The man once celebrated in Tehran as “the living martyr,” Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, is now just a martyr in the traditional sense. Felled by a U.S. drone strike in Iraq, his life ended in the conflict zone that launched his career nearly 40 years ago. As the leader of the deadly Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Soleimani was the lynchpin in Iran’s transnational terrorism apparatus, stretching from Yemen to Lebanon to Latin America and beyond. His death therefore marks a significant political and strategic setback for the Islamic Republic.
But this does not mean that the regime’s regional threat network is defeated. The Islamic Republic’s well-trained and amply funded proxies and sectarian allies await the marching orders of Soleimani’s successor. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has called upon Soleimani’s successor, Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, to follow an “ identical” approach.
To understand that approach, it is important to understand its evolution.
Soleimani’s two-decade-plus tenure at the helm of the Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign operations unit, coincided with some of the most significant events in post-Cold War Middle Eastern history. These include the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and the rise and fall of the Islamic State. Soleimani pursued a strategy during this period of fomenting unrest across the region to bleed Iran’s adversaries using proxies and partners such as Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Elsewhere, he deployed these forces to defend Iranian allies and interests, perhaps most notably in the effort to defend and sustain the embattled regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus.
Soleimani’s grassroots approach to conflict was relatively easy and inexpensive to sustain and replicate. Above all, it offered Tehran an opportunity to wreak havoc with a measure of plausible deniability. While the regime’s hand was not exactly hidden, the proxy strategy mitigated the risk of direct retaliation against its homeland by the targets of its aggression, notably Israel and the Gulf states. By stoking crisis after crisis across the Middle East, the regime forced adversaries to expend blood and treasure to restore relative calm. The Islamic Republic was also able to exploit other conflicts, such as the fight against the Islamic State, to expand its military and political influence in countries such as Iraq and Syria.
The success of this strategy, which yielded unprecedented geographic and political gains across the Middle East for Iran, arguably made Soleimani the most important military figure in the history of the Islamic Republic. It also made him a household name abroad.
Questions abound as to whether Qaani has the charisma or strategic mind to continue what Soleimani started. But his bona fides are almost identical to Soleimani’s. He, too, burnished his military credentials on the battlefields of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that shaped the worldview of an entire generation of Iranians. After the war, Qaani’s service on Iran’s eastern front paralleled Soleimani’s until they were named deputy and commander of the Quds Force in the late 1990s.
Qaani is subject to U.S. sanctions, as was Soleimani. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department declared that Qaani was involved in “financial disbursements to IRGC-QF elements, including elements in Africa, as well as to various terrorist groups, including Hizballah.” Soleimani was sanctioned several times dating back to 2007 for a range of transgressions, including his role in supporting Iran’s myriad proxy forces and nuclear proliferation efforts.
With tensions running high between the regime and Washington, Qaani is expected to maintain a lower profile than his predecessor, who often sought out media attention (a trait that may have contributed to his demise). Qaani’s task is to maintain continuity by taking the reins of an established network of terrorist groups and militias that were seemingly created for this moment. If he can successfully take control, Qaani will almost certainly pursue four existing lines of effort.
The first is Iran’s strategy of military escalation against American and allied assets across the region. Since last May, Iran has embarked upon a campaign of violence in a bid to force the Trump administration to halt its “maximum pressure” sanctions strategy it has enforced since exiting the deeply flawed 2015 nuclear deal in 2018. This military escalation has included the harassment of naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, and even an attack on a major Saudi oil facility last year.
While Soleimani is gone, the players will be the same: a constellation of forces dubbed the “ Axis of Resistance,” including the Quds Force, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. So, too, will be the tools: Rocket and mortar attacks, missiles, cyberattacks, espionage, terrorism in-theater, and maybe some terrorist attacks abroad as well. It’s now a question of just how brazen the regime will be.
