Iran Can Find a New Suleimani
The Quds Force leader was important, but he’s not irreplaceable.
One of the strongest arguments for killing Qassem Suleimani—Iran’s longtime leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was killed in a U.S. airstrike last week—was that he was unusually, perhaps uniquely, dangerous. Mark Dubowitz, an Iran hawk with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, declared that Suleimani “has been the equivalent of the JSOC commander, the CIA director, and Iran’s real foreign minister” and called his death “devastating” for the IRGC and for the Iranian regime. Andrew Exum, a former Obama administration official, voiced similar sentiments. “Soleimani was Iran’s David Petraeus and Stan McChrystal and Brett McGurk all rolled into one,” he wrote in the Atlantic. Exum added that Iran faces a shortage of human capital and that “I do not know of a single Iranian who was more indispensable to his government’s ambitions in the Middle East.”
Suleimani’s key role and the emphasis the Iranian government placed on his achievements make it easy to exaggerate his irreplaceability. Suleimani’s successor, his deputy Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, will of course bring different skills and talents to the position. But he’ll inherit existing networks and institutions that were not solely reliant on the man who helped build them.
For sure, there is no question Suleimani’s death is a serious loss for Iran. The IRGC leader had decades of experience in revolutionary warfare. He personally nurtured relationships with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthi groups in Yemen, Palestinian terrorists, paramilitary groups in Iraq, and other components of what analysts have labeled the “Iran Threat Network.” He was also regularly described as charismatic, and over time his experience and reputation created a star quality that, by itself, was probably compelling to his interlocutors. Suleimani himself spoke Arabic, helping bridge a cultural gap between Persian-speaking Iran and its many prospective clients in the Arab world. Suleimani already played an important role leading paramilitary operations for Iran in such key theaters as Lebanon in the 1990s and then became even more important for Iran’s ambitions as Iraq slid into chaos following the 2003 U.S. invasion. His role grew even further following the 2011 Syrian civil war. In both cases, Suleimani managed Iran’s clients highly successfully, greatly expanding Iran’s influence.
Suleimani was also an important domestic character. Though he was initially a shadowy figure, over time Iran burnished his image, giving him a glamorous and iconic status as the country’s heroic defender. The Iranian regime has faced severe economic problems, in part due to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign that followed the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. A hero portrayed as fighting the country’s enemies thus bolstered the regime’s overall prestige. Propaganda centered around Suleimani such as him posing with children or wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh often appeared when the regime felt the need to burnish its credentials with the public.
Some analysts have made a comparison to the U.S. killing of the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, both of which dealt severe blows to the terrorist groups. This obscures more than it illuminates. Sunni jihadi terrorist groups often depend heavily on a charismatic leader. Iran and the IRGC, in contrast, are well institutionalized, as the swift succession decision illustrates.
Indeed, as the Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney points out, Iran has regularly lost leaders on the battlefield since the first days of the revolution. The IRGC, with its many years of waging unconventional warfare, has a deep bench of experienced officers. Suleimani, of course, was a highly skilled officer, but one of the hallmarks of a great leader is that they create institutions and inspire others. In addition, Iran has a tradition of rewarding aggressive officers, suggesting Suleimani’s successors may also be eager for confrontation.
Lebanese Hezbollah—Iran’s most important and powerful substate ally—might be the most appropriate comparison. In 1992, Israel killed Hezbollah’s leader Abbas Musawi. That seemed to be a no-brainer decision given Musawi’s skill and charisma, as well as the prowess Hezbollah had displayed in what was then almost a decade of fighting Israel. Hezbollah, however, is well institutionalized and has a deep bench of experienced leaders. Musawi’s replacement, Hassan Nasrallah, turned out to be one of the most charismatic and competent militant leaders of our time.
Under Suleimani’s leadership, the IRGC vastly expanded its networks in the Middle East and globally. But Suleimani, of course, did not run every or even most networks on a day-to-day basis, leaving that to his underlings, including Qaani, who was active in Afghanistan and other theaters. The nuts and bolts of the relationships will remain in place even with a new man at the top.
Iran will also try to play up Suleimani as a martyr—indeed, it is already doing so in its propaganda and by sending his body to multiple shrine cities in Iran for mourning. And, for now, Iranians are rallying together against the strike, allowing the regime to put the unrest that has plagued the country for months behind it, at least for now. The IRGC in particular will be likely to laud Suleimani in the years to come, using his example to inspire the force as a whole.
It is Suleimani’s public profile that is perhaps most irreplaceable, at least in the short term. Heroes, however, can be created. The Iranian regime uses propaganda skillfully, and it may elevate Qaani or perhaps another leader to fill the heroic defender role that Suleimani occupied in the regime’s pantheon. If Iran does strike back and a broader confrontation with the United States ensues, the regime may play up the accomplishments of one of Iran’s commanders to inspire the public. This is particularly likely if public discontent with the regime continues to grow.
Suleimani’s death is a blow to the IRGC and to Iran’s overall capabilities. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the death of one military commander, no matter how formidable, will dramatically change either Iran’s policies or its ability to wreak havoc around the world.
Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman