Iranian influence 'down but not out' two years after Suleimani's assassination

Loss of general's acumen and contacts dealt a blow to Tehran's campaign for regional influence

A billboard depicting Qassem Suleimani in Tehran. AFP
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Two years have passed since the Trump administration ordered the assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Suleimani in hopes of not only sending a message to Iran but halting much of Iran’s ambitions across the region.

While the general's death has seemingly done little to stop Iran’s regional ambitions, his absence has certainly dented the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and delivered a blow to Iran’s strength and transnational networks, according to Arash Azizi, a journalist and author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions.

“Mr Suleimani was one of the most unique operatives in the history of modern warfare, not just in the Middle East but anywhere in the world,” Azizi told The National, pointing out that the general commanded a multinational ideological army of more 100,000 that spanned the region.

But while Suleimani’s legacy is unique and impressive, it is not one that is likely to be long-lasting, he said.

Esmail Qaani, who was appointed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force just hours after the assassination, has failed to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Azizi said.

“Mr Qaani lacks Suleimani's charisma, diplomatic acumen, fluent command of the Arabic language and years of experience in building personal relationships with the Iranian regime's allies in the region, such as Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Iraqi militia leaders.”

In Iraq in particular, Suleimani’s death was a massive loss in terms of keeping a degree of cohesion among the already “discordant and disunited” Shiite militias, Azizi said. The effects of that were seen in the October general election, when Iran-backed groups lost most of their seats in Iraq's parliament.

Adnan Tabatabai, co-founder and chief executive of the German-based think tank Carpo, said the assassination of Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, leader of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who was also killed in the drone strike on Suleimani outside Baghdad airport, had a large part to play in the disunity among its member militias.

The death of Al Muhandis “unleashed a dangerous inner-Iraqi competition”, he said.

Iraqis mark second anniversary of Qassem Suleimani's death

Iraqis mark second anniversary of Qassem Suleimani's death

Mr Tabatabai said that both Al Muhandis and Suleimani were able to “tame the ambitions of these groups”, but the double assassination and the varying “pledge for vendetta and leadership claims” by PMF units undermined their cohesion.

The problem now for Iran, Iraq and the Quds Force is that “mobilising them for an attack will still work, while demanding these groups to hold back has become increasingly difficult”, he said. This “endangers the stability of Iraq and exacerbates the vulnerability of US presence”.

Suleimani was highly focused on Iran’s relationship and dominance in Iraq and his legacy there, in particular, is a complicated one. Under his direction, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was a critical component to fighting ISIS. Suleimani often put himself at the front lines and forged close ties not just with Shiite groups, but also with Iraqi Kurdish parties, so he was respected and revered, Azizi said.

However, Iran and Suleimani’s role in suppressing Iraqi political movements, especially the bloody crackdown on the 2019 protests, and taking an outsize role in Iraq’s governance, often undermined Iraq’s sovereignty, according to Azizi. “Most people don’t like a strong and bigger neighbour undermining their country’s sovereignty, even if they are both from the Shia community,” he noted.

Holding on to the gains made by Suleimani a near impossible task not just because of his loss but also because of what Iran is promoting. Its theocratic government is one of a kind and widely unpopular even within Iran: over the 40 years of its existence, Iranians have often taken to the streets. It is, as Azizi says, “effectively unexportable”.

Countries where Iran has a big presence and has tried to export its ideology are not, as Azizi says, “enviable” places. Syria and Yemen have been stuck in civil wars that have caused widespread destruction and hunger. In Iraq and Lebanon, Iran’s network of allies has created a system of corruption that has led to ineffective and hamstrung governments.

Even before Suleimani’s death, Iraqi and Lebanese people were taking to the streets to protest against Iran’s role in creating government corruption and exacerbating sectarianism.

Lastly, the impact of US economic sanctions on Iran’s ability to project influence beyond its borders should not be dismissed. Suleimani’s ability to expand and create these alliances were costly for Iran; the US sanctions curtailed its ability to fund regional activity to some degree, although not as much as the former Trump administration would have hoped. The budget for 2022 more than doubled funding for the Revolutionary Guard, from 403 trillion rials to 930 trillion rials ($22 billion).

Despite all of these factors, Iran’s power in the region does not solely rely on its political influence, or even its financial backing of like-minded groups across the region. Iran still has military might, and Azizi says this is not something that will just fade away.

Mr Tabatabai attributes this to the institutionalised structure of the Quds Force. Iran’s military, although an ally in the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, also used its influence and might in Syria to support President Bashar Al Assad, and its military has backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. These aspects of Suleimani’s legacy — the aspects that are devoid of Iranian ideology — are unlikely to fade.

Despite the assassination of its revered general, Iran has continued to forge its path in the region both militarily and diplomatically, and it is unlikely to fully lose its footing in those countries where Suleimani invested his time.

Updated: January 03, 2022, 2:41 PM