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Qasem Soleimani, Who Connected All the Dots in Iran’s Strategy, Is Targeted in Baghdad

Filed under: Iran, Iranian Terrorism, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Qasem Soleimani, Who Connected All the Dots in Iran’s Strategy, Is Targeted in Baghdad
Front-page banner and picture (January 6, 2020) in Al-Akhbar of the ruins of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. “The Great Liberation War.” This is how the story begins. 6:22 a.m. on October 23, 1983, the suicide martyr wrote, in moments, the first chapter of the ongoing story of liberation from American occupation. (Photo: AP Photo/Assad)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 20,     No. 1

  • Iran’s propaganda trumpets are presenting Qasem Soleimani as a Shiite version of a saint whose martyrdom deserves religious glorification.
  • Soleimani trained, armed, and provided funds to terror organizations and used Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and Hizbullah instructors, as Iran’s national security policy sought to distance the frontlines from Iran’s own borders.
  • At the same time, Iran strove to place the jihadi front as close as possible to Israel’s borders on the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and Gaza, and close to its rival, Saudi Arabia (by aiding the Houthis in Yemen), and to Shiite areas ruled by Sunnis (such as Bahrain).
  • Soleimani helped save the Assad regime in Syria by establishing a “Shiite foreign legion” of more than 100,000 Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters. The price to Hizbullah for Iran’s success in Syria was more than 2,000 Hizbullah fighters killed and 8,000 wounded.
  • In 2016, when Mustafa Badreddine, the commander of Hizbullah forces in Syria, objected to the overuse of Hizbullah fighters in Syrian battles under Iranian command, Soleimani personally murdered Badreddine near the Damascus airport, according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
  • Soleimani’s instructing militias to invade the American Embassy compound in Baghdad was an arrogant move that did not take into account the American national trauma of the 2012 invasion of the American Embassy in Benghazi (and the murder of four Americans), as well as the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran.
  • It is clear to the Iranians that the United States could, if it chooses, threaten key regime assets and even the regime itself. Therefore, the Iranian regime will probably not hurry to respond in a way that could bring the unprecedented destruction of its energy infrastructure and endanger the regime.

Direct Confrontation

On January 3, 2020, an American drone targeted the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who arrived on a regular civil flight from Damascus to Baghdad after meeting Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut two days earlier. He was killed together with senior officials in Soleimani’s delegation and senior leaders of Shiite militias in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, Hashd al-Shaabi). Prominent among them were Jamal Mahmad Jaafar al-Tamimi (aka Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), deputy commander of Hashd al-Shaabi, and the commander of the Kataa’b Hizbullah Brigades in Iraq (KH). The same Iranian-affiliated Shi’ite militia was responsible for rocket fire on the Kirkuk base, where an American contractor was killed on December 27, 2019.

Prior to Soleimani’s killing, the Americans attacked a KH base on the Syrian-Iraqi border on December 29, 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least 25 terrorists (based on their funeral procession in Baghdad). Two days later, under Iranian direction, Shiite militiamen broke into the American Embassy compound in Baghdad’s “Green Zone.” The incursion, according to intelligence on Iranian-Soleimani intentions, was meant to challenge American presence in Iraq as well as repeat the scenario of the capture of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.1 The information led to the American decision to eliminate Soleimani and his Iraqi partners. Following Soleimani’s death, the United States attacked Shiite militias in Iraq, striking Shibel al-Zaydi, the commander of the Imam Ali militia.

Red Flag over the “Messianic” Mosque in Jamkaran

In response to Soleimani’s killing, senior Iranian regime officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei2 and President Hassan Rouhani, joined the heads of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Army to warn of “painful revenge.”

IRGC Commander Hussein Salami called Qassem Soleimani the “architect of how to defeat of America and thwart all its plans against the Islamic world, arguing that Soleimani would be more dangerous to the U.S. as a martyr than he was while alive. Salami warned, hinting at Israel, “We have a strong will and we will burn down places that America loves and protects, and it knows what we mean….They have burned everything they have capitalized on (in the region) with this crime….Today marks the beginning of the era of struggle against America….Soleimani’s martyrdom is the beginning of a swift end of the American presence in the region.”3 Salami declared that Iran would give such a “heavy response that it will end the American presence in the region.” Mohsen Rezaee, Expediency Council Secretary and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, warned that “if the United States responds to Iran’s revenge, we will totally erase Tel Aviv, Haifa, and major army bases.”

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), said, “To date, 13 scenarios for revenge have been suggested….Even if there is a consensus on the weakest scenario, implementing it can turn into a historic nightmare for the Americans.”4 Ali Akbar Velayati, a Khamenei advisor on international affairs, has warned that the U.S. will face “another Vietnam if it does not leave the Middle East….Experience has shown that they have always been defeated by plans of Iran and the Resistance Front.”

Khamenei paid a condolence call on the family of Qasem Soleimani, who was buried after a funeral procession from Baghdad to the holy Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, then to Tehran, Mashad, and Qom until finally his birthplace in Kerman. Soon after his death, Soleimani’s deputy, Esmail Ghaani, was appointed by the supreme leader to replace him. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani stated that “the supreme leader has granted his permission” to grant 200 million euros from the sovereign wealth fund to boost IRGC-QF external operations. “The funds will be used to support the IRGC-QF, which is responsible for resistance across the region.”

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s deputy, Naim Qassem, paid condolences5 and declared that after Soleimani’s death, Hizbullah bears a greater responsibility since Soleimani had played a much larger role than just Iranian affairs; he played a role for “all the resistance movements” fighting Israel and the United States.

Iran’s propaganda trumpets are presenting Soleimani as a Shiite version of a saint whose martyrdom deserves religious glorification as he joins the chain of shahids in Shiite history.6 For the first time in Iran’s history, a symbolic red flag representing revenge has been raised above the Jamkaran mosque in Qom above the well where, according to Shiite belief, the messianic Mahdi is hiding. According to Shiite belief, the Mahdi’s return is a symbol for expectations of revenge.7

Red flag above the mosque in Quds
Larger picture: raising the red flag above the mosque in Quds. Insert: Soleimani being embraced by an Imam in heaven

The Executor of Iranian Strategy in the Middle East

Soleimani (62) served as head of the Quds Force for 20 years, beginning in 1998. He was the protégé of Supreme Leader Khamenei and answered only to him. He translated the Iranian Revolutionary philosophy into practice and the policy of strengthening Shiite concentrations in the Arab world, in particular, and globally, in general.

Qasem Soleimani knew how to connect all the dots of Iran’s military, terrorist, and political strategies to make connections. He trained, armed, and provided funds to terror organizations and groups in the Middle East. He provided Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with rockets, anti-tank missiles, and sniper rifles, and formed the groups into what is known as the “Resistance Front.” He accomplished this by taking advantage of the unstable circumstances of the Arab Spring, the Second Gulf War, and the war against ISIS.

Soleimani, who had forged solid bonds with Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Imad Mughniyeh, gradually transformed Lebanese Hizbullah into a role model Iran sought to implement – using the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah instructors – in various areas of conflict where Iran had an interest to further its religious (Shia revival), military, and political goals.

A strategy of patience and long-range planning is the central ingredient in Iran’s national security policies, which seek to distance the frontlines from Iran’s own borders by conducting the struggle against its enemies far from its territories. Concomitantly, Iran strives to place the jihadi front as close as possible to Israel’s borders on the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and Gaza, and close to its rival, Saudi Arabia (by aiding the Houthis in Yemen), and to Shiite areas ruled by Sunnis (such as Bahrain).

The Missile Warehouse in Lebanon

During the Second Lebanon War (2006), Soleimani co-managed the war plan with Imad Mughniyeh and Hassan Nasrallah. They were in the Hizbullah operations room 24/7 in the Dahya neighborhood of Beirut. When Israeli bombing got too close, Soleimani and Mughniyeh took Nasrallah, the religious and civilian face of Hizbullah and, in Soleimani’s words, “the leader of this place,” out of their redoubt and wandered between buildings seeking shelter. Eventually, they “returned to the operation room again.”

