Qassem Suleimani’s wrecked car was still smouldering when the predicted consequences of his death started to rebound across the Middle East. There would be chaos, outrage, instability – maybe even war. Among those who opposed the killing and those who cheered it on, there was more or less consensus: things would never be the same again.
One week on, that maxim still holds in a region still grappling with it’s impact. Yet the aftermath of the most significant assassination of modern times has not created the turmoil that many had predicted. If anything, the heartland areas of the Iranian general’s extraordinary sphere of influence are, thus far, eerily calm. His home front, on the other hand, remains unsettled and reeling – not so much as a result of his death, but because of those of 176 passengers onboard a Ukrainian airliner shot from the sky in the panicked days that followed.
Having lost its most formidable general, then its collective face in a muted counterstrike partly choreographed with Washington, Iran’s vaunted military had lost its nerve. And so overwhelming was the evidence, it finally had to admit it.
Internationally, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ eventual acknowledgement that its gunners had mistakenly shot down the passenger plane played relatively well. The mea culpa stood in stark contrast to Russia’s persistent denials that it had downed the Malaysian airliner, MH17, five years earlier – and the admission was seen as a reset after a week of fear, loathing and disaster.
The home front is very different though; there the IRGC’s about face has played poorly, as has the colossal mistake in shooting the plane down. The outpouring of grief and pride that galvanised Iran’s regime as Suleimani’s remains were carried around Iran has given way to embarrassment. The missile salvos fired against US bases in response had mostly missed – possibly intentionally. One of the few rockets to find a target had hit the wrong one. And now the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful institution in the land, are facing scorn.
The Iranian leadership’s calculations – that it had more to lose by admitting it’s mistake than it did by denying it in the face of such compelling evidence – may still win the day as the anger of its citizens subsides. But the exposure of the Revolutionary Guards to such ridicule is not something that sits comfortably – especially so soon after the demise of a man long considered indefatigable at home and untouchable abroad.
Suelimani’s sudden demise was a visceral shock to those who both feared and revered him during the 20 years he bestrode the region like an overlord, imposing his will and advancing Iran’s interests with impunity. All of Iran’s regional ambitions were manifested in one man – a messianic figure who few would dare say no to, let alone kill. His violent end would, it was thought, surely spark bedlam.
Yet, with Suleimani buried, Iran having stood down, its military having fired its missiles and now dealing with humiliation at home and abroad, a strange sangfroid has descended. Iran’s powerful proxies, which were thought to be the apex of its response, have been mute. Its enemies, on high alert since the drone strike in Baghdad in the early hours of 3 January, have started to relax. And its political rivals are quickly getting used to life without the formidable presence of a man who often stood in their way.
Turkey, Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia, who tussled with Iran for power and influence across the region, all knew Suleimani well. Conversations with representatives of all four regional powers over the past week reveal a mix of surprise that he was killed and relief at an aftermath that, in their minds, has sharply weakened Iran’s regional hand.
In Syria, where Suleimani had jostled with Vladimir Putin for influence over Bashar al-Assad, Moscow now appears to hold a much easier hand. Never comfortable with Iran’s view of what a post-war Syria should look like, Russia’s efforts to assert its will look as though they will be relatively unimpeded until Soleimani’s replacement establishes some authority of his own – a process that is unlikely to be quick.
In Lebanon, the most significant arm of Iran’s foreign projection, Hezbollah, is taking stock after the loss of its main patron. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, long considered untouchable in the same vein as Suleimani, is now more vulnerable than ever, with the Israeli position that he is too risky a target outside of a war perhaps now being reconsidered.
Saudi Arabia, an arch foe of Suleimani but one which had feared where his death may lead, has been greatly reassured by the relative lack of comeback in the region, thus far at least. Turkey too has a freer reign in northern Syria and with the region’s Kurds, whose connections to Iran it had found difficult to manage in recent years.
In Iraq, which had buckled under the weight of Suleimani’s tutelage perhaps more than anywhere, his demise is being carefully calibrated by the extensive proxy network he built in the wake of the US invasion. Iran’s proxies had developed a whip hand over much of the country’s affairs. But that too is now weaker than it was a week ago. The regional project that Iran had so painstakingly built no longer looks as sustainable as it was. In some parts, it looks positively shaky.
Few of these implications had been gamed out prior to the killing and some of them may be disproved if Suleimani’s replacement as commanding general of the Quds force asserts his authority quickly. But given the breadth and depth of his predecessor’s work, that seems unlikely. Qassem Suleimani’s death was indeed a defining moment in the Middle East. But perhaps for different reasons than friend or foe had realised.