The assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3, 2020, was a major escalation in the conflict between the United States and Iran. To assess the implications of this move for Iran, the United States and the Middle East, we asked nine of Wikistrat’s top experts for their initial analysis of the significance of this event.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, Iran Expert, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS):

Qassem Soleimani’s killing constitutes a very hard blow for Iran, which may not find his successor, Esmail Ghaani, a suitable replacement as commander of the Quds Force. Soleimani served in his position for more than two decades and was the main executor of Iran’s regional policy in the past decade.

In the short term, Iran will strive to respond harshly to Soleimani’s killing and avenge his death by hitting American targets or vital American interests in the region and even the world (for example, U.S. consulates and embassies across the world), either by proxies operating under its command or directly. However, the Iranian regime is facing a major dilemma: to respond to Soleimani’s death and risk a military confrontation with the United States, or to avoid a response and undermine Iran’s deterrence.

The assassination constitutes another step in the continued escalation between Iran and the United States over U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy vis-à-vis Tehran. The American action is estimated to further increase Iran’s determination to continue the assertive and aggressive policy it has adopted since May 2019 in the Gulf in response to the American strategy, and maybe even escalate its measures in regard to its withdrawal from its commitments to the JCPOA.

The American action is predicted to strengthen the hawkish position among decision-makers in Iran and further weaken the standing of the pragmatic camp, led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. As a result, the chances of Iran returning to the negotiation table has narrowed even more.

Regarding Israel, at this point, it’s doubtful Iran has an interest in pulling Israel into even a limited military conflict, let alone a total one. Therefore, it can be assessed that Iran will try to hit American targets or American interests in the Gulf or Iraq first, and not broaden the conflict also to Israel.

Dr. Jonathan Spyer, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and the Middle East Forum:

The killing of Soleimani with one stroke removes the architect and chief executor of the Iranian practice of revolutionary and political warfare which, more than any other single factor, is the cause of the outsize influence Iran currently enjoys in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

The killing lifts the veil from an already existing confrontation between Iran and the United States in which Iran has been seeking, by activation of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps/Quds Force assets in Iraq, to secure the withdrawal or expulsion of the United States from that country. This effort and this conflict are set to continue. It is now Iran’s move.

Largely thanks to the strategy applied by Soleimani, Tehran has a “suite” of options available to it, including popular demonstrations, rocket attacks on U.S. facilities and political pressure on the Iraqi government to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. At the same time, Israel’s experience in hitting Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq in the recent period demonstrates that the Iranians do not always attempt a large-scale kinetic response to blows against them. Rather, their propaganda often portrays them as engaged in a long, patient project for the transformation of the countries in question, in which immediate military action is only one possible option.

On this occasion, I would assess, however, that a visible and significant Iranian response may be likely because of the magnitude of the humiliation Iran has suffered. As noted above, Iran has a variety of options, but the dilemma now facing Iranian strategists will be how to be seen to have responded to the killing of Soleimani without provoking a large-scale conflict with the United States and/or its regional allies, which Iran does not want.

Michael Pregent, Hudson Institute:

Soleimani is dead, what’s next? The general who stands next to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader is no more. The charismatic terrorist who makes threats with a smile and subordinates Iraqis is no more.

Qassem Soleimani is … was … a designated terrorist, designated for killing Americans, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese … Soleimani was always willing to fight to the last Arab in his quest to build a land-bridge to the Levant and [had] a capability to sustain a conflict with the United States and Israel in order to take back Jerusalem, or Quds, and be the power broker in the Middle East.

In Iraq, Qassem Soleimani’s influence was so brazen that he walked around in broad daylight taking selfies; the “Shadow General” was out of the shadows, taking photos and claiming victory over Islamic State, where his militia took credit for what the United States and the Iraqi special forces did.

Soleimani’s Iraqi commanders formed a political party and came in second in Iraqi parliamentary elections—and then Soleimani made them the largest voting bloc in the Council of Representatives [so] that they ran Iraq through intimidation.

Soleimani’s power seconded the Iraqi prime minister to a “yes man” position. In November, Soleimani took over a meeting on how to deal with the protests where Iraqis were chanting “Iraq hurra—Iran bara!” or “Free Iraq—Iran out!”

Soleimani told the Iraqi prime minister to move out of his seat and took over a national security council meeting to tell Iraqi generals and militia leaders that it was time to shut the Internet off and kill protesters—a tactic used in Tehran that resulted in the deaths of 1,500 protesters in December.

Soleimani was so comfortable that he landed at Baghdad International Airport and went to baggage claim, then met with the second most feared man in Iraq: Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, a designated terrorist, responsible for killing Americans and Muslims, Christians and Jews across the region. He actually received a government paycheck and controlled a budget of $1.2 billion for salaries, money that came from the Iraqi government, money that moved through American banks to Iraq. That’s how powerful Soleimani and Mohandes were. They were considered the real power in Iraq. This changes everything.

Originally published at Wikistrat.

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