He was an important figure. But the Islamic Republic won’t lose influence in the region.
The assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran by the United States was an unprecedented escalation in the 40-year standoff between the two countries. General Suleimani was the powerful head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ special operations forces, the Quds Force, and we can expect retaliation across the region. But the killing will not in itself weaken the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s role in the region.
The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, belies a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard.
Consider how similar assassinations have played out. The 2008 assassination of a top Hezbollah leader, Imad Mugniyah, did not weaken the group — in fact, the reverse happened. Likewise, years of targeted assassinations against Hamas in Gaza haven’t dismantled that organization. The Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic Republic are bigger and more powerful than either of those groups.
To understand the structure of the Revolutionary Guards, it is important to understand the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). It was on the battlefields of this conflict, the 20th century’s longest conventional war, that the guards formed their battle-hardened culture and leadership ethos. Faced with an Iraqi military that was heavily supplied by the United States and the West, the guards learned how to fight asymmetrically, a strategy that it has since perfected. That means, above all, devolving decision-making to small, often ad hoc groups, operating semi-independently against much larger forces.
In my 10 years of research in Iran with the Revolutionary Guards, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.
This contrasts with General Suleimani’s public image, both at home and abroad, which, since 2013, has been propped up by a vast media campaign. I followed some of his media team during my research and saw how they produced films, documentaries and even music videos, in both Persian and Arabic, lionizing his feats against the Islamic State. Inside Iran, he consistently polled among the most popular figures in the regime. The fact that most of his activities took place outside Iran helped preserve his reputation in the often fractious politics of the Islamic Republic.
It is likewise hard to overstate the symbolic power of General Suleimani in the region, particularly among Arab Shiite groups in Iraq and Lebanon. He was the face of Iranian power from Lebanon to Yemen, a face that brought money, weapons and advisers. Yet he wasn’t the only person in the Revolutionary Guards who built such personal relationships, as the Western news media tends to depict. Far from it.
Thanks to the guards’ ad hoc structure, the relationship between the Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite armed groups is a long and deep one. During my time in Lebanon and Iran, I met foreign militants who spent long stretches in Iran, for both work and pleasure. They spoke fluent Persian and fully understood the Revolutionary Guards ethos. The ties that bind many of these groups together include generations of marriage, commerce, history and culture. General Suleimani, as important as he was, was not singular.
Iran and its populations have thousands of years of history in the region. That doesn’t get “rooted out” with assassinations and missile strikes. These relationships — among Revolutionary Guards cadres and between the guards and their allies abroad — are deep, and they do not rely on one figure. In fact, Iran has already named General Suleimani’s longtime deputy, Ismail Qaani, as his successor.
Given the intense political infighting inside Iran following the heavy-handed crackdown of the state on protesters in November, the assassination of General Suleimani is a convenient opportunity to unify the country. The Islamic Republic knows how to create consensus in the face of an external enemy: It did so during the Iran-Iraq war, in the fight against the Islamic State and against American sanctions.
In this way, General Suleimani’s influence will survive him; in fact, it may have suddenly grown significantly. The United States just killed a very popular figure within powerful armed circles across the region. And he was not the only leader with strategic and battle experience who wished to see the United States leave the region. This was a highly symbolic assassination. The problem for the United States is that symbolism has the power to move people to action.
it’s really hard to stomach Never Trump neoconservatives who now complain about Republican tribalism, cults of personality, and blind loyalty to the current president—because virtually all of them used to engage in and endorse the very same behavior.
.. George W. Bush-era hawks thrived by capitalizing on a popular Republican president, corralling the Right accordingly and ostracizing conservatives who dared step out of line. In a story about President Trump’s enduring support within his party, The New York Times gave a useful comparison on Saturday: “Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is now about 90 percent…the only modern Republican president more popular with his party than Mr. Trump at this point in his first term, according to Gallup, was George W. Bush after the country united in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
.. If conservatives now behave as though failing to defend Trump is tantamount to treason, the early 2000s weren’t much different.
.. Unlike the polarized national divide over Trump, the post-9/11 period saw an America overwhelmingly support Bush and the Iraq war.’
.. The entire war on terror narrative—the Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, the demotion of any constitutional or limited governmentagenda—became the new popular definition of conservatism at that time, and blind loyalty to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was expected of everyone on the Right.
.. In his now infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” essay at National Review, Frum declared conservatives Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak, libertarians Lew Rockwell and Justin Raimondo, and others on the Right who opposed the Iraq war as persona non grata.
.. “They began by hating the neoconservatives,” Frum wrote. “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.” He continued: “War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen—and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
Talk about tribalism.
.. today’s leading Never Trumpers—who didn’t rigidly enforce the party line, which was made all the easier by a Republican base enthralled by their president almost exclusively on the basis of his foreign policy agenda. This disposition permeated talk radio and Fox News and the entire American Right, with fealty to Bush as its core.
.. When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008, the libertarian GOP congressman’s popularity exploded precisely because he challenged the war on terror party line directly, beginning with an explosive exchange with Rudy Giuliani over foreign policy at a 2007 Republican primary debate. Virtually every Republican who ran for president in 2008 and many of their supporters tried to paint Paul as a Republican imposter—someone whose refusal to back Bush-Cheney and question his party made him ineligible for membership in the GOP. Unquestioning fidelity to the righteousness of Bush’s war ran so deep that even in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, many of the candidates hesitated to bring themselves to admit that Iraqhad been a mistake, despite the rest of the country and world having come to that conclusion years prior.
.. Show me the Trumpiest Deplorable in a red MAGA hat you can find, and I’ll show you his Saddam “Insane”-hating, Bush Country—We-Gotta-Fight’em-Over-There-So-We-Don’t-Have-To-Fight’em-Over-Here—predecessor from a decade prior.