahs’ regime over the apparent American affront to the country’s honor. But in the long run, the debate in Tehran over whether investing billions of dollars in subversion and terrorism in the region is really serving Iranian interests is likely to resume.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.