The vehicle carrying Soleimani following the U.S. attack (Tasnim, January 3, 2020)
The remains of Soleimani’s car following the U.S. strike (Fararu, January 3, 2020).
The remains of Soleimani’s car following the U.S. strike (Fararu, January 3, 2020).
Esmail Qa’ani, the incoming Qods Force Commander (Fars, January 3, 2020).
Dr. Raz Zimmt
- On January 2, 2020, American drones struck two vehicles in Baghdad ferrying senior commanders of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The strikes killed Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of the Qods Force, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy Commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi (the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq) and several Qods Force and Hashd al-Shaabi members who were in the targeted convoy.
- The U.S. Department of Defense announced that Soleimani’s elimination, which was approved by President Donald Trump, was intended to deter Iran following a strike on an air base near the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq (December 27, 2019), which killed an American civil contractor and injured several American soldiers, as well as the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad (December 31, 2019) by members and supporters of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, who protested against retaliatory U.S. strikes on targets of the Sh’ite Iraqi militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, along the Iraq-Syria border (December 29, 2019).
- The lack of an American response to a series of attacks launched by Iran since May 2019 bolstered the assessment in Tehran that the United States is not interested in military confrontation and that the U.S. administration does not intend to take military actions in response to additional Iranian provocations. The Iranian attacks that went unrequited include sabotage of oil tankers (May-June 2019), takeover of oil tankers (June-July 2019), and downing of an unmanned aerial vehicle (June 20, 2019). As a result, Soleimani’s elimination in response to the confrontations in recent days between the United States and pro-Iranian militias on Iraqi soil surprised Iran and now necessitates it to carefully consider its response, and reexamine its regional strategy.
- The initial response in Iran to Qasem Soleimani’s liquidation reflect Iran’s surprise about the American action, as well as the commitment of the Iranian leadership to avenge his death. Iran’s leadership rushed to condemned the American action and voiced threats that it will forcefully retaliate his killing. Shortly after Soleimani’s assassination, his deputy, Esmail Qa’ani, was appointed as the commander of the Qods Force in his stead (see appendix).
- The assassination of Qasem Soleimani is a severe blow to Iran. Since he was appointed as the commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force in late 1997 or early 1998, this elite unit became the tip of the spear in Iran’s effort to bolster its regional standing and promote its strategic goals through terrorism and political subversion. Against the backdrop of the convulsions experienced by Middle Eastern countries over the past decade, Soleimani has become a “puppet master” and the key actor leading Iran’s regional influence operations. Under his leadership, Iran managed to increase its regional influence, block ISIS advances, save the Assad regime from downfall (with Russian assistance) and provide advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and militant groups in Gaza.
- In our assessment, Soleimani’s death is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s regional policy, or compel it to reduce its ambitions in the region, including cementing their military and civilian foothold, as well as political and soft-power influence in the region. However, removing Soleimani from the equation may hinder Iran’s ability to realize these goals, at least in the short term. Despite the long service of Esmail Qa’ani, the incoming Qods Force commander, as Soleimani’s deputy, and his deep familiarity with the regional system, he may struggle to deal with the challenges Iran faces in the region in the era following the civil war in Syria and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq.
The Iranian Response to Soleimani’s Elimination
- The threats from senior Iranian officials, following Soleimani’s assassination, reflect an unmistakable intention to avenge his death, even if not in the immediate future. His liquidation places Iran in a predicament. On the one hand, Tehran sees itself obliged to forcefully respond to the killing of one of its top commanders. A lack of a response on its part may harm the deterrent power of the regime, internally and externally, and encourage further aggression by Iran’s enemies, chief among them the United States. This approach manifested in a commentary published by the conservative news website Alef (January 4), which argued that if the United States sees that Iran remains quiescent and indifferent following Soleimani’s killing, the chances of war will actually increase. This is because the United States will interpret Iranian silence as weakness, and it is easier to attack a weak country than a strong one. However, if Iran responds properly and avenges Soleimani’s assassination, the likelihood of war will significantly decrease.
