Kyle Orton, independent researcher
At 1 AM on 3 January, an American drone strike killed the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) charged with exporting the Islamic revolution, and his Iraqi deputy, Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis). Sulaymani was the strategic driver of Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East, as well as the orchestrator of its terrorism and assassinations further afield. Unlike with the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Usama bin Laden in 2011 or the Islamic State’s Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) in October, where the dynamics shifted little, Sulaymani’s death opens up questions about the direction in which the Middle East will now move.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and restoring the sanctions regime against Iran on 8 May 2018. However, for a year the waivers were left in place for China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey to trade in oil with the Iranian theocracy. There has been an escalating series of attacks by Iran against U.S. interests in the region since May 2019, when the sanctions waivers were cancelled and the Trump administration declared its intention to “bring Iran’s oil exports to zero”.
Soon afterwards, Iran began staging provocations against international shipping in the Gulf, to which the U.S. did not respond. Iran shot down an American drone in June and Trump declined the Pentagon options for retaliation. Finally, in September, the Iranians attacked the oil supply for the U.S.-led world order at the ARAMCO facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia, crossing the reddest of red lines, and still there was no U.S. reply. The United Arab Emirates had already begun reconciliation with Iran and its proxy regime in Damascus led by Bashar al-Asad, and after the ARAMCO attack the Saudis did the same.
The most recent attacks were the 27 December launching of thirty rockets by an Iranian proxy militia, Kataib Hizballah, which was led by Al-Ibrahimi, against the K1 military base in Kirkuk, killing an American contractor—the eleventh such attack against bases with U.S. forces in just the last two months—and then the 31 December storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by Kataib Hizballah and its supporters, resulting only in criminal damage this time, unlike the infamous episode in Tehran in 1979.
In between these two events, on 29 December, the U.S. had for the first time shown a willingness to use something other than sanctions against Iran, striking five Kataib Hizballah targets between Iraq and Syria that killed twenty-five of Iran’s militiamen and wounded perhaps double that. Later that same day, at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump was looking to take the American response to the shedding of American blood to its source.
According to The Washington Post, the reasons for Trump’s decision are not entirely clear, even among his staff, but it appears that domestic political considerations and the closely-related matter of his media presentation was at the root of it. Trump did not want to have an incident like the September 2012 attack by Al-Qaeda on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. hesitancy led to people being killed and dogged President Barack Obama ever-afterwards. Trump was also displeased with the media coverage that made him look weak after he refused to pull the trigger in June, something which only got worse after Trump let the Iranians get away with ARAMCO.
The final straw might well have been when Trump was informed, the Post says, that Sulaymani was coming to Baghdad, and in the estimation of his senior officials it was to taunt the Americans by demonstrating his immunity even after he had killed a U.S. citizen. It is clear that Sulaymani did not feel vulnerable in Iraq and conducted himself accordingly. This can be seen in the operational security of his presence at Baghdad International Airport, where he was killed. (Whether elements of the Iraqi security forces were involved in giving up Sulaymani’s location is unknown; there are hints, logistically and logically, but it is also true that Sulaymani operated right out in the open in Iraq.) In another possible lapse in tradecraft caused by overconfidence—or it might have been a hubristic threat to the Americans—a telephone conversation was reportedly intercepted on 29 December wherein Sulaymani gave orders for the attack on the U.S. Embassy two days later; the intention was to take hostages.
In the evening of 31 December, after the Embassy had been cleared, Trump tweeted, “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat.” The next morning, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i tweeted at Trump, “You can’t do anything”, channelling the founder of the Islamic Republic, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who adopted the slogan, “America can’t do a damn thing against us” after the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, an occupation that kept fifty-two Americans in captivity for 444 days.
Trump gave the final order to kill Sulaymani shortly before the drone took off, apparently from his golf course in Florida.
There is a narrative being circulated by Pentagon officials that Trump’s decision to kill Sulaymani came about because he chose “the most extreme response” available and this “flabbergasted” the military officials present. This is almost certainly an effort at bureaucratic blame-shifting: plenty of people in the Defense Department have reasons to want rid of Sulaymani, and had they not wanted to carry out this option they could likely have stopped it, as they have in other cases. It is likely that the Department simply wants to load all the blame for any Iranian retaliation onto Trump.
Another dubious narrative, being circulated from the other direction—from Trump loyalists like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—is that there was a significant, near-term threat that this action thwarted. Sulaymani was “actively plotting … a big action, as he described it, that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk”, Pompeo claimed. In legal terms, Sulaymani was certainly an “imminent” threat; this does not require “evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests [is being planned]… in the immediate future”, merely that there is a “continuing” threat from an individual. Under questioning, the narrative of an “imminent” threat in the linguistic sense was virtually abandoned by Pompeo.
