An unexpected bounty for Iran
The assassination of Qassem Soleimani has been an unexpected bounty for the Islamic Republic at a time when Iran was balancing multiple economic, domestic and regional pressures stemming from the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.
Coming on the heels of anti-Iranian demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and following Iran’s own November 2019 protests that resulted in a brutal government crackdown against its own people, the Soleimani killing has helped the Iranian government shift the narrative away from its perceived regional and domestic weaknesses to one of strength.
The massive funeral scenes in multiple Iranian cities displaying unending waves of mourners chanting against the United States has provided the Islamic Republic with a unique opportunity to showcase its mobilizing potential. This potential is not limited to Iran but also extends to Iraq and Lebanon, where Tehran’s transnational summoning power has also been visible. The Iraqi parliamentary vote to end the American military presence is one early negative consequence. While the region awaits Iran’s response, further anti-American rallying cries will continue to reverberate.
Domestically, Soleimani’s death and President Donald Trump’s continued provocations on Twitter, including threats to attack 52 Iranian cultural sites, are being used as a nationalist rallying cry. This sentiment should not be seen solely as Islamic or ideological, but rather an opportunity for the state to pivot to an Iranian-based nationalism that is more inclusive and empowering for much of the country’s disgruntled youth.
Iran’s notoriously divided political factions have also unified in the face of this crisis. With parliamentary elections looming in February and turnout previously expected to be low, the political establishment is likely to use this crisis to mobilize voters in favour of conservative candidates.
How Tehran chooses to respond to Qassem Soleimani’s death will very much determine its ability to continue to control the narrative and manage its swell of domestic and regional support. For these benefits to continue to manifest, it is important for Tehran to balance the mix of public sympathy and international anxiety and not overplay its hand in its quest for revenge.
A reset for Iraqi politics
The US strike which killed Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis has grave implications for Iraq. The act jeopardizes Iraq’s recently stabilized security situation, and threatens to reshape the country’s political environment, moving backwards to the days of anti-Americanism and sect-based mobilization. If Baghdad loses relations with the US and other diplomatic representations, it risks turning into a pariah state.
Over the past few years, and notably since October 2019, young Iraqis have taken to the streets demanding reform and the downfall of the political establishment, and its main external backer Iran. The political establishment, including political parties and militias close to Tehran, failed to appease or suppress these protests. Now, these political elites are using the deaths of Muhandis and Soleimani to (re)gain popularity from their own population, by drawing on the old tool of anti-Americanism.
Following the attacks, Shia populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – who until recently had called for an end to Iranian and pro-Iranian militia influence in Iraq – has called to revamp the Mehdi Army that he led until 2008 and is calling for ‘Islamic resistance’ to the US. In seeking to regain control of his former movement, he is coming closer to former Shia foes.
For years, pro-Iranian groups attempted to push the US out of Iraq. Their calls often fell on deaf ears, as public opinion in Iraq did not consider the US as a threat and some even supported the US and international effort against ISIS. Following the attacks, however, anti-American voices have gained more ammunition.
A complete American withdrawal would not only have direct security implications but force other countries and organizations, from European states to NATO, to reconsider their positions and role.
Limited options for ‘revenge’ in the Levant
Iran’s use of Lebanon and Syria as spaces for revenge against the US is unlikely.
On Sunday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed revenge for Soleimani’s death by singling out American soldiers as a target. However, Hezbollah’s options are limited. Lebanon is in the middle of wide-ranging protests against the country’s ruling political class, of which Nasrallah is a key figure.
Unlike in 2006, when Hezbollah’s military actions against Israel rallied the public around it, today there is no public appetite for dragging Lebanon into a war. Were Hezbollah to instigate one, it would incur public anger, if only for the economic repercussions that would exacerbate an already severe financial crisis in Lebanon. Lebanon also does not have any US military bases that could be a target for Hezbollah.
In theory, Hezbollah or other Iranian-backed groups could attack American bases in Syria. But these bases are staffed by multinational forces from the international anti-ISIS coalition. Attacking them would therefore put Iran in confrontation with other countries besides the US, which is not in Iran’s interest.
Attacking US soldiers in northeast Syria would also go against Kurdish interests because it would weaken the anti-ISIS coalition front of which Kurdish forces are part. It would, furthermore, anger Arab tribes in the area, opening up possibilities for ISIS to take advantage of public dissent to stage a comeback. Iran would then find itself fighting on several fronts at once, which it does not have the capacity to handle.
More likely, Iran’s allies and proxies in the Levant are going to engage in strong rhetoric without taking hasty actions. When a key Hezbollah leader, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in Damascus on 2008, there were strong words and public vows to seek revenge for his killing, but ultimately there was no response.