Six Months After Soleimani, Iran's War Machine Tested But Lives On to Fight

Six months after the U.S. killing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Quds Force commander, the Islamic Republic's ability to fight on without its most famous military leader has been tested but its sophisticated, international war-fighting machine lives on.

Major General Qassem Soleimani's fiery slaying at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq was the product of a top-secret operation hidden from much of the United States' own vast espionage network but news of his death immediately sparked reactions from across the Middle East and beyond. While international experts as well as officials from Iran and Israel speaking to Newsweek were split as to whether or not the military leader's death had a lasting effect on Iran's sprawling web of aligned forces in the region half a year later, all agreed the Revolutionary Guard and its esteemed, extraterritorial Quds Force would likely fight on for some time.

"The strength of the Quds Force is that it does not rely on a single charismatic leader—any more than the Islamic Republic of Iran does," Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council's Future of Iran Initiative, told Newsweek.

"The Quds Force and IRGC are full of veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and other commanders who are now battle-tested in Syria," she added. "There will be more Soleimanis."

The fallen general's successor, Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani, has largely maintained a low profile both before and after his sudden promotion in January. He has, however, made some bold moves reportedly visiting Iraq last month and taking a trip last week to Syria, where he released a rare public message to bolster the Iran-affiliated Axis of Resistance against the U.S. and Israel, which has increasingly struck targets linked to Iran in Syria.

"Soleimani has been replaced and his strategy lives on," Slavin said. "He is a hero and a new martyr for an organization that values such individuals."

She said it was too early to evaluate the leadership of Ghaani, who himself played a pivotal role in forging Quds Force ties with Shiite Muslim militias hailing from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Middle East, she saw Iranian allies such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, hardline factions of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces, and Yemen's Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, continuing their struggles.

lebanon, hezbollah, iraq, muhandis, iran, soleimani
Supports of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah wave Palestinian and Hezbollah flags while riding in a vehicle past a billboard showing the faces of slain (L to R) Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh, in the southern Lebanese village of Adaisseh on the border with Israel on May 25. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a senior research fellow at the International Security Studies department of the Royal United Services Institute, told Newsweek that she didn't "see any weakening of the Iranian posture" since Soleimani's death.

She said that Ghaani was presiding over relationships that Iran had built throughout previous decades of hardship, including war and international sanctions. Though he may not have the same flare as his predecessor nor the same close contacts or even language skills, she said Iran and the Revolutionary Guard showed no signs of switching its strategy or shifting tactics.

"The indication is that Iran is doing the opposite, reinforcing its message after the killing of Soleimani, reinforcing the trends in Iranian foreign policy," Tabrizi explained.

"The question is how much of this is optics, how much of this is depth. The target audience for the Iranian side is the United States," she said, adding that there was "so far no indication that the U.S. maximum pressure campaign has diminished the Iranian capacity to deliver."

Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and co-director of the Proxy Wars Initiative, was skeptical of the continuity of the Revolutionary Guard's pull among its partners without the iconic Quds Force leader. He also said that "it's still too soon" to rate Ghaani's performance but felt Soleimani's "personal relationships and personal touch" were key to the Iranian war effort, so "his successors are likely to fail"—an outcome that Alaaldin suggested could have existential consequences for the Iranian government itself.

"It will be years until we know the full implications of his assassination and history could look back at his assassination as the moment where it all unraveled for the Islamic Republic," Alaaldin said. "Iran has invested so much in its proxy network that it can plausibly be said that it is only as strong as its foreign legion. The fate of the regime in Iran may not be decided in Iran itself but in places like Iraq and Syria."

In Tehran, officials have long tied their country's fate to its "holy shrine defenders" and various aligned fighters, who played an early, critical role in the battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself famously warned that if Iran did not battle its foes abroad then it would have to fight them at home.

But these wars brought Iran and its allies geographically closer to their archfoe Israel, a close U.S. ally that has substantially expanded its own operations on foreign soil in recent years. Tehran's growing influence across the Middle East raised concerns among its adversaries and, with the defeat of ISIS and the U.S. exit from a multinational nuclear deal with Iran, tensions have skyrocketed throughout the region.

The Trump administration, already pressuring Iran with heavy sanctions, has accused Tehran of being behind attacks on international oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a missile and drone strike against two Saudi oil facilities and recurring rocket launches against U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

While violence continues, the U.S. killing of Soleimani and Iran's retaliatory missile strike on Iraqi bases housing U.S.-led forces in January has so far been the crescendo of an escalating cycle over the past several months in the region. One Israeli official who requested anonymity described Soleimani's killing to Newsweek "as a stabilizing event that so far has had significant implications for regional stability."

"It has left the Iranian axis with a gap in capabilities that they have not yet been able to fill," the official said. "It did have a very real, actual and tangible effect on the Iranian axis from the really strategic big picture also to the operations level."

"The fact that Soleimani is not there anymore probably adds difficulty for the Iranians to get stuff done both the arms-smuggling and the entrenchment in Syria because his personal role was pivotal in coordinating operations, in smoothing the path along the way between different Iran-affiliated militia whether it's Iraq or Syria and many other roles that he had that are no longer being done on the same level," the official added.

iran, esmail, ghaani, ali, khamenei, irgc
Revolutionary Guard Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani is officially appointed head of the elite Quds Force by Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei during a ceremony, January 4. Like Qassem Soleimani, Ghaani is an Iran-Iraq war veteran and served as his predecessor's deputy. OFFICE OF THE SUPREME LEADER OF IRAN

At the same time, Israel does not predict an end to Iran's elite fighting force, nor its foreign associates, which the official and all three experts interviewed by Newsweek said were now taking on more proactive roles with louder voices—especially Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, a longtime confidant of Soleimani. Even as Iraqi militias appeared to fragment on political frontlines, financial crises consumed Lebanon and neighboring Syria and Iran itself dealt with new economic and political challenges, the Revolutionary Guard has proven to be a resilient force.

"The IRGC is a very strong, well-funded organization with extremely deep pockets and probably the total backing and support of the Iranian regime," the Israeli official said. "We don't see a scenario by which the IRGC ceases to operate just because they lost Soleimani, no not at all."

As for Iran itself, a country long-accustomed to adversity, the message remains clear. The country will continue to strive to establish a strategic depth across the region and to wage a campaign of maximum resistance against external forces working to defeat the Islamic Republic.

"When the U.S. cowardly assassinated General Soleimani, it didn't weaken Iran. It was a gift to the terrorists like Daesh who celebrated Soleiman's demise," Iranian mission to the United Nations spokesperson Alireza Miryousefi told Newsweek, using the Arabic-language acronym for ISIS. "By murdering the region's counter-terrorism lead general, the U.S. worked in favor of terrorists rather than fighting them."

"The assassination has not changed our strategic calculations and Iran remains committed to fighting terror based on its own and region's interests," he added.