Suleimani’s Killing Could Change the Middle East for the Better
In recent years, high-profile assassinations have been more political theater than practically important. This one could be different if followed up with the right strategy.
From the killing of al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden to the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, assassinations of high-profile U.S. enemies have been hugely symbolic in recent years. Their practical importance, though, has often been overstated.
But the strike that killed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is different. It has the potential to change the Middle East in fundamental ways—and, if followed through with the right strategy, for the better.
To understand why, it is important to acknowledge that Suleimani was no ordinary Iranian general: He was the standard-bearer for the Iranian regime’s violent and extremist ideology, someone who sought to turn Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist utopian dream into reality.
From the moment Iran’s clerical establishment seized control of the Iranian people’s revolution in 1979, the ayatollahs set their sights on exporting their militant brand of Islamism to other countries in the Middle East. Their grand ambition was to create a pan-Shiite state, centered on Khomeini as the supreme authority of not just Iran but of all Muslims—a role enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic to this very day.
To achieve this, Khomeini’s followers came up with the idea of creating the Quds (Jerusalem) Force: an Islamic army dedicated to exporting the revolution and liberating Palestine through the destruction of Israel. But the Quds Force would only come to real prominence when the son of peasant with blind loyalty to Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assumed its leadership in 1998. That person was Suleimani, an embodiment of Iran’s state-sanctioned Shiite Islamist ideology.
Suleimani was the architect of Iran’s extraterritorial activities—he was responsible for coordinating all terrorist plots linked to Iran’s regime, reaching as far afield as Thailand and Bulgaria—and the force behind the building of Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent: an arc of Iranian influence stretching from Iraq to Syria through to southern Lebanon. Only months before his death, the Quds Force commander boasted about how under his leadership the force had “created a territorial link between the [Shiite] resistance, connecting Iran to Iraq, Syria, [and] Lebanon.” Indeed, Iran’s current ascendency in the Middle East is inextricably linked to the Iranian general and his willingness to spill blood. Over the course of two decades, Suleimani nurtured Shiite militancy from Baghdad to Beirut and strategized terrorism with a degree of finesse that bin Laden and Baghdadi could only ever have dreamt of.
In Iraq in 2003, for example, following the fall of Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein, Suleimani and his associates worked tirelessly to recruit, radicalize, and organize young Shiite men into militias, loyal not to the Iraqi state but to Iran’s supreme leader. Equipped with rockets and roadside bombs, they would kill hundreds and injure thousands of British and American troops. Through the militias, the Iranian general was also able to begin cultivating a command and control relationship over Iraq. Tehran’s sectarian agenda would bring Iraq to the brink of civil war and would later contribute to the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.
The biggest test to Suleimani’s career, however, would emerge in a land further from Iran’s borders: Syria. Starting in 2011, as millions of Syrians poured onto the streets against President Bashar al-Assad, the Quds Force general rushed to keep the dictator in power. Under Assad, after all, Syria was the main artery through which Iran could arm and equip its militias. The degree of unbridled violence it took to keep Assad in power was astounding; nearly half a million Syrians have died since. It is therefore unsurprising that, after hearing about Suleimani’s demise, many Syrians flocked to the streets in celebration, chanting: “Gone, gone, gone Suleimani … you are next Bashar.”
Related to that conflict, despite Suleimani’s reputation as the man who helped defeat the Islamic State, in reality, the rise of the anti-Shiite militant group in Syria and Iraq was a godsend for the Iranian regime. It enabled Tehran to justify its deep-rooted involvement abroad and gave a veneer of religious justification to the bloodshed it had caused. Overnight, the IRGC and its Shiite foreign fighters, who had suppressed Sunni anti-Assad demonstrators, became “defenders of the holy Shiite shrines” from the threat of the Islamic State. And Suleimani took the form of a messianic warrior akin to a modern-day Imam Hussein, the third divinely ordained infallible Shiite Imam, who rose against the Umayyad caliphate in A.D. 680 and was martyred in his quest to stand up for Shiite Islam.
This messianic veil, however, could not hide Tehran’s true agenda from the people who lived under the consequences of Iran’s actions. In October 2019, the Iraqi population took to the streets demanding an end to years of Iranian interference in their affairs while burning images of both Khamenei and Suleimani. This turned out to be a step too far. Just a day after protests erupted in Iraq, the Iranian general flew to Baghdad to order Iranian-backed militias to crack down on Iraqi protesters, leaving 500 dead and more than 27,000 injured. Only weeks later, in November 2019, similar scenes would be repeated in Iran, where the IRGC would use unbridled force against anti-regime protesters, killing 1,500 in just two weeks of protest.
All this hints at why Suleimani’s death is so important. Unlike bin Laden and Baghdadi, Suleimani was not leading jihad from some far away podium; he was doing so on the battlefield as the operational mastermind. From regular trips to Beirut to meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to his many expeditions to and from Syria and Iraq, he spent time dictating strategic next steps and cultivating and mobilizing proxies for Tehran. When the Syrian conflict erupted, Suleimani was already in prime position to leverage the militant networks he had built for more than a decade, applying a tested model he proved in Lebanon and Iraq. Wanting to guarantee that the Islamic Revolution would live on beyond the confines of Iran’s borders, by the time of his death, Suleimani had created and armed militants in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and even had his sights on sub-Saharan Africa. His absence will not just be a loss for the regime in Iran but for those like Assad and Nasrallah, who in the past had relied on him for their survival.
Killing Suleimani was a high-risk gamble by the United States that marks a genuinely significant moment in the effort to clamp down on Iranian expansionism. But it must be accompanied by a comprehensive strategy in order to be truly successful.
As a first step, Europe and the United States will need to unite around the common cause of containing Iran. If they do not, when Iran responds—and it will—there is a danger that the two will only divide further, with Europe blaming Trump for Iran’s actions, not the Iranian regime itself—which is exactly what Tehran’s clerical establishment wants. The British government has struck the right tone in explicitly blaming the rise in tensions on Suleimani and the Iranian regime’s “menacing, destabilizing activities.” Other European leaders must follow suit.
Meanwhile, Suleimani is gone, but the IRGC still stands. Tehran will, of course, try to use what it calls Suleimani’s martyrdom as a way to galvanize its network of foreign fighters across the Middle East and radicalize them further. That makes it all the more important for Europe and the United States to work collectively with regional partners to find ways of further constraining activities of the IRGC and its militias. This means a joint assessment of the threat posed by Iran-backed militias is critical, as is a coherent strategy that matches the scale of the problem that Suleimani has left behind. While the focus must be to de-escalate tensions, it should be clear to both Washington and Europe that now is not the time to withdraw from the Middle East—doing so risks emboldening the IRGC and its militias.
Above all else, the West needs to prioritize the interests of the people of the region, who are the real victims of the Iranian regime’s bloodlust and militancy. The stakes could not be higher, but the end of Suleimani’s reign of terror can and should be treated as a positive opportunity to bring change to the Middle East.