Region Reacts to News of the Killing of Iran’s Top General

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


News of last week’s targeted killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Forces of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), along with Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, continues to create ripples across the region. Gen. Soleimani, a close confidant of Ayatollah Khamenei and considered by many as the second most powerful person in Iran, was long seen as the mastermind behind Iran’s aggressive expansion in the Middle East. His death is likely to usher in more, rather than less, uncertainty in the coming weeks and months, as evidenced by events since his killing.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Kılıç Buğra Kanat argues in an op-ed for Daily Sabah that there is no doubt the U.S. action against Soleimani represented a watershed moment for U.S.-Iran relations and the region in general: “Considering the gravity of the tension between Iran and the U.S. right now, we may consider that this act was likely the last nail in the coffin of a potential rapprochement between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear deal. But what is next? Could this justify the Iranian regime’s attempt to develop a nuclear weapon?… Although there are different approaches on how to judge the attack right now, the certain consensus among observers seems to be that this is not only one game-changer in U.S.-Iranian relations but could change the nature of games across the region.”

For many in Israel, the game has changed for the better, where some, including Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman, consider it a “strategic miracle” since, in their view, “Suddenly Israel is no longer alone. For years, Israel has tried unsuccessfully to harness the United States for a military confrontation with Iran. And last Friday we emerged from these 40 years in the wilderness…. Israel believes that the Iranians are aware that Jerusalem had no involvement in the assassination in Iraq, and it is doubtful that the Islamic Republic has any interest in opening another front against Israel. Nonetheless, there is a certain level of raised preparedness among intelligence and air defense operatives in Israel. There is after all the likelihood that pro-Iranian militias in Syria, or possibly Lebanon, will fire at Israel – even without a directive from Tehran, which has happened in the past.”

Reflecting on what Soleimani’s death may mean for Iran, Al Ahram’s Tarek Osman suggests that one of the consequences of the death of Iran’s top general may be the “dilution” of the image of an aura of invincibility that the Iranians had worked so hard to create: “Part of the success of Iran’s expansionism in the past 15-years has been built on creating and sustaining the perception that: Iran knows how to win…. This perception aimed to give Iran an aura of success that makes its opponents cautious in dealing with it. ‘Brand Soleimani’ was part of that perception. His assassination in Baghdad, almost immediately after the storming of the American embassy in the city and following Trump’s threat that those responsible will pay for it, will lead many to believe that Soleimani’s network of operations was infiltrated, monitored, and easily attacked. This dilutes the perception that Iran has worked hard to create.”

While in the short-term Iran has shown a willingness to retaliate to save face, how Iranian leaders will react in the middle to long term is anyone’s guess. The task for Iran’s Supreme Leader and his regime, as Abbas Milani points out in a recent op-ed for Jordan Times, becomes complicated when considering Iran’s ongoing internal challenges: “Given the state of the economy and the level of discontent in Iran, Khamenei must keep the IRGC and loyal militias firmly on his side. And right now, those forces are clamoring for revenge. For Khamenei, then, the key will be to find a response that is forceful enough to satisfy his base, but not provocative enough to incite full-scale escalation…. One hopes that their domestic woes and deep desire for self-preservation will lead Khamenei and his government to embrace symbolic acts of retaliation, rather than escalatory measures. And one hopes that the US, too, will act with strategic prudence in responding to Iran’s next move. Otherwise, we could end up with a war that almost no one wants, and for which the endgame would be entirely unpredictable.”

According to some commentators, including Arab News’ Majid Rafizadeh, the early signs are not very encouraging, pointing to the appointment of Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani as the new head of the Quds Force, seen as evidence that Iran is likely to continue on the path of aggressive expansion already laid out by Gen. Soleimani: “This was an attempt to send a signal to Iran’s proxies, particularly Hezbollah, the Houthis and Iraqi militia groups, that the status quo — Tehran’s mission and support for them — will persist without any interruption…. Although Qaani lacks Soleimani’s charisma, he will most likely employ the same brutal and violent tactics as his predecessor. He is a hard-line revolutionary who will attempt to advance the regime’s mission of fomenting unrest in other nations, sponsoring terror groups, and ensuring the hold on power of the supreme leader.”

Turning his attention to the next moves that the Trump administration may undertake, Amer Al Sabaileh asks in an op-ed for Jordan Times whether the United States is prepared to take on a “widespread network of Iranian assets in the region? Is the US willing to engage directly in the face of an escalation, as the past shows us that the American approach in the Middle East tends to play out to the advantage of Iran and its allies…. The US approach to containing Iran is facing a serious challenge, but having come this far down the path there is little room to walk it back. This likely means the region will see a new phase of escalation against Iran, by proxy at first, but potentially direct engagement with Iran eventually, as well, as the consequences of economic pressure and sanctions bite further politically, economically and socially within Iran.”

Arguing in favor of an international diplomatic intervention, Khaleej Times’ Bikram Vohra recognizes the destabilizing effect that Gen. Soleimani’s death may have for the region and fears what the regional consequences may be if the United Nations doesn’t intervene immediately: “The fears of another global conflagration have never been so strong. The calls by nations for restraint, a collective clarion beseeching for sanity in which the UAE has been playing a pivotal and salutary role since the Baghdad blast is the only defense of those who are truly concerned about the fallout from this attack. What more can they do then to advocate a backing off from the impasse and stop the knight from riding in? In the aftermath of the missile strikes on US coalition troops in Iraq on Saturday, the world pressure on Tehran has to be relentless…. The United Nations (UN) must now step in and endorse Raab’s sentiment that war is in no one’s interest. It is still a force for the greater good and has to come between the two countries and block any hasty escalation.”

While not necessarily arguing against a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, Arab News’ Dania Khatib is more interested in what Mr. Trump decides to do next, urging the US president not to retreat into an isolationist policy that, according to Khatib, is likely to undo any “good” coming from the assassination of Iran’s top general: “Will Trump draft a coherent strategy to follow up the killing of Soleimani or will he continue to swing between conflicting instincts and promises to his voters in an election year? One sure thing is that, when the American president took the decision to directly target a high-profile personality such as Soleimani, who was a symbol of the Islamic revolution, he made a decisive move and it will be difficult to change course. If Trump’s isolationist instinct comes back to haunt him, he will surely be killing American ‘greatness’ for good.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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