Adding to the evidence that “imminence” was not the primary consideration is an in-depth report by Reuters, drawing on security sources in Iraq, some of them from within Iran’s own militias, that Sulaymani gave the initial order to Al-Ibrahimi for Iran’s Iraqi proxies to escalate their attacks on American forces in mid-October 2019. Meeting “at a villa on the banks of the Tigris River” in Baghdad, amid the anti-government and anti-Iran protests in Iraq, Reuters notes, Sulaymani “aimed to provoke a military response [from the U.S.] that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States”. Two weeks earlier, Sulaymani had sent “more sophisticated weapons—such as Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down helicopters—to Iraq through two border crossings”. Sulaymani instructed Al-Ibrahimi and his other deputies in Iraq to create a separate front-group so that Iran’s hand in the mayhem could be deniable. And then there is the evidence that Pompeo first suggested killing Sulaymani months ago, and worked diligently to shape the bureaucracy in such a way as to make that possible.
In short, Sulaymani was targeted as an ongoing threat, which is in any case much more important than an imminent threat. Sulaymani could have justifiably been taken out at any moment back to around 2005. The decision to spare Sulaymani in 2008 for legalistic reasons, when Israel’s MOSSAD and the CIA could have killed him alongside the Lebanese Hizballah military commander and IRGC officer Imad Mughniya, was a terrible mistake, one now belatedly rectified.
Origins of the Quds Force
After a year-long uprising, the Shah, unwilling to shed blood to save his throne, left Iran in January 1979, leaving an Interim Government behind him. The uprising had been led by Islamists loyal to Khomeini, who were able to mobilise the crowds, and this had been buttressed by important terrorist groups, the Communist Fedayeen and the Marxist-Islamist cult, the Mojahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which had taken military training from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) with indirect assistance from the Soviet Union and money from Libya’s erratic dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Within a month of the Shah’s departure, the Islamists brought off their long-planned coup d’état, and IRGC was established by a decree on 5 May 1979, charged with protecting the revolution at home and exporting it abroad, a role that was enshrined in the Islamic Republic’s constitution months later. IRGC was deliberately created separate to the Iranian Army (Artesh), an institution that Khomeini distrusted as having “the Shah in their blood”. The initial iteration of the IRGC drew from among the komitehs (revolutionary committees) that had fanned out across Iran and from the hezbollahis (gangs gathered around various mosques), but there was already a core of Revolutionary Guards that had been trained in Lebanon earlier in the 1970s by the PLO.
The PLO continued to train IRGC operatives inside Iran after the revolution, but the first contact was made in 1973. Khomeini dispatched a trusted aide, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, to treat with the PLO and soon afterwards Khomeinist cadres were sent to the bases of the PLO’s Force 17 unit in Lebanon to receive training in intelligence and terrorism. For PLO leader Yasser Arafat, this was a chance to be a regional and even global figure; for Khomeini, it laid down roots for a base on Israel’s doorstep. Force 17, whose primary role was protecting Arafat, was run by Ali Hassan Salameh (Abu Hassan), a senior PLO official who was also crucial in creating the “deniable” Black September organization to distance the PLO from its worst atrocities. Among Force 17’s ranks at this time was the future military commander of Hizballah (and actual Quds Force officer) Imad Mughniya, later used by Iran to establish relations with Al-Qaeda. This milieu and these networks are the true origin of what is now Lebanese Hizballah—long before the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, an organic component of the Islamist revolution that seized power in Iran, indeed the antechamber for that revolution.
Soon after the fall of the Shah, as the Islamists were murdering anybody they could connect with the ancien regime, the revolutionaries began to be purged, too. The liberals and democrats went first. The “moderate” frontmen the Islamist revolutionaries had used to win sympathy in the West, Mehdi Bazargan and his Liberation Movement colleagues, were next. MEK was driven out after that. And then the Left, with the Fedayeen taken apart in two steps, initially with the “moderates” and the established Communist (Tudeh) Party assisting the Islamic Republic, before the “moderate” remnant of the Fedayeen was consumed, and finally Tudeh was destroyed.
In many ways the most interesting of these—and not just because it is still around—is MEK. An important part of the violent wing of the revolution that installed Khomeini, MEK found the Islamic Republic lacking. A Central Intelligence Agency analysis from the summer of 1981, around the time MEK’s leader, Masud Rajavi, fled into exile with then-president Abolhassan Banisadr, noted that the group had anti-Americanism among the “cornerstones for their policies” and gave every indication of being friendly to the Soviets. MEK had become perhaps the leading opposition movement by that time, but only because it had “never accepted the Khomeini regime as an adequate [i.e. extreme enough] Islamic government”, wishing for “continued revolution”. The significance in the context of IRGC’s formation is the CIA’s claim that over half of MEK’s 10,000-man force broke away to join the IRGC in the early months after the fall of the Shah, which is partly why MEK—despite sympathisers in high places and an ability to bring large crowds to the streets—had been unable to put together a truly national and effective resistance when it fell afoul of Khomeini.
IRGC was forged as a cohesive structural and ideological entity during the war with Saddam Husayn’s Iraq; it was also its performance in that war that gave it primacy over the other armed revolutionary elements. What began as an invasion of Iran by Saddam in September 1980 would drag on for eight more years. Initially Iran was on defence, but after 1982 Iraqi forces were expelled from Iranian territory and an active decision was taken by Khomeini and the revolutionary elite to try to overrun Baghdad and install a sister republic. In both phases of the war, the IRGC would prove crucial. The zealotry of its members meant they welcomed death and were used in “human wave” attacks and to clear minefields.
Sulaymani joined IRGC soon after it was formed. Sulaymani is from humble beginnings in Kerman, and such details—as with his supposed routine of being in bed by 9:30 PM—were part of the mythology and mystique. Having shown little prior interest in politics while in his hometown, Sulaymani evidently showed some aptitude: he was in command of IRGC division by the end of the Iran-Iraq War.
An important experience for Sulaymani was, in July 1985, convincing superiors to drop a proposed plan to seize two islands in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. It reinforced his sense of himself. Sulaymani opposed the wasting of lives, which endeared him to the rank-and-file of the IRGC, but his relations with the leadership were much more testy. A crucial episode came in December 1987, where Sulaymani had spoken to, and agreed with, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the parliamentary speaker and deputy commander-in-chief, that an offensive in Al-Faw proposed by the IRGC chief Mohsen Reza’i was doomed. During the meeting, however, Sulaymani did not speak in Rafsanjani’s favour, possibly because he felt it was wrong to side with the civilian leadership over the military in the presence of his IRGC peers or for more personal careerist reasons. In either case, Sulaymani then continued to criticise Reza’i—and thus gained powerful enemies among the civilian and IRGC elite.
That said, Sulaymani’s relationship with Rafsanjani is one of the more fascinating and ambiguous parts of his life. Rafsanjani was the mentor to the current Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, and like him used to be (falsely) labelled a “moderate” in the West. In truth, Rafsanjani is one of the architects of the Islamic Republic, probably its most individually influential after Khomeini. Rafsanjani began the secret nuclear-weapons program, among other things. The differences Rafsanjani and Sulaymani had were, therefore, not a moderate-vs-extremist tug-of-war but tactical and somewhat cultural.
For example, the civilian leadership’s interpretation of the “Sacred Defence” (Iran-Iraq War) was that an unruly IRGC had lost the war, and it would be better to rein in the Guards by merging them with Artesh, a proposal Khomeini refused. IRGC responded that they had been stabbed in the back at the point of victory by corrupt clerics in Tehran. Once Khamene’i came to the helm in 1989, a succession orchestrated by Rafsanjani, and Rafsanjani became president, Rafsanjani and Rowhani sought to rationalise and centralise the regime, and part of that involved reconciliation with IRGC. It was Rafsanjani who introduced the Guards into the economic life of Iran, hoping that these pay-offs from reconstruction would allow him to co-opt a previously hostile body, and finding instead that they grew in power and supplanted him. The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) was created to better coordinate security affairs and foreign policy. It was the SNSC, which Rafsanjani headed, that carried out the foreign terrorism campaign in the 1990s stretching from Berlin to Buenos Aires and the assassinations spree against dissidents in Europe.
Rafsanjani’s downfall came in 2009, when he sided with Mir-Hossein Musavi and his supporters in the “green movement” over Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the rigged presidential elections, in defiance of Khamene’i. A decade earlier, Rafsanjani had backed Khamene’i when he called on IRGC and the Basij to crush the student protests; this time Rafsanjani would protest as the protests were put down with pitiless violence. Rafsanjani was side-lined and did not recover standing even after his protégé Rowhani took the presidency in 2013. Despite this, Sulaymani made a rare public appearance at Rafsanjani’s funeral in January 2017, and, while acknowledging “certain tactics” that they differed on, praised the deceased for having “remained the same from the outset until the end”.
After the Iran-Iraq War, Sulaymani’s whereabouts become vague; it seems he worked on counter-narcotics operations along the border with Afghanistan, not far from Kerman, between about 1988 and 1991. Sulaymani then joined Birun Marzi (“Outside the Borders”), a unit that had spent the 1980s working to build up Hizballah in Lebanon, and which formally morphed into the Quds Force in 1990, a specialised external division within IRGC. Sulaymani took command of the Quds Force either at the end of 1997 or in early 1998. By this time, Department 1000 (or the Ramadan Corps) within the Quds Force was actively fighting a shadow war inside Saddam’s Iraq. Among their number was Al-Ibrahimi, an Iraqi and full member of the Quds Force.
The Iranian Revolution in Iraq
Saddam’s regime had been alarmed at the rise of Islamism in the 1970s and had put down a series of riots, in 1977 and then after Khomeini’s triumph in 1979. Considerations about a possible Islamic revolution on the Iranian model are part of what motivated Saddam’s invasion in 1980. Fairly soon after the onset of war, however, Saddam tacked in a different direction, engaging Islamists in foreign policy and ultimately Islamizing internally.
This move away from a hard secularism was insufficient to placate Iraqi Shi’is who took the Iranian revolution’s ideology, wilayat al-faqih, seriously, and in the context of the war the Ba’thist regime’s propaganda became not only racialized against Persians (which Arab Shi’is could have coped with) but fairly explicitly sectarian. This opened space for Iran. Between the organised Iraqi Shi’a Islamist opposition and captured Iraqi prisoners of war, many of them Shi’a conscripts who had been trapped between Ba’thist terror and Iranian guns, Iran created the Badr Corps and sent it into battle alongside its own troops, against their fellow countrymen. Saddam replied in kind by instrumentalizing MEK to use against Iran, including for the very last battle of the war, a push by a lightly-armed MEK contingent into Iran that ended in massacre at the hands of IRGC.
Iraqis who went over to the Iranian side, Al-Ibrahimi personally, were mobilised for terrorist campaigns around the region, the December 1983 bombing spree in Kuwait being a classic case, occurring in sequence with the Hizballah attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon.
In March 1991, after Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait was reversed, a rebellion erupted in southern Iraq among the retreating forces. Iran was hesitant to get involved because they were wary of the Americans. Crucial in ending the Iran-Iraq War was the accidental U.S. shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988, killing 290 people. The Iranian regime believed this was deliberate and signalled the full entry of the U.S. onto Saddam’s side. With the IRGC already fraying, it convinced Khomeini that the war needed to end and he at long last signed the ceasefire, a decision he memorably described as “more deadly than taking poison”. But, while Iran wanted to avoid a direct entanglement with the Americans, it was willing to allow between 5,000 and 10,000 Badr Corps operatives to cross into southern Iraq through the marshes around Basra.
The involvement of the Iranian proxies in the Shi’a uprising or Sha’ban Intifada was devastating: they burned down liquor stores and international hotels as a first order of business, then went on a rampage, looting and massacring low-ranking Ba’thi officials, military conscripts, and other “enemies of God”, sometimes after brief show trials in front of shari’a tribunals. This spread to Karbala, too, though in Najaf the local notables were able to retain better order and shield the area from Iran’s meddling. By colouring the uprising with sectarianism and extremism, the Badr Corps staunched the flow of military defectors, the vital necessity if the uprising was to succeed; provided propaganda to Saddam that enabled him to rally various segments of the Iraqi population around the regime; and spooked the Americans, contributing to the ultimate failure of the U.S. to provide support to the insurgents.
Throughout the 1990s there was a tit-for-tat shadow war between Saddam’s Iraq and Clerical Iran, with MEK allowed to perform periodic raids into Iran and the Badr Corps infiltrating into Iraq, concentrated around Maysan province but extending throughout the marshes and other Shi’a-majority areas, assassinating officials and conducting a low-level guerrilla war.
The break came for Iran and the Badr networks in 2003, with the Anglo-American invasion that brought down Saddam. Badr moved back in, as did its political wing, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to try to shape the post-Saddam order, and they were not without success. Iran—Sulaymani personally—had not left things to chance by only engaging with their own agents, however. Sulaymani had become well-known to, and forged relationships of varying kinds, with all of the leading figures of the Iraqi opposition, not just the so-called exiles but perhaps most importantly figures like Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Talabani became president of Iraq after the country’s first free elections and would serve in the post for the better part of a decade; his successors are even closer to Sulaymani.
Another wing of Iranian influence in post-Saddam Iraq was Muqtada al-Sadr, a young man not even 30-years-of-age, the scion of a clerical family. Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, had been murdered by Saddam in 1999, and before him, Sadeq’s cousin Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr, had been savagely murdered—possibly by Saddam himself—after his sister was raped and murdered in front of him. There was a certain amount of credit that Muqtada inherited because his family had given so much resisting the Ba’th regime, and the fact that the Sadrist Trend tried consciously to retain a distance from Iran and had remained inside Iraq during the long night of Saddam’s rule. But the facts could not be hidden that Muqtada was a novice who seemed to know more about computer games than religion.
