On January 3, 2020, Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, a leader in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the head of the secretive Quds Force, was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack. Nine others were killed alongside Soleimani, including the deputy chairman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF; aka Hashd), and commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This operation was a reaction to the protests allegedly supported by Iran on December 31 in front of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. In anger over U.S. airstrikes that killed 25 members of the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is part of the PMF protesters breached the compound’s outer wall of the embassy. Their ability to storm the most heavily guarded zone in Baghdad suggested that they had received at least tacit permission from Iraqi security officials sympathetic to their demands (Falih Hassan, Ben Hubbard, and Alissa J. Rubin, “Protesters Attack U.S. Embassy in Iraq, Chanting ‘Death to America’“, The New York Times, December 31, 2019).
After the 2012 Benghazi attack resulting in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and the harsh criticism of then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton by U.S. President Donald Trump during his election campaign, Trump could not risk a similar tragedy during its presidency (Wesley Morgan and Daniel Lippman, “Trump Tries to Avoid His Own Benghazi“, Politico, December 31, 2020). According to a statement by the U.S. Department of Defense, Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack U.S. diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. He allegedly approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
However, the imminent escalation between the USA and Iran has been on the horizon for quite some time. The hesitant support of the Obama administration to Iraqi authorities in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Iran’s significant support of the Shiite militias allowed Iran to expand its influx into Iraq. In addition, the Shiite militias enjoy a heroic reputation among Iraqi Shiites because the PMF played a key role in the liberation of territory, first on the front lines in much of the initial fighting, and then holding areas as Iraqi forces recovered and began leading the liberation. Therefore, the political wing of these militias, the Fatah Alliance, could influence upcoming elections in Iraq. The party already took second place in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
On the strategic level, at least since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iran has focused its foreign policy on building asymmetric capabilities. Soleimani has played an important role in this respect. He has spearheaded Iran’s efforts to build upwards of 280,000 fighters in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and to expand Iran’s power in the Middle East. He has personally overseen Iran’s expansion, creating a cult of personality throughout the region. (Michael Hirsh, “U.S. Strike Kills One of Iran’s Most Powerful Military Leaders“, Foreign Policy, January 3, 2020).
However, the opinion of some analysts that Soleimani is “irreplaceable” and that his assassination could permanently reduce Iran’s asymmetric capabilities in the Middle East seems to be more wishful thinking than reality. Even if the death of Soleimani represents a severe blow to the Iranian leadership in the short term, he is hardly the only one who has maintained contact with the Tehran-backed groups. Military organizations are designed in such a way that anyone can be replaced. Hezbollah is a good example of this: the assassination of the influential Lebanese Shia cleric and Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Abbas al-Musawi, in February 1992, did not cripple the group’s capabilities. On the contrary, such assassinations tend to increase the reputation of the leaders concerned among their supporters as Martyrs. (Daniel Byman, “Iran Can Find a New Suleimani“, Foreign Policy, January 6, 2020).