The killing of Qassem Soleimani was a monumental blow to Iran’s regional ambitions. The country could be about to go back to basics in its response.
BEIRUT—About two years ago, Qassem Soleimani delivered a speech at a ceremony in Tehran marking a decade since the death of Imad Mughniyeh, the senior Hezbollah commander killed in a car-bomb explosion in the heart of Damascus, an attack carried out by the CIA with support from Israel. Standing in front of a huge portrait of Mughniyeh superimposed against a panorama of Jerusalem, Soleimani addressed an audience of senior Iranian officials, as well as representatives of Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Syria, and Yemen.
Soleimani hailed Mughniyeh as “the legend” responsible for practically all the achievements of Iran’s so-called axis of resistance, which according to the Iranian general included building Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas into formidable threats to Israel and killing 241 American service members in the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. “The enemy knows that punishment for Imad’s blood is not firing a missile or a tit-for-tat assassination,” he told the crowd. “The punishment for Imad’s blood is the eradication of the Zionist entity.”
Following Soleimani’s killing in an American air strike this month, it is worth remembering the man’s own words. Soleimani, Mughniyeh, and the current Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, formed a trio of men who carried out Iran’s strategy across the Middle East under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And so it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the blow that Soleimani’s death has delivered. The focus in the days since his killing has been on the perceived impulsiveness of Donald Trump’s decision, Iran’s retaliation—limited thus far to the firing of 22 missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq, with no reported casualties—the public displays of grief for Soleimani in Iran, and the national- security implications. But as with Mughniyeh’s death, to paraphrase Soleimani himself, the response to the Iranian general’s killing will not be restricted to a lone missile attack or a tit-for-tat move—Iran is not yet done.
Take the case of Mughniyeh. In the summer of 2012, a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and a driver in an attack in a Bulgarian resort town. U.S. and Israeli officials suspected that the bombing, which occurred four years after Mughniyeh’s death, was retaliation for the Hezbollah commander’s killing, as well as for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, which Tehran blamed on Israel. “I have received many messages from brothers in the resistance asking for permission to carry out martyrdom operations” to avenge Soleimani’s death, Nasrallah said during a speech aired at memorial services for Soleimani held throughout Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and the country’s south. Revenge, he continued, will be a “long” battle.
For now, in responding to Soleimani’s killing, self-preservation and maintaining staying power mandate restraint. The strike that killed him also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who commanded the largest of the seven main Iraqi proxy militias working for Iran, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based security analyst with the European Institute of Peace. Iran’s ability to retaliate is also complicated by the fact that it is loathed by most Iraqis, including its fellow Shiites, who recently attacked Iran’s missions in Baghdad and the south of Iraq. Iraqi Shiites blame Iran and the militias and parties affiliated with it for killing more than 500 protesters in Iraq since October, and they see these same actors as being behind much of the corruption and plundering of the country’s resources that has hobbled Iraq’s ability to deliver services and economic opportunities to its citizens. Mounting economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Iran and its allies in Iraq will also restrict their room to maneuver.
Similar dynamics are at play in Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful regional proxy force. Once beloved as a resistance movement that liberated southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000, Hezbollah is now regarded by many Lebanese as part and parcel of the corrupt, dysfunctional, and sectarian political class that has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. Residents of predominantly Shiite cities in southern Lebanon such as Nabatieh and Tyr, which are seen as bastions of support for Hezbollah, have even joined their fellow Lebanese in protests that have been ongoing for months. “The prevailing mood now is ‘Give me money and I’ll come out on the streets and chant against America and endorse any of your illogical propositions. But you do not want to give me money and still want me to come out against America, no,’” Ali al-Amine, a journalist and politician who is among the most outspoken anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Shiites, told me.
Given these limits to Iran’s short-term capabilities, it will likely focus on assessing the impact of Soleimani’s killing, plugging holes and vulnerabilities in its intelligence and security apparatus, reevaluating its strategy and approach, and streamlining its operations throughout the region. Tehran will also seize opportunities for détente with its regional archnemesis, Saudi Arabia, and seek rapprochement with the region’s Sunni Arabs, whose animosity toward Iran worsened after it partnered with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to crush an uprising in Syria, primarily carried out by the country’s Sunnis, that began in 2011.
Over time, the United States, Israel, and their allies—and all those perceived as harming Iran’s regional strategy—will face retribution, though, most likely in the form of covert operations and actions that will be much harder to trace back to Tehran. It would, in a way, be back to basics: bombings, assassinations, and stealth tactics long attributed to Mughniyeh. Indeed, Soleimani himself touted such efforts both at the memorial service for Mughniyeh and in a rare TV interview he gave in October. As Soleimani put it, it is the technique of “appearing like a sword and disappearing like a ghost.” It’s as if he were instructing his soldiers on the path they would have to take after his demise.
During the memorial for Soleimani, Nasrallah vowed to avenge his comrade’s killing by driving U.S. troops from the region and returning them to America “in coffins,” echoing the vow Soleimani made in 2018 to avenge Mughniyeh by “eradicating” Israel. Hezbollah will not shy away from carrying out operations against the U.S. and its allies, and may even resort to the campaign of assassinations and bombings that it turned to in Lebanon starting in 2005, when it felt under siege and compelled to defend its existence.
Elsewhere, having reconciled with Hamas after the two sides fell out over Iran’s support for Assad, Tehran could turn to the group to ratchet up confrontation with Israel in Gaza. In Syria, both Iran and Hezbollah will seek to maintain their presence and influence—Assad, for one, knows his survival hinges on patronage from Iran and Russia; Tehran, meanwhile, sees Syria as the second-most-important country in its axis of resistance, after Iran itself. And in Iraq, Iran’s proxy militias “have the wherewithal and expertise to escalate the situation and deliver painful blows to the U.S.,” Hashimi told me. There, too, he said, the focus will be on mobilizing assassination squads and mounting other special operations, rather than on carrying out conventional attacks on American forces.
In his October TV interview, Soleimani fondly recounted how, in 2006, he traveled through backroads to get to Beirut from Damascus during the 33-day summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, and how he, Mughniyeh, and Nasrallah oversaw the conflict from a command center in the Lebanese capital’s southern suburbs. He said that Israeli bombers were bringing down buildings all around them, and that they survived by moving around and dodging Israeli reconnaissance drones.
Soleimani hinted in the same interview that even if the trio were to all die, an entire generation had been groomed by them to continue the fight—in asymmetric warfare, he warned, there are no traditional fronts. “The enemy,” Soleimani said, “must contend with an expansive and smart field of land mines.”
Sam Dagher, the only Western journalist based in Damascus at the start of the Syrian conflict, is the author of Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria.