In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to target Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a precision airstrike at the Baghdad Airport, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran was going to directly attack American interests.
Some media figures and members of the opposition instantly pounced on the President, characterizing the strike on Soleimani, Kata’ib Hezbollah Commander Abu Hadi al-Muhandis and 13 others in Iraq as a “strategic failure” or “escalation.” Now that the dust has settled on Iran’s unsuccessful retaliatory strike, it’s clear that the pundits and politicians of the U.S. foreign policy establishment were wrong, yet again.
The reality is, President’s Trump’s decision to assassinate the architect of Iranian-back terrorism who was billed by Tehran as invincible was such a show of force that it has left the Iranian regime with no real recourse other than to deal with a growing informant problem, a deep leadership vacuum that will not be easily filled and massive insecurity threatening the region’s nodes of power. For these reasons, it’s highly likely that Iran intended to avoid U.S. casualties during their missile attack in Iraq.
The death of Qassem Soleimani who commanded a multinational army operating across the Middle East on behalf of the Iranian revolutionary regime, has already demoralized the regime and is forcing them to confront a litany of problems that can’t be resolved quickly.
First, the precision strike on Soleimani and high ranking militia members at the Baghdad Airport proved that Iran’s circle of trust is indeed peppered with informants.
U.S. military forces knew exactly when Soleimani left his hideout to board the plane, what time he was expected to land and where his caravan was heading from the airport. The fact that such privileged information was available to American intel in real time suggests that the U.S. military has breached the Quds Force thanks to the help of either a few high-ranking informants, or an army of low-ranking ones. Either way, a ruinous spirit of suspicion has already entered the Iranian echelons of power and this paranoia could result in numerous killings to root out the informants, just as we saw years ago when Iran suspected informants responsible for Israeli Intelligence becoming aware of secret Iranian nuclear proliferation sites.
If informants were able to provide this intel to the Americans in enough time to get U.S. helicopters in position for the strike on Soleimani, what information could they provide during an extensive conflict with the U.S.?
The Iranian regime may act out irrationally, but Khamenei would never directly risk the collapse of the regime, that’s why a missed missile attack was his only real option. Khamenei knows he has to secure their lines of communication but does he know where to start? Given Tehran’s continued instability, this alone will shape up to be a difficult task.
To make matters worse for Iran, the new Quds Force leader appointed to take over for Soleimani is going to have impossible shoes to fill.
When President Trump authorized U.S. forces to strike the Quds Force head, he created a leadership vacuum Iran should be anxious to fill.
An elite military leader has skills beyond operational and technical knowledge. They must be capable of working across multiple interests, factions, and moving parts, sustaining a positive relationship with political leaders while controlling the desires of subordinate military groups or as in the instance of Iran, subordinate terrorist organizations.
For the past two decades, Qassem Soleimani was certainly that figure for Iran.
The now deceased head of the Quds Force was able to masterfully utilize his unique position in the Islamist regime to energize Iran’s offensive in the region. To do this, he bolstered the regime’s effort to establish a “Shiite Crescent” (the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shia or where there is a strong Shia minority in the population) by personally expanding the country’s terrorist network and exploiting so-called “Arab Spring” moments nearby.
Gershon Hacohen from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic studies recently recounted that it was Soleimani who notably said at a theological seminary in the city of Qom in May 2011 that “Today, Iran’s victory or defeat no longer takes place in Mehran and Khorramshahr. Our boundaries have expanded and we must witness victory in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This is the fruit of the Islamic revolution.”
Before Khamenei openly wept over Soleimani’s casket at the general’s funeral on Monday, he named the man expected to continue Soleimani’s vision: Esmail Ghaani.
At first glance, Ghaani doesn’t appear capable of matching the profile of his predecessor. For starters, when Soleimani took over command of the Quds Force he was 40 years old, Ghaani is over 60 years old. Given his obscurity, he clearly doesn’t carry the same level of respect or notoriety as Soleimani who was known for posing for selfies with members of Iran-backed militias in Iraq & Syria.
To lack the vibrance and respect of Soleimani is one thing, but Ghaani likely also doesn’t possess Soleimani’s calculating way of thinking either.
In 1997, after the Iran-Iraq war where Soleimani’s strategy of unconventional war helped the country overcome significant odds against aircrafts and tanks, he led the IRGC’s new strategy of using insurgent terrorist networks throughout the region to protect the regime’s interests. In order to accomplish this, Soleimani had to work quite hard implementing operational concepts favorable to Tehran’s imperialist desires while adapting those ambitions to meet the frameworks and local circumstances of different militias and terrorist cells in the Middle East. Despite attempts by the global community and previous administration to civilize Soleimani, he had a hand in turning Hezbollah, the Houthis, and even Hamas, into more formidable actors of war.
Khamenei therefore likely chose Ghaani to replace Soleimani not because he thought he could duplicate his success, but because of the informant dilemma we covered earlier, the Ayatollah is content with merely appointing someone he can trust.
With Ghaani at the helm of the Quds force, they cannot risk further escalation.
Choosing a younger, more daring commander would not only risk choosing someone already comprised by the Americans, but it also might mean choosing someone too irrational which risks the collapse of the regime in its entirety, something the Khamenei is also taking into consideration.
Risking The Regime
Iran is likely looking to pivot inward. The immense burden of sanctions continues to take its toll on the nation and Iran has already miscalculated once.
Iran held a National Security Council meeting shortly after Soleimani’s death. During that meeting, if it was determined that they wanted to inflict U.S. casualties, they would have been able to inflict at least one.
Instead, the casualty count remains at zero, and it will stay there for the foreseeable future, or the U.S. could strike nearly 100 Iranian sites including its oil reserves, leaving the regime decimated.
Iran’s weak missile attack was for the sole pleasure of its domestic audience. because Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani has put Khamenei in a spot where all he can do is hope to be perceived as retaliating just to save face and not be seen as out of sync with Iran’s revolutionary spirit.
Iran glorifies its military might as an essential part of its national identity; Khamenei has to showcase that might even if it’s just a facade to avoid real conflict.
Iran’s foreign policy strategy is to prove that the Iranian revolutionary model can replace western involvement in the region. But Iran has always stopped short of directly engaging the U.S., preferring instead to levy verbal attacks toward the U.S. to show that it isn’t scared of them despite their status as the world’s strongest power.
They knew the U.S. would respond to the death of an American contractor with fervor but they didn’t expect the magnitude of their response. Everything Tehran has built in Iraq and Syria in terms of influence is now at risk.
Brigitte Gabriel is the founder of ACT for America, the largest national security grassroots organization in the United States. Born in Lebanon, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1989 and has addressed the United Nations, Australian Prime Minister, members of The British Parliament/House of Commons, members of the United States Congress, The Pentagon, The Joint Forces Staff College, The US Special Operations Command, The US Asymmetric Warfare group, the FBI, and many others.