Iran Pushes Ahead With Ambitious Plans to Expel U.S. from Region Despite Soleimani's Death

The inadvertent downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane has pushed Iran's government to navigate its way through its first major crisis since the United States' assassination of Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. However, the loss of its leader won't deter the country from pushing ahead with its regional strategy to expel U.S. troops, and instead may force it to enhance its mission, experts told Newsweek.

Soleimani was one of Iran's most distinguished and controversial figures. He has been credited with leading interstate efforts to battle Sunni Muslim jihadi forces like the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and accused of stoking deadly sectarian tensions across the Middle East. He was also instrumental in developing the strategic depth that helped give the Islamic Republic an edge against its top adversaries, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

However, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful and international force, is likely to withstand Soleimani's loss because of the formidable infrastructure it built over the past four decades.

"This degree of continuity will not be affected by decapitation of the Quds Force," Ali Alfoneh, an Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington senior fellow who authored a book on the Revolutionary Guard, told Newsweek.

"Soleimani was the charismatic leader of a highly bureaucratized and institutionalized military organization, whose operations are not likely to be impacted by the assassination of its commander," he added.

Soleimani's killing in Baghdad marked a major escalation in the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran as they vie for regional dominance, especially in Iraq, where both countries are considered crucial partners. Washington and Tehran both came to Baghdad's aid to battle ISIS, but the two rivals now consider one another to be the top terrorist threat in a region long ravaged by their rivalry.

Protesters hold Newsweek Magazine covers and posters featuring Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani to protest againsthis assassination by a U.S. drone in Iraq, during a demonstration in Mumbai, India on January 9. Soleimani and his Quds Force built vast international networks that may accelerate efforts to target U.S. troops in the wake of his death. INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

The Quds Force predates Soleimani and will almost certainly outlive him, experts said. The covert branch of operatives was officially formed after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but Alfoneh traces its true roots back to the 1950s. Five years after a 1953 coup orchestrated by the United States and United Kingdom reinstalled a friendly monarchy briefly sidelined by a democratically elected prime minister, neighboring Iraq's own monarchy was deposed in a violent revolution.

After this 1958 mutiny in Iraq, the West-backed shah engaged in what Alfoneh called "stealth warfare" against Baghdad's new government using extraterritorial operations designed to advance Tehran's foreign policy in a manner similar to that of the modern Quds Force.

Major changes came for both countries in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in Iran and Iraq's Saddam Hussein orchestrated a coup to take the helm of his own nation. The newly established Quds Force carried on the former imperial government's efforts to undermine the Iraqi government, which invaded the following year.

The Quds Force steadily built an international network, especially recruiting forces hostile to a growing presence of U.S. forces in the Middle East. Washington and Tehran's relations were already severed after revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and chances for reconciliation suffered successive blows in the following decades, even as the Pentagon and Soleimani's Quds Force fought common enemies. After the U.S. declared Iran a part of the "Axis of Evil" in 2002 and invaded Iraq the following year, Soleimani turned allied Shiite Muslim militias against U.S. troops, more than 600 of whom the State Department blames Iran and its allies for killing.

Soleimani's own death now comes at the peak of an especially destabilizing cycle of U.S.-Iran tensions set off since President Donald Trump's 2018 exit from a nuclear deal and implementation of strict sanctions against Tehran. Alhough his critics rejoiced, Soleimani's killing prompted mass rallies in multiple cities mourning a man celebrated by his government as a hero.

"This was a very significant assassination for a variety of reasons," Narges Bajoghli, an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies who also authored a book on the Revolutionary Guard, told Newsweek. "In the overall atmosphere of Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy, the funeral processions for Soleimani in Iran provided an opportunity for the regime to forge a level of national unity that it needed given the economic hardships from sanctions."

Alfoneh, too, said Soleimani's assassination and the U.S. acceptance of responsibility is "doubtlessly an event of historical dimensions in relations between the Islamic Republic and the United States and will play a prominent role in the official historiography and national narrative of the regime in Tehran."

Even in death, however, Soleimani will continue to serve as a symbol for the Iranian government's expansive physical and ideological influence, especially due to his battlefield brazenness.

Soleimaini, as the narrative goes, came from a poor family in the mountain village of Kerman, and went on to defend his country in the Iran-Iraq War and later fought abroad against Sunni Islamist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS. Even a University of Maryland poll released last October found that 82 percent of Iranians viewed him favorably.

Initially a covert figure, Soleimani increasingly embraced his celebrity in his latter years. The general regularly and openly flouted a United Nations Security Council travel ban that is due to expire in October of this year and increasingly ditched the shadows for more high-profile appearances, including his first major television interview with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office last October.

But as exalted as he was, he was not indispensable.

iran, revolutionary, guard, esmail, qaani
Iranians raise portraits of the newly-appointed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Esmail Qaani during an anti-U.S. rally to protest the killings during a U.S. airstike of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and his entourage, in the capital Tehran on January 4. The U.S. strike also took out Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces militia second-in-command Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and served as the basis for an Iraqi vote in favor of the U.S. withdrawing from the country. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Last March, Khamenei awarded Soleimani for his efforts behind enemy lines, wishing God grant him "a blissful life and that he will make his end marked by martyrdom—of course, not so soon."

Iran, however, was prepared when he died 10 months later.

"Soleimani was indeed very important, but the IRGC and Iran's top political establishment knew that there was a high likelihood that he would eventually be killed—Khamenei called him 'the living martyr,'" Bajoghli said. "Given this, and given how important regional Shi'a armed groups are for Iran's regional strategy, it is unfathomable that they had not planned for this day. Indeed, they named Soleimani's successor—his deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani—12 hours after his assassination."

Qaani, in contrast to his predecessor, has largely avoided the spotlight until now. A fellow Iran-Iraq War veteran, he was appointed Soleimani's Quds Force second-in-command in 1997 and went on to play a largely behind-the-scenes role in building networks across the world, including in Latin America, Africa and Central Asia.

"Brigadier General Esmail Qaani lacks the charisma of his predecessor, but is a competent bureaucrat and administrator capable of continuing Soleimani's work," Alfoneh told Newsweek.

With U.S. sanctions wearing on the Iranian economy and social unrest in Iraq and Lebanon, Qaani may be forced to adapt his tactics on the ground, Alfoneh added. "But fundamentally, Qaani and the IRGC leadership consider Iran's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Syria as a sensational success and are unlikely to fundamentally change course."

Qaani has, in fact, vowed to expand anti-U.S. operations, recently posing in front of the flags of militias ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. These groups have proven their will to fight and die against foes they share with the Islamic Republic, and have only hardened their resolve in the past two weeks.

"Thus far, the leaders of Iran and the leaders of all major Shi'a armed groups in the region have vowed that the best response to Soleimani's killing will be the ouster of U.S. forces from the Middle East," Bajoghli told Newsweek. "In many ways these forces were united for years in the fight against ISIS. I don't foresee a big shift in their regional strategy, just that the U.S. assassination of Soleimani has sharpened their mission."

Ervand Abrahamian, a distinguished professor emeritus of Iranian and Middle Eastern history and politics at the City University of New York's Baruch College, agreed. He told Newsweek that "there are plenty of substitutes for Soleimani," but "the real issue is this: There are besieged minorities outside Iran—Alawis in Syria, Shias in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, Zaidis in Yemen—who look to Iran for assistance and protection."

"As long as that situation exists, Iran will have allies⁠—some say 'proxies'⁠—in the Middle East," he added. "I suspect Iran will increase its help to these 'proxies' in order to counterbalance U.S. power."

Iran's support for such groups has endured U.S. sanctions and external pressure. At home, however, the Iranian government was now facing pressure on a new front.

iran, protests, ukraine, flight, shootdown, tehran
An Iranian man confronts riot police during a demonstration outside Tehran's Amir Kabir University on January 11. Demonstrations have broken after Iran admitted to having shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet by mistake on January 8, killing all 176 people on board. AFP/Getty Images

The Revolutionary Guard responded last week to Soleimani's assassination by launching missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. and allied personnel. Hours later, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down unintentionally by a Revolutionary Guard anti-aircraft battery, as Newsweek first reported.

The accident followed months-long anti-government demonstrations violently cracked down upon security forces and has prompted new outrage among many Iranians who have accused officials of initially trying to cover up the shootdown with early media reports attributing the crash to a likely mechanical error.

The event has also evoked comparisons to the U.S. Navy's own shootdown of a passenger jet, Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board, toward the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq War in 1988. That incident has featured frequently in the Iranian's government's anti-U.S. narrative and, while it was unclear how this will evolve with blood now on the Revolutionary Guard's own hands, Soleimani's death has already begun to play prominently in government messaging and could have larger ramifications on how the U.S.-Iran conflict plays out.

"The killing of Solaimani will not have much long-term impact on U.S.-Iran relations. It will merely deepen anti-American sentiments in large segments of the Iranian population," Abrahamian told Newsweek, pointing out that "the killing, however, could have terrible consequences in international law and international relations," which he said should instead be governed by global bodies like the International Criminal Court, the United Nations Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly.

"The U.S.—for the first time in known history—categorized part of another state as terrorist and then killed a leading member of that state," he added, describing "a highly dangerous precedent" that prompted the Iranian government to ascribe the same title to U.S. forces in the region. Now Abrahamian warned, a new, more hardline Iranian government may "proceed to 'take out' any high-ranking general involved in the Central Command."