World Politics

'The puppet master is dead': Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani's power, and why his death is such a big deal

Key Points
  • The U.S.' targeted killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani has roiled global markets, hitting stock futures and energy prices.
  • Regional analysts considered Soleimani to be the second-most-powerful leader in Iran, after only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  • The U.S. has pursued him for decades — his operations within Iraq since 2003 have killed more than 600 American personnel.
VIDEO1:2801:28
Gen. Soleimani's daughter threatens attack on US troops during funeral procession

The U.S.' targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani has roiled global markets, hitting stock futures and energy prices as the military move reverberates throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Iran's Supreme Leader has called for three days of mourning after the country's most powerful general was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad on Thursday night. Thousands of supporters have taken to the streets in Iran to protest the killing, with leaders in the country and militant group Hezbollah vowing revenge against the U.S.

But who was Soleimani, and why is his death so consequential for Iran, the region and the world?

This is the equivalent of Iran killing the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then taking credit for it.
Roman Schweizer
Aerospace and defense director, Cowen Washington Research Group

For the majority of his more than 20-year career at the top of Iran's Quds Force — the foreign operations wing of the elite paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the commander, who died at age 62, operated largely in the shadows.

But in recent years he's become something of a celebrity and the face of Iran's expanded influence across the Middle East. He was known as the mastermind behind the Islamic Republic's vast network of proxies stretching from Iraq and Lebanon to Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

And the unique power Soleimani held to shape Iran's foreign policy and carry out covert offensive acts — what the Trump administration dubs "malign activity" against U.S. regional interests and allies — made him unparalleled as a military and intelligence operative in the region.

Bigger than bin Laden?

"The puppet master is dead; the strings have been cut," Michael Knights, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute with years of experience working with local military and security agencies in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, told CNBC.

"Qasem Soleimani is a unique figure," Knights elaborated. "We don't have anyone like him in the U.S., and because he was experienced, capable and had the complete trust of the supreme leader of Iran, they over-concentrated an awful lot of their capability and their prestige in one man."

"And that guy just got killed. This was always the risk."

To emphasize Soleimani's significance, Roman Schweizer, managing director for aerospace and defense at the Cowen Washington Research Group, wrote in an analyst note Friday: "To be clear, this is the equivalent of Iran killing the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then taking credit for it."

VIDEO2:2602:26
Iran's supreme leader vows revenge after US kills top general in airstrike

Some security experts believe this killing is the most significant in U.S. history — for Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, it "far eclipses the deaths of [Osama] bin Laden or [Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi in terms of strategic significance and implications ... there really is no underestimating the geopolitical ramifications of this."

Regional analysts considered Soleimani to be the second-most-powerful leader in Iran, after only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the U.S. has pursued him for decades — his operations within Iraq since 2003 killed more than 600 American personnel, the State Department revealed last year.

This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office shows a burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, early Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. The Pentagon said Thursday that the U.S. military has killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, at the direction of President Donald Trump.
Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP

"Soleimani's death is a game-changer for the Middle East," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow and Iran specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "For over a decade, there has barely been a Middle Eastern hotspot that Soleimani didn't have a proxy or militias fighting in. He was an agent of chaos."

What made Soleimani so powerful?

Thursday's attack follows U.S. airstrikes in Iraq last week that killed 25 members of Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group responsible for rocket attacks that killed a U.S. contractor and other U.S. allies in northern Iraq in late December. The past week saw members of that militant group and others attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, many of whom chanted "Qasem Soleimani is our leader."

"This is, I would argue, the most major decapitation strike the U.S. has ever engaged in," Phillip Smyth, a Shia Islamist militarism expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told CNBC. "It is huge for the history of the Middle East."

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (C) attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in Tehran, Iran.
Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The Quds Force, which Soleimani led, essentially runs the logistics, ideological guidance and military affairs of numerous Iranian proxy groups across the region. He's credited for turning the war in Syria in Assad's favor and directing the Sept. 14 drone and missile attack on Saudi Aramco's oil facilities, among many other operations.

"Soleimani was a charismatic individual," Smyth said. "He was a guy with quite the ego, but he had a long history of experience being a committed ideological fighter for the revolutionary regime in Tehran, very loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, and he has tried to execute his will in the region."

"And we've seen what he's done. Look at Syria, look at Iraq, in terms of building Iranian influence and keeping it there. Now this is the guy who really had his finger on the button."

Tweet1

A zealous supporter of Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, Soleimani cut his teeth fighting in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The brutal conflict that took close to a million lives planted the seeds of Iran's nearly 40-year project to build a Shiite sphere of influence across the Middle East from Tehran to Beirut. Over time, Smyth said, Soleimani became a "propaganda poster boy for Iran to demonstrate their power in the region and how effective they could be."

Soleimani was also "often in leadership positions when it came down to using these groups to attack the U.S., the Saudis, the Israelis, the Bahrainis, you name it," Smyth added. "But he was essentially at the top of that totem pole."

What happens now?

The killing marks a dramatic escalation in the brewing standoff between Iran and the U.S. that's been building since the U.S. withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018 and has intensified in the last year with attacks on commercial tankers and oil facilities widely blamed on Iran. The last year also saw Washington's designation of the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, Iran's shooting down of a U.S. drone, intensifying U.S. sanctions on Tehran, and Tehran's incremental rolling back of its commitments to the Iranian nuclear deal.

If Iran launches a major retaliatory strike against the U.S., Ben Taleblu said, "it would be doing so without its best general. That could be like fighting with one arm tied behind your back for the Iranians."

Still, the organization is far from defanged, despite a severely contracted economy weighed down by crippling U.S. sanctions. Analysts are predicting retaliatory strikes from proxy militant groups around the region, particularly in Iraq and against oil facilities, as well as potential cyberattacks.

VIDEO6:0106:01
Trump administration doesn't have a clear strategy: Expert

Soleimani has already been replaced with his deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani — reportedly known for his competence, experience and hardline anti-Israel views — and Khamenei has announced "continuity" in the Revolutionary Guard Corps' strategy.

Some former and current national security officials praised the strike, saying it should have been done years ago. But while previous administrations may have had chances to kill the general, it was generally believed that the move would be too escalatory for conflict with Iran — something many Trump critics are now warning against.

For former CIA acting director John McLaughlin, commenting in the intelligence newsletter The Cipher Brief, chances for deescalation are quickly disappearing.

"It will require sophisticated diplomacy and fine touch strategy neither side has shown to keep this from escalating into broad scale violence in the Middle East," he said, "especially now that the U.S. has claimed responsibility."