Until the regime’s attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. contractor in late December and the subsequent siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Trump administration appeared willing to absorb attacks against U.S. interests, so long as it was not American personnel being targeted. Iran paid a severe price for crossing President Trump’s red line. This week, Iran retaliated to the Soleimani killing by firing upon Iraqi bases where U.S. personnel were stationed — but only after providing advance warning. The regime thus appeared to save face and stopped short of escalation. With tensions subsiding, Tehran will almost certainly return to a campaign of attacks that sow chaos across the Middle East but fall below Trump’s response threshold.
The second line of effort is its attempt to drive a wedge between the Gulf Arab states and America. While many Gulf Cooperation Council states are hawkish on Iran, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they have become increasingly spooked by Iranian aggression and perceived American inaction. The elimination of Soleimani was undoubtedly a shot in the arm for these Gulf states. They also likely cheered Iran’s decision to stand down in Iraq after the Soelimani killing in the face of American threats. But these are weak, risk-averse states that fear the consequences of continued escalation. Iran can thus leverage the acts of violence perpetrated by the “Axis of Resistance” to drive a wedge between Washington and regional partners. It could play up these fears in 2020 by resuming attacks on oil infrastructure and shipping — again, attacks that fall below Trump’s response threshold.
The third line of effort is the domination of weak Middle Eastern states such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. These countries are the component parts of the Islamic Republic’s land bridge project, which is not quite complete but stretches from western Iran to the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Establishing control of contiguous territory across this terrain will ultimately pave the way for Iran to move men, money, munitions, and other material to the various war zones it has either created or seeks to exploit. It will also enable the regime to build bases for its proxies, which continue to gain strength across the region.
The fourth line of effort is Iran’s policy of weapons proliferation. There are more Iranian-manufactured weapons circulating in the Middle East today than at any other point in the modern era. Iranian finless scud missile copies are now in Yemen. Solid-fuel short-range ballistic missiles are in Iraq. Reverse-engineered Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles are in Lebanon. Iranian light arms are littered across the battlefields of Syria and Iraq and beyond.
But the real danger lies in a new project launched several years ago by the Islamic Republic. Around 2015, the regime began to come to terms with the fact that the tens of thousands of unguided rockets it provided its proxies were not generating enough death and destruction. The problem was that either too many were missing their mark or Iran’s adversaries were shooting them down. This prompted an ambitious precision-guided munitions initiative. These munitions can strike within 5 or 10 yards of an intended target. The regime, under Soleimani’s command, began to furnish munitions kits to its proxies. Each kit (fins, circuitry, wiring, and software) costs as little as $15,000, but the process of conversion requires extensive knowledge and intense effort. Once an arsenal is amassed, the impact could be “game-changing” (a term the Israelis use). The right number of such munitions, fired in the right way, can overwhelm the defenses of Iran’s adversaries. This could enable the regime or its proxies to strike sensitive military targets successfully, or even precipitate mass-casualty attacks.
Israeli officials have sounded the alarm over Soleimani’s munitions project. And they have taken action, too. Reports suggest that the Israeli Air Force has struck thousands of targets over the past several years. From what is known, the munitions effort has been stymied, but it is far from moribund. Hezbollah has a handful of them in its possession, and more are undoubtedly leaking through. Indeed, Soleimani’s project continues.
Admittedly, some of these lines of effort could be temporarily affected by Soleimani’s absence. But his death does not erase their progress. Soleimani’s own daughter stated at her father’s funeral service, “Don’t think that the killing of my father will finish everything.” Iran and its proxies retain the hardware and ideological drive to continue their push for dominance across the Middle East. They pose the same challenges that U.S. security planners have struggled to counter for over two decades, albeit with a different leader.
Now is not the time for a victory lap. Nor is it time for threats of another troop withdrawal. Now is the time for new thinking about an old problem. Trump started the process with a surprisingly bold airstrike. He further defended American interests by firmly asserting America’s red line in the face of an Iranian response. But this is far from over. Under new leadership, the Quds Force will be getting back to business, sowing mayhem across the Middle East.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow.