Iran general's death underscores vulnerability of senior leaders

 Qassem Soleimani was identified in death by a silver ring with a massive red stone on the finger of his severed hand.

That’s what was left of Soleimani, Iran’s top military general, after his remains were pulled from the fiery wreckage of the vehicle hit by an American missile strike outside Baghdad’s international airport on Friday morning.

His death signals the vulnerability of Iran’s most senior officials and the lengths President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE is willing to go to exert force against them. It also creates an uncertain situation in the Middle East, where experts were predicting Iranian retaliation.

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A cult-like figure, Soleimani was the top general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Qud’s Force, an elite special forces unit he helped shape and that was born out of the military forces established following the 1979 Islamic revolution and Iran’s theocratic regime.

The reach of the IRGC, which is the first government military designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, is largely attributed to Soleimani’s position at the top and his vision of supporting and emboldening proxy Shi’a forces across the Middle East.  

“Qassem Soleimani played a major and critical role in supporting Palestinian resistance at all levels,” the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip said in a release mourning his death.

The 62-year-old Soleimani operated with a direct mandate from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a relationship described as powerful as a father and son. Khamenei announced three days of mourning in reaction to his death and an increased campaign of resistance against the U.S. and Israel.

“All enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war,” Khamanei said, according to Reuters.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo explodes at NPR reporter, asks if she could find Ukraine on a map Huawei endangers Western values The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats turn to obstruction charge MORE said the U.S. decided to launch a preemptive, defensive attack on Soleimani in response to intelligence that the Quds Force commander was planning an imminent attack on U.S. interests.

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His death was the culmination of a week of back and forth confrontations between Iranian proxy forces and U.S. personnel following the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack launched by an Iranian-proxy force in Iraq.

“[Soleimani] was actively plotting in the region to take actions – a big action, as he described it – that would have put dozens if not  hundreds of American lives at risk,” Pompeo told CNN on Friday. “We know it was imminent.”  

Soleimani is described as the architect of Iran’s massive military expansion and campaign of destabilization across the Middle East, with his first most influential campaign of violence being the targeting and killing of more than 600 American soldiers fighting in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

He is also charged with orchestrating a foiled assassination attempt on American soil in 2011 that targeted a Saudi diplomat at a restaurant in Georgetown.

With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2012, Soleimani led the IRGC in propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iranian forces oversaw the training of fighting forces and the build-up of arsenals of rockets and munitions among the network of proxy shi’a militias in Syria.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terror group, grew in size and lethal force over the past two decades with the support of Soleimani. The general used the same strategy to empower a network of proxy shi’a militias in Iraq.

Soleimani, often photographed with a tight grin and in dark military fatigues, is a symbolic loss to the militias he helped build, but his legacy will be having set up an organizational structure that instilled loyalty to the Tehran regime but operates independently.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions has worked to squeeze Tehran’s economy and deny funding for many of these military activities, but it had failed to disrupt major military confrontations leading up to the killing of Soleimani.

“Iran tries to build relatively independent militias across the region with allegiance to Iran,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a research associate for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s not the sole supporter of all of these groups and therefore squeezing it economically isn’t going to make Iran’s regional influence disappear.”

In Iraq, Iran made its presence indispensable by building up the shi’a militia forces against the Islamic State and succeeded in integrating the fighters, under the umbrella organization of the PMF, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, into the Iraqi armed forces.

“His mark on the [IRGC] was enormous,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, and an expert on Iran’s global threat network, said of Soleimani.

“The expansive influence that he had during a time of marked expansion cannot be understated,” he added.

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Soleimani was born in 1957 in the mountainous area of Iran’s border with Afghanistan and built up his military experience in guerrilla fighting against the Taliban in Central Asia, according to Ali Afoneh, senior fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He ascended to the head of the IRGC Quds Force between 1997 and 1998, inheriting an organization in disarray, stretched thin and without much influence in the conflicts happening in the Middle East.

But Soleimani implemented a reorganization campaign, focusing the Qud’s force efforts in the emerging war between the U.S. and Iraq and stepping out as a public figure to rally the masses for the Holy War and in support of the totalitarian, theocratic-Islamic regime.  

“Soleimani became the public face of a once secret organization,” Afoneh wrote. “In doing so, he exposed himself to considerable danger, which led to his assassination, but he also managed to serve as a role model and a hero who mobilized the masses for a cause he considered sacred.”

Within hours of his death, a new head of the Quds Force was announced with the promotion of deputy commander Esmail Ghanni. Alfoneh described the new leader as having less battlefield experience than Soleimani and lacking charisma, but as being intimately familiar with the IRGC network. 

Ghanni is the former commander of IRGC operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, and has a close relationship with Iran’s supreme leader.

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Soleimani’s death represents for supporters of the Islamic regime the ultimate American belligerence against their cause. Ghanni will have little trouble rallying forces in support of acts of revenge.

But the brazenness of the U.S. attack has almost certainly reworked Iran’s thinking on how far it can push America in confrontation.

“There is a complicated calculus right now for Iran,” Schanzer, of FDD said. “Certainly they are sensitive to the optics of all of this and the perceived need to respond in a way that allows the regime to save face. But then again, directly challenging a super power with a very unpredictable leader at the helm carries great risk.”