Iran lost more than its ablest commander, “resistance” icon and shadow foreign minister with the demise of Qassem Soleimani. It lost its future. Or at least a vision of the future that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had been carefully preparing for in coordination with the slain general.
The Khamenei-Soleimani partnership is not well understood outside Iran. It does not fit the various analytical models that purport to explain the behavior of the Iranian regime and how its decisions are taken. In fact, Khamenei’s symbiotic relationship with Soleimani, and Soleimani’s strained relationship with a diverse array of factions within the “deep state,” suggests another way to understand the nature of the regime, or more accurately its changing nature.
Soleimani was no mere order taker, either from the Supreme Leader or from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps hierarchy and other institutions. He created opportunities for Khamenei. It was an ad hoc method marked by contingency and improvisation – high stakes gambling was the order of the day. Khamenei signed off on Soleimani’s adventurism, extending political credit and cover by acting much as the “bank” in a gambling den. The two of them worked in tandem, exclusively removed from any other of the regime’s power centers, and they had an extraordinary run.
I maintain that they were preparing to take their “winnings” and place them on an even greater gamble: a fundamental reordering of the Iranian regime. If the proto-model had to be called something, then “Caesarism” is the best fit. Soleimani the conquering general would mount a final campaign in Tehran itself, driving out the factionalism and corruption of the regime’s ruling class, consequently giving back the “Islamic Revolution” its vigor and vitality. This was to be Khamenei’s crowning achievement. And this is what Khamenei lost with Soleimani’s death. Any subsequent reaction or lack of it from Khamenei is best understood within this framework.
This idea, admittedly, has few takers among the community of Iran-watchers as an explanation for regime behavior. It is too new and yet unformed; establishment opinion had yet to parse and digest it. Furthermore, with Soleimani gone there is no way of knowing how it would have developed. There is no replacement for Soleimani. It took decades to prepare him for the mission, and in so doing he came to personify it.
Still, one can plot out a trajectory to suggest this was indeed what Khamenei and Soleimani had in mind.
The Quds Force was formally established in 1990. Its ambitions matched those of its commander at the time, and it never amounted to more than a tactical nuisance for Iran’s foes.
Soleimani was chosen by Khamenei to lead the Quds Force sometime between the summer of 1997 and the spring of 1998. Over the course of two decades, his boundless ambition changed the organization dramatically. For example, Soleimani tried to pass himself off to American interlocutors that he was the top man in Afghanistan in 2001, and reprised the same claim in Iraq in 2003.
He was neither. The Quds Force was one outfit among many jostling to lead Iranian policy in Kabul and Baghdad. But over the course of a few years, he had sold Khamenei on the idea of turning Iraq and Afghanistan into confrontation zones with the Americans, and in so doing he managed to push out rival organizations to assert primacy.
Another gauge of how Soleimani’s changing circumstances kept pace with his ambition and with Khamenei’s expanding benevolence was the conduct of his wars in Syria and Iraq.
Soleimani experienced very dark times in the latter front, especially between the Qusayr offensive in the spring of 2013 and the Russian aerial intervention in September 2015. He was starved for resources, and knives wielded by the multiple factions he had tried to eclipse came out often for him in Tehran. Those factions periodically escalated matters to the point where Soleimani was about to be sacked.
They disagreed with him about strategy and they did not believe the Syrian regime could be salvaged, among many other contentious issues. But at every instance, Soleimani’s career was saved by Khamenei’s reprieve. The various factions only began to mobilize in earnest behind him in the lead up to the battle of Aleppo toward the end of 2016, when it began to dawn on them that he could actually win.
Caesarism came into focus too when Foreign Minister Javad Zarif theatrically resigned over being shut out from high level meetings that Soleimani was overseeing. Zarif was doing many others in the regime a favor through this rearguard action, highlighting their rejection of Soleimani’s elevation.
Zarif was placated and accommodated. But two weeks later, Khamenei bestowed the Order of Zolfaghar on Soleimani, a decoration that has never been awarded to anyone under the Islamic Revolution. It had only been sparingly given out ever since the days when Iran was still known as Persia in the 19th century.
The medal is named after Ali bin Abi Talib’s famous sword, the “Spine Cleaver,” a quintessential symbol of Shia. Rather than being understood as a retirement accolade, in fact it meant that the Supreme Leader was girding his general for a new campaign, one directed internally this time.
Thus, whatever consequences and scenarios emerge from Soleimani’s demise, analysts should consider that Khamenei is now acting under the deep spell of despair. For he had just lost his legacy. Despair may deflate him. Or it can incur intense and dangerous irrationality.
Nibras Kazimi is the author of “Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy.”