Washington has spent more than two decades fighting a global war against extremists, but has been remarkably passive in response to terrorist attacks conducted by Iran’s theocratic regime and its network of Shia proxy forces. But that may all have changed last week, when US President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC - Quds Force and the butcher of Syria.
Soleimani left this world together with Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, his Iraqi friend and fellow terrorist, along with six other Quds Force and Iraqi militia personnel. Tehran vowed a harsh revenge for the death of its most dangerous general; so far, it has only fired a few missiles at US military targets in Iraq, apparently without causing any American casualties. In contrast, tens of Iranians died in a stampede during Soleimani’s funeral ceremonies. Once again, Iranians paid the price for the regime’s incompetence and extremism.
By targeting Soleimani and Mohandes, the United States imposed a severe cost on Tehran for a series of provocations that lasted throughout 2019 and culminated in a rocket attack that killed a US citizen serving in Iraq as a contractor. Tehran cannot easily replace Soleimani, because over the last two decades he built the Quds Force around himself. The regime created a cult of personality around Soleimani, who had deep personal connections to Shia militia leaders like Mohandes.
Esmail Ghaani, the new leader of the Quds Force, does not benefit from the same charisma and personal touch. Ghaani’s recent assignments have focused on Iran’s eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan; his leadership may result in a more pronounced role for the Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias under Quds Force control, known as the Fatemiyoun Division and Zeynabioun Brigade. The Quds Force will not die with Soleimani, but make no mistake: it will not be as effective as it was under him, at least not soon.
The broader strategic question arising from Soleimani’s death is whether it signals the end of Washington’s passivity – sometimes described as strategic patience – in the face of Iranian and Iranian-backed terrorism.
For four decades, Washington has shown a peculiar reluctance to target the leaders of Shia terrorist movements. This timidity led to the rapid spread of Tehran’s brand of revolutionary Shiism across the region, from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Over the years, the Islamic Republic and its proxies have killed hundreds of Americans across the globe, but Washington rarely hit them back.
When Imad Mughniyeh masterminded the terror attacks against US peacekeepers and the US embassy in Lebanon in 1983, the Reagan administration had the navy fire on targets near Beirut, but soon withdrew its forces. Twenty-five years would pass before Israel neutralized Mughniyeh. Likewise, the Clinton administration refused to hold Tehran responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia where 19 American servicemen died. Despite its tough talks, the George W. Bush administration persistently declined to retaliate against the Quds Force even though it trained, funded, equipped and guided the Iraqi terrorist groups responsible for the death of hundreds of American soldiers.
For four decades, the message that Shia terrorist movements under Tehran’s control have received from the United States has been a message of appeasement. Thus, the operation to eliminate Soleimani may represent a historic U-turn by the United States.
What no one knows, except perhaps President Trump, is whether Soleimani’s death resulted from a singular action or if it is part of a larger plan to address the threat of Iranian-backed terrorism. Tehran has benefited immensely from Washington’s refusal to treat Shia terrorists the same way it has been treating their Sunni counterparts, especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States has hunted and put down the latter, while the former have flourished to the point where they control five capitals in the region, including those of four Arab countries.
If the US now has the will to confront the extremist regime in Iran, a new era may begin, in which Tehran’s agents no longer enjoy an invisible shield that protects them from the force that may contain and weaken the Shia terrorist movements that have ravaged the Middle East for far too long.