The killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani could prove to be the most consequential US slaying of an enemy operative in recent memory. It will eclipse in its significance the killing of Osama bin Laden almost a decade ago or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October. Not because it might spark another Middle East war, as many have warned, or merely because Suleimani was irreplaceable. Rather, his killing came at a time when the project he had led – to create an Iranian hegemony in the region – is facing unprecedented challenges in Iraq and Lebanon, through cross-sectarian and grassroots protests, while in Syria the project is still in its infancy. One can add to this picture a more aggressive policy adopted by the US.
Indeed, Suleimani was killed while he was trying to deal with these very challenges. His successor is unlikely to be able to complete that mission and contain the spiral of events in countries where, only a year ago, Iran declared major victories – in Syria against the rebels, in Lebanon through a Hezbollah-friendly government and in Iraq and Syria against Isis.
In the short term, doomsday scenarios seem far-fetched. Neither side is interested in an outright war, even if developments over the past few years indicate that both have been caught in an unpredictable cycle of escalation and mounting tension. Crucially, nearly all the most influential public figures in Iraq, so far the main battle-space for the two powers, have called for a restrained and clear-headed response to prevent the situation in their country from spinning out of control.
These calls reduced significantly the chances for the worst-case scenario – of Iraq’s public figures mobilising impulsively and collectively against the United States in a way that might spark attacks and retaliations. Such scenarios would have made the US presence in Iraq unsustainable, at best. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered cleric, condemned Washington for its “flagrant aggression” but, in the same breath, he also called for restraint. What’s more, he cited the Iran-linked attack on the US embassy in Baghdad as part of a dangerous whirlwind of events that could steer Iraq into renewed chaos.
Beyond the extreme scenarios, Iran’s options for retaliation seem limited to familiar patterns of proxy and asymmetric warfare. Even Iranian officials have suggested any response to Suleimani’s killing would have to come later; foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that Tehran would launch “legal measures” at international level to hold the US to account. While a future response is possible, alarmism about a spiral into confrontation between Iran and the US is misplaced.
In the long term, though, Suleimani’s killing will likely mark the end of an era for Iran’s attempts to further expand its influence in the region. It is true that, in some countries, Iran has been able to build a “machine” that will operate without Suleimani, something he had helped create after four decades of working with operatives in the region, as part of Iran’s network of militancy. A series of blunders and geopolitical events over the years, such as the war in Iraq, enabled him to use his expansive network to entrench Iran’s influence.
His work took a long time to bear fruit in Iraq and Lebanon, but he had not yet had the same time nor secured the same connections in such places as Syria and Yemen. For Iran to replicate its successes in Iraq and Lebanon, it would have needed the indispensable presence of Suleimani. He was killed after the Syrian regime had recaptured most of the country from the rebels, so Iran’s ability to set up the Iraq model in Syria was already significantly harder. Better for Tehran if Damascus had remained dependent on it to fight a raging war. In Syria, unlike Iraq, the government survived and has no interest in allowing Iran to infiltrate.
Also, Russia has an interest in asserting itself as the main patron of the Syrian regime. The slain general would have found ways to navigate such tricky waters, because he did so for 17 years in Iraq. Syria would have been a major prize for Suleimani. He would have created a formidable empire of leverage, extending from Iran to the Mediterranean, with a network of diehard loyalists willing to storm embassies and attack beyond their borders near Europe and Israel. This project has been made a lot less potent with the killing of the one man who knew well how to patiently build it.
However, even in Iraq and Lebanon, where he had the most success, Suleimani’s machine has serious glitches. Since October, ordinary Iraqis and Lebanese have been protesting in large numbers against their governments. Suleimani and his allies in the region saw such popular protests as a serious threat to their dominance. When killed, he had just travelled from Damascus to Baghdad as part of his attempts to manage the tenuous situation.
Suleimani had been busy dealing with these raging local challenges to him and his allies and the attacks on the US embassy and on a military base were partly designed to divert attention from the protests. If history is a guide, he would have turned a bad situation into an opportunity for further dominance, as he did after Isis seized about one-third of the country in 2014. (Areas previously held by Isis are now dominated by militias loyal to Iran rather than by the Iraqi government.)
Even if the Iraqi and Lebanese protests were not directed at them, Iranian-backed militias accused protesters of being western agents. Their hostility to the protests, in turn, made ordinary Iraqis and Lebanese realise that these militias’ loyalty was to Iran. Which was why so many Iraqis, and others across the region, celebrated Suleimani’s killing.
In short, his death does not mark the end of Iran’s hegemonic project, but it does serve a heavy blow to the regime’s ability to expand its influence and deal with erupting crises. In all of the countries where Iran built deep influence, its allies are left exposed and vulnerable to grassroots trends and local rivals. The one man with a proved record of dealing with such crises died trying.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on January 5th 2020.