From the end of the Second Lebanon War, Soleimani scrupulously worked on refurbishing Hizbullah’s missile force to make it a strike force that would deter Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Soleimani invested great resources in filling Hizbullah’s missile stocks. In recent years, Soleimani expended most of his efforts in converting a large part of the Hizbullah missiles into precision missiles. To that end, Soleimani built an operational, technological infrastructure in Syria from which he transferred missiles to Lebanon in convoys. When the missiles’ routes between Syria and Lebanon were uncovered, the Quds commander decided to build precision-targeting factories for Hizbullah in Lebanon. At first, the secret facilities were in the Beirut area, but when Israel discovered them, they were moved to the Baalbek region. Soleimani’s vision was to turn Lebanon into Hizbullah’s missile warehouse.

Using the Opportunity in Syria

In the case of Syria, Soleimani knew how to take advantage of the violent uprising against Basher Assad during the Arab Spring in order to advance Iran’s strategic interests and to make Syria an Iranian dependent. Because of internal Iranian considerations, Soleimani decided not to utilize Iranian soldiers to save Assad’s regime, and he devised a plan to establish a “Shiite foreign legion” that would consist of more than 100,000 Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters. Soleimani cynically used the plight of Afghani refugees who had no resident status in Iran, and he offered citizen status for them and their families if they would join the Shiite legion. Thus, he was able to recruit thousands of Afghani and Pakistani fighters for the militias, the Fatemiyoun Afghan Brigade, and the Zaynabiyon Pakistani Brigade.

To improve the chances of saving Assad’s regime in Syria, Soleimani demanded Hizbullah fighters from Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. Thousands of Hizbullah fighters actively participated in battles in Syria and, in some cases, made the difference. But the price to Hizbullah for Iran’s success in Syria was very high. More than 2,000 Hizbullah fighters died; 8,000 were wounded. The long Hizbullah military service in Syria – which only ended recently – raised criticism and anger among the Shiites in Lebanon who charged that Soleimani used Hizbullah as cannon fodder in Syria.

The dissatisfaction reached a climax in a sharp dispute in May 2016 between Soleimani and Mustafa Badreddine, the commander of Hizbullah forces in Syria, who objected to the overuse of Hizbullah fighters in Syrian battles under Iranian command. Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot revealed that the rift led to Soleimani personally murdering Badreddine near the Damascus airport. It should be emphasized that the claim Soleimani was personally involved in the crime is debated.8

The Hizbullah Model Copied in Iraq

After the Second Gulf War (2003), Iran feared the United States would continue with a campaign against it. The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force began organizing violent opposition by Shiite groups in Iraq who were transformed into armed militias. Soleimani requested from Nasrallah to dispatch instructors to train the forces in order to overcome the language barrier – Iranian instructors did not speak Arabic.

I mad Mughniyeh sent 120 instructors, led by Ali Mussa Daqduq, Mugniyeh’s representative in Iraq, to train the local militias in tactics used against the IDF in southern Lebanon, especially EFP (explosively formed projectile) roadside bombs. He was also tasked with organizing the militias in political-military units, copying the Lebanese Hizbullah. Daqduq was captured and sent to the United States. He was released and returned to Hizbullah’s ranks.

Ali Mussa Daqduq

At the head of one of the units trained by Daqduk in 2006 was Qais al-Khazali, today the head of one of the Iraqi militias, Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Daqduk was al-Khazali’s personal advisor. His militia downed American and British helicopters in 2006 and 2007; in July 2007, they broke into a base in Karbala, killing an American soldier and then executed four more they had captured. He was later captured and turned over to the Iraqis. His militia fought with Lebanese Hizbullah in 2011 against Syrian rebels. In 2019, he was added to the American sanctions list.

This pattern of action epitomizes the long-range strategy that Soleimani specializes in – investing in local militias to benefit the general Iranian interest by pushing the campaign against the U.S. presence in Iraq – then and today.

A Parallel Foreign Policy

Soleimani, with Khamenei’s blessing, ran a foreign policy parallel to Iran’s foreign ministry, especially in Middle East affairs, sometimes even leap-frogging the IRGC’s chain of command. He visited Russia in 2015 to coordinate strategy to save Basher Assad; conducted the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq; acted in Iraq to further Iran’s political-military interests; managed, with Hizbullah’s help, the supply of rockets to the Palestinians; and built the military capabilities of the Houthis in Yemen so that they could attack Iran’s sworn enemies, the Saudis, and their oil fields.

Soleimani’s activities and the campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brought him into public view after many years of avoiding the spotlight. His photogenic pictures (sometimes wearing the headgear of his foreign legion’s soldiers) turned him into an icon that was even featured in computer games, animations, and songs of praise. He showed an ability to bridge diplomatic, ethnic, and religious gaps (even working with American forces against the Taliban) for the benefit of Iran’s long-term strategic goals.

At the same time, his status and influence brought criticism from opposition groups in Syria who fought against Assad, and his picture was occasionally set alight during protests in Iraq and Iran. After his death, people in various areas in Syria and Iraq passed out candies to celebrate. The Gulf States had difficulty hiding their glee over his death.

Death at a Problematic Time

The death of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds Commander came at a very problematic time for Iran:

In Iraq: Iran’s hold on the Iraqi government has weakened with the removal of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the growing protests against Iran’s negative actions, using local Shiite militias to advance its political and security interests in the country, as well as to transform Iraq to a rear logistical base for the storage and transfer of military materiel from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

The decision to transform Iraqi territory into a logistical base came after repeated attacks on the operational infrastructure that Iran tried to establish in Syria. Many sources in Iraq, including senior elements in the Arab Shiite community, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, have pointed out on numerous occasions the price in blood being paid by Iraqi citizens because of Iranian actions.

In Lebanon: Internal criticism is growing over economic conditions in the country, and Hizbullah is blamed for doing Iran’s bidding in Lebanon. The Lebanese are also paying the price, and they receive no economic support from the West because of Hizbullah’s involvement in the government and its classification as a “terror organization.”

Within Iran: Despite the great esteem in which Soleimani was held by Iranian citizens and the mass public mourning for him, some regarded him as one who wasted huge sums of money meant for Iranians and who splurged on adventuristic and expensive missions in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and with the Palestinians. As a result, in the recent protests in Iran after the gasoline price increases, videos were posted on social media of Soleimani’s picture being burned. Soleimani’s targeting by the “great Satan” may even give a push to the protestors in Iran.

The Iranian Dilemma

Iran’s entire religious, political, and military leadership vowed “painful revenge” for the death of Qasem Soleimani. Iran can respond with a broad range of weapons against various American targets in the region – bases in Iraq where American soldiers are stationed, the American Embassy, oil infrastructure (such as Exxon facilities in Iraq), American allies in the Gulf and their oil and water infrastructures. The Iranian response can also be carried out by various organizations under Iran’s dominance in various regions, including Hizbullah in Lebanon.

“This is War”

In a defiant speech on January 5, 2020, Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah said that Israel couldn’t get to Soleimani in Syria, so it turned to the United States to kill him, and for that Israel must be punished. Nasrallah revealed that he met Soleimani a few weeks earlier and warned him that his picture is appearing in American newspapers in which he was portrayed as an irreplaceable general. Nasrallah figured that the Americans planned to kill him. “When the coffins of American officers and soldiers start to return to the United States,” he continued, “Trump and his administration will understand that they lost the region and Trump will lose the elections.”

Nasrallah enumerated American targets: “American army bases, the American naval fleet, and every soldier and officer in the region will have to pay the price.” Nasrallah scorned Trump as “ignorant” and all his advisors as “idiots” who have no idea what he was talking about, but in the near future, it will become clear to them.

In a commentary on Nasrallah’s speech, Ibrahim Al Amine, editor of the Lebanese Al Akhbar who is close to Nasrallah, wrote that the great war against the American presence in the region has commenced. Al Amine said that “Nasrallah wanted to harness all the energy of all (the components of) the resistance front. “Martyr Soleimani is the martyr of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan as much as he is the martyr of Iran….This is not just a revenge but justice that would hasten the liberation of Jerusalem.”

Alongside a picture of the American Marine barracks in Beirut destroyed by an Imad Mughniyeh-led Hizbullah suicide bomber on October 23, 1983, appears the headline, “A New Era.” Nasrallah marked the trail ahead: “We need to fight the American presence in every place in the region, clean out all American presence in our land in the form of advisors, technicians, diplomats, human rights workers, financial managers, civilian companies, and all other American presence.”9

According to Al Amine, Nasrallah set the course ahead and “invited us to join in a great war of liberation to rid our lands of American presence….There is no legitimatization for their presence or for those who grant it.” The editor concluded his commentary, “This is war.”

