Three years ago, a US air strike on Baghdad killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force, an elite branch within Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, one of the most powerful Iranian-backed militia leaders in Iraq, was killed alongside him. Both men had been emboldened by American co-operation in fighting ISIS.
Gen Suleimani’s sudden demise shocked the region, if only because Tehran had long portrayed him as an untouchable figure. But it also demonstrated for the first time that the Quds Force – which supports militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere – couldn’t continue its campaign of destabilisation across the region without consequence.
January 8 will mark three years since Iran's downing of a civilian plane in the aftermath of Gen Suleimani’s killing. All 167 passengers of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 – who hailed from Iran, Afghanistan, Canada, Ukraine and Sweden – as well as nine crew members, were killed. After initial attempts to blame mechanical issues, Iran later admitted that an IRGC missile operator killed the passengers by "accident", believing the plane to be a hostile target.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the legacy of the events of January 2020. Chief among them today, as Iran finds itself in the throes of a mass protest movement, is that what Gen Suleimani stood for – a belligerent, meddlesome and militaristic approach to both domestic and regional affairs – is increasingly unsustainable.
Iran’s protests were triggered in September by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a woman who was detained by police after allegedly failing to wear her headscarf properly. The initial outpouring of support for Ms Amini and her grieving family has since morphed into a broader movement that showcases popular discontent with harsh laws, gender discrimination, endemic corruption and worsening isolation on the global stage. The Iranian economy, already in a woeful state because of western sanctions, has suffered further since demonstrations began. Since September, the rial has lost a fifth of its value.
The protesters’ sense of hopelessness is exacerbated by a widespread suspicion that their concerns are falling upon deaf ears. This week, in particular, as much of the machinery of the state is geared towards staging large public gatherings to mourn Gen Suleimani’s death, coupled with rallies calling for vengeful retaliation against the West, the distance between the immediate needs of the people and efforts to address them feels very far.
It feels far elsewhere in the Middle East, too, where Iran-backed militant groups continue to stall political, economic and social progress. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s hold-up of the appointment of a president and desire to engineer a so-called “resistance economy” has left ordinary citizens stuck in a failing state. The country’s paralysis presents a cautionary tale for Iraq, where other militia groups draw inspiration from Hezbollah’s influence.
In all of these places, the common threads are institutional weakness and a militant mindset. People in Iran, and the region at large, deserve more than this from their leaders. Gen Suleimani’s death was such a profound moment in Iran because it represented a diminishment, in a very particular sense, of militant power. But what large numbers of ordinary people know is that their countries’ greatest power will not be derived from their ability to project force. Rather, it will be from their ability to project a vision that provides stability, prosperity and well-being for their citizens.