The killing of General Qassem Soleimani by U.S. forces has removed a huge threat to U.S. national security. But the source of the problem, the Islamic Republic in Iran, still stands. And while the regime is likely to retaliate against U.S. interests, Soleimani’s death comes at a vulnerable time for the regime as it fights economic collapse and popular rebellion. While Washington should brace itself for a deadly response, it should also not lose sight of the possibilities created by the passing of the region’s greatest terror mastermind.
Soleimani was the chief of the Quds Force, the infamous Revolutionary Guards unit responsible for the Islamic Republic’s campaign of expansion and terrorism across the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Soleimani was also Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most trusted, loyal, and capable lieutenant, a true believer in the revolution who expressed his willingness to be “martyred” for the cause.
Soleimani’s killing comes after attacks against a U.S. military base in Iraq and a subsequent coordinated assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Both attacks were the work of Iraqi proxies commanded by Soleimani. According to U.S. officials, fearing additional attacks on American troops, took preemptive action against Soleimani and his top lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Other top Iraqi proxies of Soleimani were reportedly arrested by U.S. forces.
The U.S. actions may be part of the broader effort by Washington to roll back Tehran’s influence in Iraq, especially in light of popular demonstrations against Iranian influence that have roiled the country for the last several months.
Khamenei has several retaliatory options.
He can command his extensive network in Iraq to attack U.S. forces and/or kidnap diplomats and other civilians. The regime may also decide to target U.S. interests at a time of its own choosing through terrorist attacks and assassinations — not only in the Middle East, but across the globe and even in America.
At the same time, Khamenei must be careful in his choice of escalation.
The Islamic Republic is in no shape to wage a full-out war; sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy and the regime just experienced the worst internal unrest since the 1979 revolution. The Iranian November 2019 popular uprising resulted in the regime’s killing of at least 1,500 Iranians and the maiming, arrest, and imprisonment of thousands more. Khamenei views the unrest as part of a wider “conspiracy” to overthrow his regime and is ready for future popular rebellions. He may retaliate for Soleimani’s death, but he must also take care not to endanger the existence of his already fraught regime.
Khamenei knows he cannot weather U.S. sanctions indefinitely and may need to reach some sort of agreement with Washington in the near future. Soleimani’s killing is likely to make negotiations with the Trump administration much more unpalatable, but a future U.S. administration that is willing to either re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or negotiate a new agreement is still a possibility. The regime will want to retaliate for Soleimani, but not in a way as to completely close the possibility of negotiations on sanctions. The regime’s attacks on U.S. forces may have been an effort to raise the regime’s leverage by raising the heat on a war-wary American electorate. But Khamenei’s miscalculation has cost him a powerful weapon instead.
The U.S. policy of maximum pressure against the Islamic Republic must include rooting out its proxies in Iraq and across the Middle East.
Targeting the regime and its proxies’ sources of funding is important. But the Khamenei regime’s biggest enemy remains the Iranian people. The regime may have survived the November uprising, but it will not be safe from the wrath of millions of Iranians struggling for freedom and self-determination.
The U.S. must broaden its maximum pressure campaign by making the aspirations of the Iranian people a key pillar of its Iran policy. Washington should directly aid Iranian opposition forces, sanction the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (state media), undermine regime security forces through sanctions and cyber operations, investigate the regime’s networks in America, and start planning for scenarios in which the regime may collapse or be overthrown by the people.
Soleimani, one of the biggest threats to America, is gone. A worthy replacement will be hard for Khamenei to find. But there will be more men willing to fill his shoes as long as the Islamic Republic lives.
The true enemy still stands.
Alireza Nader is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security. Follow him on Twitter @AlirezaNader