It seemed too fantastical to be true when reports first swirled of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the chief of the clandestine foreign wing of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and one of Tehran’s most powerful generals.
Even more ludicrous were the suggestions a US drone strike on Baghdad airport had taken out the 62-year-old alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, arguably the second most important of “Tehran’s men in Iraq”. And so, when the deaths were confirmed, a kind of hysteria ricocheted around the world. Two separate “World War 3” hashtags trended on Twitter, while Google registered a spike in Americans searching the “draft age”.
President Donald Trump only stoked that panic on Sunday when he warned Washington was poised to target 52 sites in Iran, including some of cultural importance, an action that would likely be a war crime under international law. Simultaneously commenters were quick to declare that Iran’s most “indispensable” military commander had been taken out, the man who held up the powerful al-Quds force he commanded, and Iran’s network of proxies across the region. Now they would surely fall.
He was portrayed as a one-of-a-kind lynchpin holding everything together and the only connection to the groups the IRGC has trained, financed and supported abroad – like the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. His demise would see a kind of unravelling.
“He has been compared to multiple US generals in one, as more significant than Osama bin Laden,” says Holly Dagres, Iran expert and non-resident fellow at the Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council. “But it’s a naive assessment that it is going to collapse like a house of cards. The IRGC is not going to fall apart because one leader died. They have planned for this.”
The “shadowy commander”, who oversaw the killing of hundreds of US servicemen in Iraq, as well as killings and sieges in Syria, was the most visible face of Iran’s military interests across the region, a product of a carefully crafted media campaign.
But the truth is his death will not significantly hurt the capabilities of the IRGC, which has a deeply complex structure. Neither will it see the end of ties with Iran’s powerful proxy armed groups.
Now revered as one of Iran’s – nay the region’s – greatest martyrs by his supporters, it may in fact have the opposite effect. Certainly, similar targeted killings in the past have only bolstered support for groups: see the 2008 assassination of a top Hezbollah leader, Imad Mughniyah.
Nothing underlines this point more than the footage of Soleimani’s body being taken around Iran in massive funerary marches. On Sunday, videos shot in the western Iranian town of Ahvaz showed tens if not hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets. Soleimani’s supporters have held similar gatherings in Iraq, in Lebanon and in Gaza.
Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, who has spent the last decade investigating IRGC’s media producers, says regime figures in charge of organising public events like this “could never have dreamed of such a large gathering in recent years”.
“Trump, with the assassination of Soleimani and with tweet threats to hit Iranian cultural sites, has ignited national cohesion on a level that just last week would’ve been unthinkable given anger at the state for the crackdown on protesters,” she says. “If these are crowds in Ahvaz, imagine Mashad and Tehran.”
Soleimani’s own daughter Zeinab hammers home the point in an interview with Lebanon’s Manar TV. Sitting in front of a picture of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (whom she called “Uncle”), she says: “Let dirty Trump know that by killing my father he will not erase his legacy. He gives us all another life”.
Bajoghli says the IRGC deliberately has a “devolving leadership structure on the ground” which they developed through years of asymmetrical warfare. “What that means is that much leadership capacity is given to a variety of people in the organisation,” she says.
As important and charismatic as Soleimani was, he was not the only figure who could stoke the loyalty of supporters across the region. Neither is he the only architect of Iran’s proxy warfare, a tactic first learned during the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq was being heavily supplied by the US and the west.
Ali Alfoneh, author of Iran Unveiled on the IRCG and senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, agrees. “No one is indispensable in the IRGC,” he tells The Independent. “The IRGC is a highly bureaucratised organisation which existed before Soleimani was appointed its chief commander and will survive decapitation.”
Alfoneh adds that the ability to keep affiliates and proxies on board is deliberately sorted at an “institution-wide level”. And so it would be easy for Soleimani’s replacement Brigadier General Ismail Qaani to take on the job.
Spectacle-wearing Qaani is just one year younger than Soleimani, and was his deputy. He too was a veteran of the 1980 Iran-Iraq war where he first befriended the slain leader.
While Soleimani worked Iran’s western front in places like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, his deputy was more focused on the east – including managing operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia. But Qaani is not the risk-taking daredevil like Soleimani, who shuttled around front lines wearing no body armour.
“Qaani was busy attending to the bureaucratic affairs of the IRGC Quds Force while Soleimani was active directing the war effort and mobilising public support for it,” Alfoneh says. “Qaani was an institution builder”.
Even if he does not enjoy cult status Soleimani does, Qaani already has deep relationships across the region and an intimate understanding of Tehran’s interests abroad. A concerted campaign to build him up as a leading figure will no doubt be unleashed once the mourning period is over, even if he doesn’t perform as well in the public eye. Meanwhile, Soleimani will continue to be billed as a martyr unifying the various Iran-backed forces under the banner of ridding the region of imperialism.
“The regime will turn the killing of Soleimani into a huge propaganda opportunity and will probably manage to rally large parts of the public around the flag,” Alfoneh adds.
“I don’t see his death splitting the political factions in Iran since each faction will claim Soleimani as one of their own.”
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