Opinion - Politics

3 reasons slain General Soleimani is irreplaceable loss for Iranian regime

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Key Points
  • One must travel to the Middle East to better sense the earthquake set off by the US drone strike that killed Iran's legendary General Qasem Soleimani a week ago.
  • In this glittering Emirati capital, only some 200 miles from Iranian border, no one doubts that aftershocks are coming.
  • The only question is of what nature and magnitude.
Palestinian demonstrators burn a US and an Israeli flag during a gathering in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 8, 2020, organized in honor of slain Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani (portrait) and to celebrate a volley of missiles fired by Iran at Iraqi bases housing US and other foreign troops.
Said Khatib | AFP | Getty Images

ABU DHABI – One must travel to the Middle East to better sense the earthquake set off by the US drone strike that killed Iran's legendary General Qasem Soleimani a week ago. In this glittering Emirati capital, only some 200 miles from Iranian border, no one doubts that aftershocks are coming.

The only question is of what nature and magnitude.

After all, this is a place that knows the power of Mideast leaders to build, in the case of their Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and his father. Or to destroy, as Emiratis have witnessed across much of the rest of their neighborhood for all too long. Talk to top officials here, and they feel that those who don't know their region underestimate the enormity of the Soleimani killing.

In one side conversation this weekend during the fourth annual Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum, a Mideast official who tracks such matters shared three reasons why Soleimani may be even more irreplaceable than the Iranian Supreme Leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, as the linchpin and architect of his extraterritorial visions.

First, Soleimani built and commanded to his dying day the 200,000-strong Quds (Jerusalem) Force. This Shi'a paramilitary force -- with the goal of exporting Iran's revolution and ultimately liberating Palestine and Israel – was created immediately after the 1979 revolution. However, it gained its real prominence and traction when Soleimani, the son of a blind peasant, took over leadership in 1998.

Second, he built out and directed Iran's global network of proxies, spies and terrorists, a position underscored by the fact that the US strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias known as the Popular Mobilization Force.

"Iran's current ascendency in the Middle East," writes Kara Aarabi in Foreign Policy, "is inextricably linked to the Iranian general and his willingness to spill blood. Over the course of two decades, Soleimani nurtured Shiite militancy from Baghdad to Beirut and strategized terrorism with a degree of finesse that bin Laden and Baghdadi could only ever have dreamt of."

What seems to be clear is that Soleimani's loss has been not only an operational shock to the Iranian system but also a personal shock to its Supreme Leader, accentuated by his public weeping at the Soleimani funeral.

Third, Soleimani's closeness to the Supreme Leader was matchless, allowing him to reach Iran's leader and quickly gain his quick, personal approval for even the most ambitious and risky of operations. As such, Soleimani became the linchpin and architect of Iran's extraterritorial activities, from Thailand to Venezuela, and from Bulgaria to Palestine.

Soleimani's remarkable closeness to the Ayatollah has been reported widely, but this Mideast official argued to me that he was the Supreme Leader's son-in-law, having married his daughter. If true, this fact would have been big news – breaking down the tight secrecy surrounding the Supreme Leader's personal life that even Western intelligence agencies hadn't cracked.

In the end, however, neither Middle Eastern nor US intelligence sources could confirm this report. One Mideast source said the unconfirmed rumor of Soleimani's marriage had been circulating on the Iranian street for some time, partly because little else would explain his unique access to the Supreme Leader. Soleimani's Wikipedia biography merely says he is married and has four daughters – and that the name of his wife is unknown.

What seems to be clear is that Soleimani's loss has been not only an operational shock to the Iranian system but also a personal shock to its Supreme Leader, accentuated by his public weeping at the Soleimani funeral.

What's beyond dispute is that Soleimani had a heroic reputation like no other individual in Iran, played a role unlike any other in advancing the revolution externally, and owned unmatched access to the country's famously inaccessible leader. While Mohammed Zarif is the titular foreign minister, his job is more representational while Soleimani served as the true executor of external affairs.

Another Mideast official argues that if the aftermath is managed correctly by U.S. leaders with their Arab and European allies – avoiding military confrontation but maintaining pressure – it could speed the further erosion of an already aging Iranian revolution. His argument is that the revolution was already declining in the toxic stew of corruption, misspent resources, and the economic squeeze of American sanctions.

The conventional wisdom – underpinned by visuals from Iran – is that the U.S. drone strike reinforced hardliners and shifted the internal Iranian dynamics from protests against the regime to angry demonstrations against the United States. Far harder to measure is the longer-term impact of Soleimani's absence on the country's revolutionary effectiveness and structure.

Calculus changed overnight

One outcome is certain. Soleimani considered himself untouchable, thus traveling freely and beside one of his top Iraqi lieutenants, never imagining that the United States would dare such an action against him. Many thousands of young Iranians and Iranian proxies have wanted to be just like him, and many have become his lieutenants, also confident that they knew the risks.

That calculus has changed overnight. Who knows when the next drone might strike, particularly those who don't enjoy Soleimani's presumed protection of official government status.

For now, Emirati leaders have been heartened by the de-escalatory moves of both President Trump and the Iranian leadership late this week. However, they sense more of a pause than a finish. Having seen how precisely Iran could strike Saudi oil fields back in September, they are confident Tehran could have done much more damage this week – including taking American lives.

I've heard two conclusions regarding this restraint.

One is that Iran is so economically weak and internally shaken by the Soleimani killing that it took the most cautious course, allowing the Supreme Leader to save face with his people without risking losing his own head to the Americans through reckless escalation.

The second conclusion I heard was that the Iranian regime is much stronger and more resilient than outsiders understand, and that it is keeping its eyes on the grand prize – the continued spread of its revolution. According to this version, the Iranians are too wise and focused on the future to be pulled into an American trap that would undermine the Utopian, revolutionary dream Soleimani embodied.

Mideast officials and experts may have confidence when they speak of Soleimani and his significance, but that vanishes when they shift their gaze to President Trump.

Trump has delivered America's boldest stroke in the Mideast since the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein, without sharing with his allies here any larger strategy beyond that. Even as Soleimani's death sinks in, Trump's design for the days ahead remains elusive.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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