On the Nuclear Front

On January 5, 2020, and, apparently, without any tie to Soleimani’s death, Iran announced its “fifth step” of the withdrawing of its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will set aside the final operational restrictions under the JCPOA, which is ‘the restriction on the number of centrifuges.’ This way, the Islamic Republic of Iran will have no restrictions to carry out its nuclear program in the operational field (which includes enrichment capacity, enrichment percentage, amount of enriched materials, and research and development) and Iran’s nuclear program will proceed based on its technical requirements from now on.”

Iran noted that it will continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and “if the sanctions are lifted and Iran benefits from its interests, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to return to its obligations.” The tough Iranian announcement was not part of the reactions to Soleimani’s death, and Iran appears to leave open the door to dialogue.

Iran’s Miscalculation

The attack on Soleimani surprised the Iranians after their mistaken assessment of American reactions and tolerance to the constant Iranian provocations – the downing of an American drone over international waters; attacks on oil tankers in the region’s waters; launching drones and shooting cruise missiles at Saudi oil facilities (apparently from Iran despite Houthis taking credit); shooting at Iraqi bases that house American soldiers and contractors; and the ultimate symbol – instructing militias to invade the American Embassy compound in Baghdad. It was an arrogant move that did not take into account the American national trauma of the 2012 invasion of the American Embassy in Benghazi (and the murder of four Americans), as well as the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran by so-called “students.” Evidence of the American trauma was exhibited in President Trump’s warning that the United States has already marked 52 sites (the same number as the American hostages taken in the Tehran embassy) as targets in the event Iran chooses to respond to the Soleimani targeting.

The Iranian regime is in a serious dilemma regarding its possible responses in the face of U.S. threats. After the downing of the advanced U.S. drone, the Iranian media mocked the United States and particularly President Trump, and continued in their arrogant way. Today, Soleimani’s killing forces the Iranians to reconsider all aspects of their actions in Iran, Iraq, and Syria – and in general, the entire region – as well as how they respond to Soleimani’s death.

It is clear to the Iranians that the United States, which hitherto exhibited a surprising and troubling reluctance which worried regional allies, could, if it chooses, threaten key regime assets and even the regime itself. Therefore, the Iranian regime will probably not hurry to respond in a way that could bring the unprecedented destruction of its energy infrastructure and endanger the regime.

On the eve of Soleimani’s death, mediation efforts between the United States and Iran were being conducted via various channels – the Omani, Japanese, and Swiss governments (Switzerland represents American interests in Tehran). It is possible that mediation efforts will continue in order to reduce tensions.

On the other hand, the lack of a response or a weak response from any “Resistance Axis” member could reveal the Iranian regime’s weakness and crack the image it built over the years since the revolution 40 years ago that it alone could stand up to American and Israeli hegemony in the region. The Iranian regime built an image that grew and got stronger after Saddam Hussein’s demise and the Arab Spring.

Iran is expected to continue pushing its regional objectives and its entrenchment in Syria. The regime will continue its relations with the “Resistance Front” organizations who are a central element in Iran’s national security strategy. Iran may decide to return to the low profile, behind-the-scenes operations that characterized its methods until Soleimani’s high-profile activities which occurred in recent years.

Cracks in the Resistance Front

Soleimani emerged in recent years as a living myth, someone whose personality unified, at least ideologically, the various camps in the “Resistance Front.” In the near term, his elimination could crack the coalition and make it difficult for all the elements to work in an organized and coordinated fashion. At the same time, the aid given by the Quds Force to Palestinian factions, especially in the area of rocketry, will continue to be a central element in actions against Israel in the future – even in Soleimani’s absence.

The top leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad attended Soleimani’s funeral in Iran, and Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh delivered a eulogy, in which he called the Quds commander: “The Martyr of al Quds [Jerusalem].” Hamas and PIJ leaders met with the IRGC-QF commander. The organizations, which owe the Quds commander for rockets and advanced weaponry, held memorial assemblies in Gaza and praised Soleimani for Iran’s military and financial aid.

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