Muqtada’s ignorance extended beyond this, too: he was baffled by the concept of the United Nations, letting its representative know he had no issue with “Christian organisations”. To make up this deficit in credibility and popular support outside of the Shi’a slums in southern Baghdad, Muqtada turned to Iran. Al-Sadr went to Iran in May 2003, by which time he was already a murderer, having slain Abd al-Majid al-Khoe’i, the son of Grand Ayatollah Abu’l-Qassem al-Khoe’i, the most influential Shi’a cleric in the world at the time of his death in 1992, at which point he was replaced by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to this day the most emulated Shi’a cleric. In Iran, Al-Sadr met with Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Husayni al-Haeri, the cleric who provided the theological heft he lacked, as well as with Sulaymani and Abdurreza Shahla’i, a Quds Force operative who provided weapons and explosives for the January 2007 Karbala raid that murdered five Americans and funded the 2011 plot to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in a Washington, D.C., café. Al-Shahla’i is currently in Yemen overseeing the Huthis. By the time of Muqtada staged his uprising in 2004, Sulaymani had a representative from the Quds Force’s Department 1000 embedded with his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia to ensure things went as Sulaymani planned.
IRGC’s Department 1000 was joined by Hizballah’s Unit 3800 to train the “Special Groups” or Shi’a militias at the camps inside Iran. The Lebanese Hizballah operatives helped break down the language barrier for those recruited to Sulaymani’s cause, and buffered the supremacist tendencies of Persian instructors when dealing with Arabs. In the summer of 2006, Sulaymani oversaw Hizballah in the war it started with Israel, and took some of his Iraqi “Special Groups” to gain experience. There was a notable decline in Shi’a militia attacks on coalition forces in Iraq during this period, and when Sulaymani returned to Iraq he wrote to U.S. commanders, “I hope you have been enjoying the peace and quiet in Baghdad. I’ve been busy in Beirut!” This underlines the fact that the “axis of resistance”—IRGC/Quds Force, Hizballah, the Iraqi Shi’a militias—are one integrated transnational network.
From both the Badr pool and Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Quds Force would splinter off factions, much as IRGC itself had derived from a splinter of the Amal Movement in Lebanon. This proliferation of groups has continued. The splits, which can appear to be “atomization” are actually “more reminiscent of cell replication”, explained the Washington Institute’s Phillip Smyth in his seminal paper on this topic, “with new groups simply expanding the size and influence of a broader IRGC-created network and model.” Put another way by the U.S. Defense Department’s official history of the Iraq war, “Iranian regime support” is the “common denominator” and these “Shi’a militant networks all owe their potency—and even existence—to” the Quds Force and Sulaymani.
Despite the complaints of Iraqi politicians, Iran outmanoeuvred them all—and the Americans—to capture the Iraqi Interior Ministry no later than mid-2005. The Americans might have been aware enough to veto the overt appointment of the Badr Corps leader, Hadi al-Ameri, as Interior Minister, but the substitute hardly mattered and the creation of a “deep state” beholden to Iran was baked into the New Iraq at an early stage, only solidifying over time. In 2016, after a vast expansion of Iran’s proxies as part of its capitalisation on the war against the Islamic State, these militias—gathered under the banner of al-Hashd al-Shabi—were formally integrated into the Iraqi state on the model of IRGC in Iran or Hizballah in Lebanon.
By 2006, Iran’s proxies were accounting for about a fifth of coalition casualties, despite their attacks being less frequent than those of the Sunni insurgency. The Shi’a militias had much more advanced weapons, notably the anti-tank explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), and better training. Overall, Sulaymani’s agents would kill a minimum of 600 out of the 4,400 American troops who fell in Iraq (about a sixth). In December 2006, the U.S. began trying to clip the wings of the Quds Force in Iraq and even nearly arrested Major-General Muhammad Ali Jaafari, the head of IRGC and on paper Sulaymani’s superior, albeit in reality Sulaymani answered only and directly to the Supreme Leader. What was notable was that Jaafari was able to avoid the U.S. special forces because he was given refuge in a safe house run by the other major Iraqi Kurdish figure, Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which ostensibly differed from Talabani’s PUK by not being pro-Iran.
Even after recognising the problem in a serious way, the U.S. struggled to arrest the growth of Iran’s power in Iraq: by mid-2007, the U.S. military had concluded that “Iran is … waging war on the U.S. in Iraq”, and throughout the year Iran’s influence continued to spread via the Quds Force’s soft power branch, the Kosar Bureau; the danger of Iraq meant that only “former” IRGC officials dared venture there. The trendline has not altered in the years since, though it took until around 2011 for Sulaymani’s name and his role in Iraq to be brought up in a major way in the Western media.