- On the other hand, a response that is too violent, and particularly once that would endanger the lives of additional American civilian and soldiers, may escalate tension to the point of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran. It is evident that at this stage, Iran is not interested in such a confrontation, particularly in light of the challenges it faces domestically (the economic crisis and ongoing popular protests), regionally (the growing popular criticism against Iranian involvement in Iraq and Lebanon, and the hinderances to Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in western Iraq and Syria), and internationally (the future of the nuclear deal and the growing economic pressure brought to bear by the international community). Several senior Iranian officials emphasized that Iran does not intent to rush in retaliating. The Spokesman of Iran’s Armed Forces, Abolfazl Shekarchi. Declared that the U.S. should know that Iran will not rush to respond, but will plan a decisive retaliatory move, whose riming and location will be decided by Iran (Tasnim, January 4, 2020). The Chairman of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mojtaba Zolnour, remarked that Iran is committed to retaliate for Soleimani’s killing, but emphasized that the response will be done in such a manner that will avoid the outbreak of war (Tasnim, January 4, 2020).
- Iran may wait, as it has done in the past after attacks and targeted killings attributed to Israel, for an opportune moment to initiate a high-quality attack at the time and manner of its choosing. This retaliation may target American interests or locations in the region, such as: American bases, American military personnel or citizens, or abroad, although Iran’s capabilities outside of the Middle East are more circumscribed than they are in the region. Iran will likely prefer to directly hit American interests and targets over those of its allies in the region. However, it may again resume attacks against vessels and targets related to U.S. allies in the region, similar to actions Iran has undertaken in recent months in response to tightening U.S. sanctions against it.
- As part of a possible retaliation to Soleimani’s targeted killing, Iran may also employ proxy organizations operating under its guidance (such as Shi’ite Iraqi militias and the Houthi rebels in Yemen), but we assess that it will prefer direct actions over employing proxies, due to its commitment to personally avenge Soleimani’s death, and because proxy organizations are usually less effective than Iranian forces.
Israel and the Iranian Retaliation
- The public statements by Iranian officials in response to Soleimani’s assassinations largely avoid mentioning Israel, and no concrete threats were made against it, although some Iranian officials blamed Israel of involvement in the operation. Thus, for example, the Speaker of the Majlis’ National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Seyyed Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, claimed that according to information presented to the committee, Israel collaborated with the United States in the assassination operation (ISNA, January 3, 2020). The minimal references to Israel and the general tendency to blame the United States alone for killing Soleimani, may indicate that at this stage, Iran is not interested in dragging Israel into its current conflict with the United States, which is focused in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, possibly due to fears that Israeli involvement may further increase the likelihood of escalation into a full-blown regional military confrontation. Iran will likely, however, maintain its efforts to entrench its military presence in Syria and western Iraq, and provide advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, despite the ongoing Israeli activity to stymie these efforts, regardless of the latest developments in Iraq.
Responses of Iranian Officials to Soleimani’s Assassination
- The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, published a note of condolences following Soleimani’s death, warning that the enemies “who sullied their hands with his blood and the blood of the rests of the martyrs” should expect bitter vengeance. The statement proclaimed that the death of Soleimani will not end his life’s work, and that his followers will persevere on the path he trailblazed, the path of jihad and resistance, now with doubled energy and determination. Khamenei declared three days of mourning in Iran. On the eve of January 3, 2020, Khamenei paid a condolence visit to Soleimani’s family (Tasnim, January 3, 2020).
A condolence visit by Supreme Leader Khamenei to Soleimani’s family home
(Fars, January 3, 2020).
- Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, published a statement condemning the American action, warning the Iranian nation and all other free nations in the region will avenge Soleimani’s death. He remarked that the “cowardly action” is another testament to the frustration and helplessness of the United States in its operations in the region, and a grave violation of international law (Fars, January 3, 2020).
A condolence visit by President Hassan Rouhai to Soleimani’s family home
(ISNA, January 4, 2020).
- The Commander of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, declared that Soleimani’s assassination will lead to “strategic revenge” that will end U.S. presence in the region (Fars, January 4, 2020).
- The Speaker of the IRGC, Ramazan Sharif, declared that the Americans’ momentary celebration following Soleimani’s killing will not last for long, and will turn into mourning after revenge is taken for his death. He asserted that Iran’s determination to avenge against the United States and Zionism will only grow, and expressed his confidence that Soleimani’s students will continue to work to realize his goals (Tasnim, January 3, 2020).
The Spokesman of the IRGC, Ramazan Sharif (on the right) cries on live TV in Iran following Soleimani’s elimination
- A statement published by the Supreme National Security Council proclaimed that the United States must know that the “criminal attack” against Soleimani was the biggest strategic mistake it has ever made in the region, and that the U.S. will not easily escape its consequences. The Council, which met on January 3, 2020 for a special session following Soleimani’s assassination, warned that the criminals should expect harsh revenge “in the right time and place” (Tasnim, January 3, 2020).
- The Iranian Minister of Defense, Amir Hatami, declared that Soleimani’s killing serves as undeniable proof for the cruelty of “the Great Satan” [Tehran’s term for the United States] and its support for terrorists in the region and in Iraq. He vowed that Iran will decisively retaliate against the American attack (Fars, January 3, 2020).
- The Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Soleimani’s assassination as “a terrorist cowardly act” that violates Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He asserted that the Americans made a grave mistake and that Iran will respond at the time and location of its choosing (Fars, January 3, 2020).
- The Speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani, proclaimed in a statement he issued following Soleimani’s killing that the commander of the Qods Force was a source of pride for all Iranians. The statement asserted that “the American regime,” which is the most hated in the world, should know that the Iranian people will never forget the blood of his dear sons who fell while defending the honor of their countrymen (Tasnim, January 3, 2020).
The mourning processions following Soleimani’s death
(Fars, January 3, 2020).
- Ali-Akbar Velayati, the Senior Adviser on International Affairs to the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a condolences message, which vowed that the United States will pay the price for the “terrorist crime” it had carried out, and that that “resistance front,” which managed over the years to foil the plot of the enemies to weaken and divide Muslim countries, will avenge this crime (Fars, February 3, 2020).
- The Head of Iran’s Judiciary Branch, Ibrahim Raisi, published a statement asserting that from every drop of blood of Qasem Soleimani hundreds of new Qasem Soleimanis will rise, who will sow destruction in the eyes of the terrorist American government and international and regional terrorism. He expressed confidence that “the soldiers of the resistance front” will avenge his death (Tasnim, January 3, 2020).
- The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Army, Seyyed Abdolrahim Mousavi, published a statement proclaiming that Soleimani’s blood will only further bolster the “resistance front” (Tasnim, January 3, 2020).
Esmail Qa’ani, the Incoming Commander of the Qods Force
- Hours following the death of Soleimani, the Supreme Leader of Iran announced the appointment of Esmail Qa’ani as the commander of the Qods Force.
Esmail Qa’ani, the incoming Qods Force Commander
(Fars, January 3, 2020).
- Qa’ani was born in 1957 in the city of Mashhad. Shorly after the Islamic Revolution, he joined the IRGC and during the Iran-Iraq war, served at the commander of Division 21 (Imam Reza) and at the commander of Division 5 (Nasr). During the war, he became acquainted with Qasem Soleimani, who served as the commander of the 41st Division of the IRGC at the time.
- Following the end of the war, Qa’ani was dispatched to his hometown, Mashhad, as the commander of the ground forces of the IRGC in the area, which operated mostly along the border with Afghanistan. Shortly after, he joined the Qods Force of the IRGC, almost right after its establishment in the early 1990s, and he was responsible for the Force’s operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia. He was apparently appointed at the deputy commander of the Qods Force in 1997, after Soleimani was appointed at the commander of the force.
Esmail Qa’ani next to Qasem Soleimani
(Fars, January 3, 2020).
- Between 2006-2007, he served at the deputy commander of the Intelligence Branch of the IRGC, apparently in parallel to his role as the deputy commander of the Qods Force.
- In his initial response to Soleimani’s assassination, Qa’ani declared that a little bit of patience is required before the corpses of “the Great Satan” [the United States] will be seen in the Middle East (Fars, January 3, 2020).
- It should be mentioned that despite the long service of Esmail Qa’ani, the incoming Qods Force commander, as Soleimani’s deputy, and his deep familiarity with the regional system, he may struggle to deal with the challenges Iran faces in the region, particularly in the era following the civil war in Syria and the campaign against ISIS in Iraq.
 For more on Qasem Soleimani, see a report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Center, "Portrait of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force, Instigator of Iranian Subversion and Terrorism in the Middle East and around the Globe,” October 29, 2015. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/20899/ ↑
The information about Qa'ani is based on an article published by Ali Alfoneh on the website of the American Enterprise Institute on January 11, 2012, as well as details published about his by the Tasnim news agency on January 3, 2020. ↑