The Quds Force and Al-Qaeda
Though Iran’s foreign policy is overtly sectarian at this stage, the Iranian revolutionary government endeavoured in its early years to be non-sectarian, forming relationships with radicals of all stripes who wanted to fight against America, Israel, and Western influence. This is what led to Iran forming solid relations with HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, for example, and with the (Sunni) Islamist government of Alija Izetbegovic in Bosnia. Iran provided major support to Izetbegovic’s government during the war in the early 1990s, and part of this support involved organising, training, and directing the foreign fighters that arrived to support Sarajevo from various Islamic militant groups, including Al-Qaeda. It was this conflict that made Al-Qaeda into a global brand and provided it global networks, and the clerical regime in Iran played a crucial role in that.
It was not just happenstance that brought Iran and Al-Qaeda into alignment in Bosnia. Relations had been established in 1991, by Mughniya and Bin Laden personally, and continued to deepen through the 1990s as Al-Qaeda got more lethal. The 9/11 Commission Report even notes that up to ten of the nineteen suicide bombers had been facilitated in moving to Afghanistan by Iran. The Commission asked for more investigation on this matter, which never happened.
Sulaymani has continued this “originalist” approach to an extent, even as he led the foreign legion of Shi’a jihadists and developed a cult of personality that was distinctly Shi’a. (This self-promotion gained Sulaymani critics within the Iranian system, who felt it was setting at risk Iran’s gains by antagonising Sunnis, even as the cult itself showed signs of spilling into the Western press.) It was Sulaymani who gave the order in January 2002 to accept Al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan into Iran, and it was Sulaymani who kept the Bin Laden family and Al-Qaeda military leadership under what some call “house arrest” inside Iran, safely out of reach of American drones. Much of Al-Qaeda’s military leadership is still in Iran; how they will be handled in Sulaymani’s absence remains to be seen.
As America pacified the Sunni insurgency, by then captured by the Islamic State movement, in Iraq between 2007 and 2009 through the Surge and Sahwa, Sulaymani’s operatives continued securing their power in Iraq. Among other things, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the Quds Force’s more powerful Iraqi militias, made a move into politics. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 enabled this to go even further, and even while America had forces in Iraq, Sulaymani was planning terrorist operations in the United States that amounted to what former Secretary of Defence James Mattis called an “act of war”.
The outbreak of the Syrian rebellion in 2011 and the (lack of a) response from the “international community” gave Iran the chance to save Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Thousands of the Iraqi militiamen the Quds Force had used to fight the Americans were moved into Syria in 2012-13, and things continued looking shaky until Sulaymani arranged for the Russians to enter the fray overtly in September 2015. Meanwhile, the Quds Force had drawn the Saudi-led Gulf states into a war in Yemen by trying to create a Hizballah model state on Saudi Arabia’s borders through Ansarallah (the Huthis). Even where Sulaymani was not able to export the Hizballah model wholesale, networks were created, such as in Nigeria, that left open the possibility of more, later.
Sulaymani faced serious internal obstacles to his designs; some thought Asad was lost or in any case he should be dissociated from, having murdered half-a-million people and displaced ten million more. But Sulaymani found a most unexpected ally in the U.S. administration, where President Barack Obama was intent on reorienting policy in a direction favourable to Iran as a means of creating a self-sustaining “balance” that would allow the U.S. to pull out and relieve itself of the burden of local policing. The JCPOA would facilitate this, as would the anti-Islamic State campaign, where Obama could claim that it was a point of common interests and the “template” that came into being where the U.S. provided close-air and other support for Iran’s militias could be declared a matter of exigency.
Of course, the results were not as presented and it is impossible to believe that the Obama administration believed its own messaging on this matter since in practical terms the Obama policy relied on Sulaymani and his ilk. With its “equities” respected and the U.S. supporting “state structures” under de facto Iranian control in Lebanon and Iraq, the revolutionary regime in Iran did not moderate; it wanted no deal with the U.S. and its allies. Sulaymani pocketed all concessions and continued working for the total overthrow of the U.S. system in the Middle East, while directing a steady tempo of lethal attacks outside the region, in the West itself. The gamble paid off time after time, until it didn’t. In the end it was a lethal attack within the region that sealed Sulaymani’s fate and with him Obama’s legacy.
Sulaymani’s demise was widely celebrated in the region as a long overdue act of justice. Sulaymani’s replacement, Ismail Qaani, lacks his charisma and stature. Qaani’s area of focus has been the “Af-Pak” theatre, trying to secure the border with Pakistan, recruiting Hazara Shi’is from Afghanistan for the Quds Force’s Afghan battalion Liwa Fatemiyun, which has been used to help keep Asad’s regime alive, and to liaise with the Taliban, one among many extremist groups that lamented Sulaymani’s death, unsurprisingly since the Quds Force has been providing support to the Taliban against the coalition and Kabul government for quite some time. It seems Qaani also has “close relations”, which he was involved in establishing, with “resistance groups” in Muslim-majority states in Africa—a fact that will only fan suspicions about an Iranian hand in the 5 January attack in Kenya, claimed by Al-Qaeda’s Somali branch Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM), that killed three Americans (and nearly some British citizens, too). Leaving aside Iran’s relationship with Al-Qaeda “central”, Kenya is something of a playground for Iran’s spies and terrorists, and HSM has been used by other foreign states, notably Qatar recently, to attack rivals.
While Sulaymani’s removal is a seismic strategic event, other fundamentals remain largely unchanged.
The imperial system Iran has created is still in place. In Iraq, the posturing of people like Muqtada al-Sadr, who called for a meeting with Iran’s militias and creating a unified force to be known as “the International Resistance Legions”, will pass, and it remains extremely difficult to overtly stand against Iran. Jamal al-Ibrahimi has been replaced as the formal head of the Hashd by Hadi al-Ameri, ensuring near-perfect continuity.
There is little indication that Trump has changed his view of the region, which has focused so far on achieving a “better deal” than Obama’s with Iran. The big question many Western governments are focused on is, “How will Iran retaliate?” With Sulaymani, the man who would usually be responsible for crafting such retaliation, gone, and Trump having so wildly departed from the unspoken rules-of-engagement, while continuing to tweet threats of a “disproportionate” response if Iran now escalates, it is possible Iran is unwilling—or perhaps unable—to do very much in the near-term. Maybe over the medium-term the response could come in a “deniable” form. Trump is nominally continuing the “maximum pressure” campaign, heretofore solely a financial operation, most recently by finally designating Asaib Ahl al-Haq as a terrorist group. Trump does not wish to press his advantage, though; having spooked the Iranian leadership he hopes to deter them from attacking U.S. forces that to this hour have as their sole mission combating the Islamic State and likely believes this has brought them closer to accepting a deal. It is not impossible that the killing of Sulaymani will be seen in retrospect as the American parting shot, rather than a reinvigoration of America’s role.
The Gulf states likewise remain on course to “de-escalate”. The Saudi-led Gulf bloc has moved immediately to try to calm things with Iran—or at the very least take itself out of the line of fire. The Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi said that Sulaymani was killed while coming to Baghdad to meet him about a Saudi initiative to reach a modus vivendi, which has incited suspicion among the conspiratorial rulers in Iran and their supporters that the Saudis led Sulaymani into a trap. Riyadh is eager to dispel this impression. The UAE walked this road months ago and reconciled with Iran’s dependency in Damascus long before that. On the other side, the trip by Qatar’s Foreign Minister to Tehran, meant to reduce tensions, was supported by the U.S., a necessity for Qatar since it is so close to Iran, whether or not the reports that the drone that killed Sulaymani took off from Al-Udeid Airbase in Doha are true.
The domestic situation in Iran is the hardest to read. Under pressure from sanctions and the most serious rebellion of the Islamic Republic era, which saw the killing of 1,500 people over three weeks in November, it is possible that the system could crumble from within now it has lost one of its pillars, perhaps the pillar of the future. On the other hand, the scale of the mourning in Iran cannot solely be explained away as the product of coercion by a police state. The Iranian people opted, consciously if vaguely, for theocracy in 1978-9; many indicators suggest they have changed their mind, but not everyone has and perhaps less than is commonly believed.
Nibras Kazimi makes a persuasive case that “there is no replacement” for Sulaymani, who came to “personify” the theocracy’s mission, and with his death the Supreme Leader has “lost his legacy”, the man he had entrusted to bring his revolutionary fervour home to restore the “vigor and vitality” of the Islamic Republic. There are certainly strong indications that Sulaymani had a domestic political role in mind, and for that he would have had to have the Supreme Leader’s sign-off. Whether the cancellation of his plans for succession and renewal demoralises Khamene’i and saps his will to fight on, or incites greater viciousness towards the enemies of the Islamist project, at home and abroad, time will tell.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 Khomeini was given the title “grand ayatollah” after he staged an uprising against the Iranian monarchy in June 1963. Then-Prime Minister Asadollah Alam had secured control of the security forces from the Shah and given orders to arrest Khomeini and suppress the rebellion with lethal force if necessary, an order he knew the Shah would never give. In the aftermath, the senior clergy in Qom led by the Marja’iya, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Kazem Shariatmadari, came to an arrangement with Hassan Pakravan, the head of SAVAK, who had struck up a relationship with Khomeini while he was in custody. There is considerable controversy about whether it was ever proposed to execute Khomeini. Pakravan was a decent man; he had banned torture and opened channels of dialogue to the opposition, even striking up a relationship with Khomeini while he was in custody. Pakravan advised strongly against executing Khomeini, which likely means it was never a realistic option. The move by Shariatmadari, however, seemed to get everyone off the hook: the regime couldn’t execute a grand ayatollah, and since it would be known that Khomeini was promoted because of politics not merit it would limit his appeal and allow the more moderate clergy to keep this radical under wraps. In the course of events, everyone miscalculated: Khomeini outmanoeuvred and neutralised Shariatmadari during the Islamist revolution, and Pakravan was murdered in the first weeks of the Islamic Republic’s existence in 1979. For full details see Andrew Scott Cooper’s The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran (2016), pp. 113-18.
 Steven Ward, Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces (2009), p. 238.
 Vanguard of the Imam, p. 45.
 Ronen Bergman, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (2018), p. 368.
 Mohtashamipur returned to Iran with Khomeini and helped set up the IRGC as a Praetorian division for the new revolutionary government. With the regime secure, at least internally, he was appointed ambassador to Syria (1982-6), a post he held when Iran/Hizballah pioneered Islamist suicide bombing, attacking the U.S. Embassy (twice) and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, operations he was almost certainly implicated in. Mohtashamipur has made no secret of the fact he was overseeing the training of Iranian IRGC personnel at Hizballah camps in the Bekaa Valley during this period, which is hardly unusual since Iran’s Embassy in Syria has never been just a diplomatic facility; the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia was run out of this facility, for example. Evidence presented in U.S. courts names Mohtashamipur as the man who relayed a message from MOIS/VEVAK to one of Iran’s terrorist leaders in Lebanon—Husayn al-Musawi (pp. 31-2), a protégé of Mostafa Chamran’s, who led the now-defunct Islamic Amal, a splinter from Imam Musa’s Amal Movement—demanding he take “spectacular action” against the U.S.-led peacekeepers, and it was at the “direction” of Mohtashamipur that IRGC/Hizballah then met in Baalbek to plan the Marine barracks bombing. The IRGC operative who gave the direct order and provided the money and training to hit the Marine barracks was Hossein Dehghan, later Iran’s defence minister. The operational leader of the attack on the Marines was Imad Mughniya, whom Dehghan handled. Mohtashamipur was Interior Minister for the latter half of the 1980s and then a some-time MP. He is still alive.
 Rise and Kill First, pp. 368-9.
 “Iran: The Mujahedin”, Central Intelligence Agency, August 1981, available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp06t00412r000200380001-7
 Vanguard of the Imam, pp. 75-6.
 Ali Alfoneh, “Iran’s Most Dangerous General”, American Enterprise Institute, July 2011, available at: https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/MEO-2011-07-No-4-g.pdf
 Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ali Alfoneh Persian, “Truths and American Self-Deception: Hassan Rouhani, Muhammad-Javad Zarif, and Ali Khamenei in Their Own Words”, Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, April 2015, pp. 13-14, available at: https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/defenddemocracy/uploads/publications/Truths-and-American-Self-Deception.pdf
 The Endgame, p. 314.
 The Endgame, p. 314.
 Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (2012), p. 103.
 Vanguard of the Imam, pp. 100-01.
 Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (2009), p. 104.
 Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993), pp. 90-1.
 Wendell Steavenson, The Weight of a Mustard Seed (2009), p. 170.
 The Endgame, p. 314.
 The Endgame, pp. 100-1.
 The Endgame, p. 101.
 For the most complete write-up of Hizballah’s Unit 3800, see Levitt’s Hezbollah, pp. 285-310.
 The Endgame, pp. 315-18.
 Author interviews: American intelligence official, 2016; Australian military officer, 2017.
 Amal had been led by Musa al-Sadr, an opponent of Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih doctrine. Musa is now remembered as the “vanished imam”, having disappeared in August 1978 while on a trip to Libya as part of a conspiracy between Qaddafi, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and Khomeini; this tripartite alliance was at that moment close to its goal of toppling the Shah’s government, the most pro-American and pro-Israel state in the region, and Musa threatened to derail the revolution by coming to terms with the Shah and providing Iranian Shi’is another way. See: The Fall of Heaven, pp. 479-80.
 Joel Rayburn and and Frank K. Sobchak, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War, Vol. 2: Surge and Withdrawal, 2007-2011 (2019), p. 65.
 The Endgame, pp. 140-1.
 “The 9/11 Commission Report”, 2004, pp. 240-1, available here: https://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf
 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden (2017), p. 104.
 The Exile, pp. 281-2.
 The Quds Force has various departments for dealing with separate areas: “Nabi al-Akram Corps for Pakistan, the Hamza Corps for Turkey, the Ansar Corps for Afghanistan, and, the largest of them, the Ramazan Corps for Iraq”. See: The Endgame, p. 314.