Despite the killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani by US forces in Iraq in January 2020, Iran did not deliver the “hard revenge” it had promised. Soleimani was killed by a US rocket strike in the vicinity of Baghdad’s international airport. His killing signified US military might in the Middle East, and thwarted Iran’s attempts to widen its influence in the region without fear of US retaliation.
In response to the killing of Soleimani, Iran launched missile attacks targeting two Iraqi bases housing US forces. However, Iran had sent an official verbal message to Iraq, forewarning that it would target US forces. This was a clear indication that Iran could not afford to enter a full blown conflict with the United States. To avert national criticism over its extremely limited action, Iran claimed that its regional allies urged it to show military restraint.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), recently acknowledged that last year’s missile attacks targeting US forces in Iraq were not meant to kill or injure US forces. Iran’s offensive actions last year were probably a continuation of Soleimani’s military stratagem in the Middle East. However, despite its offensive operations, Iran did not succeed in gaining Washington’s recognition in relation to its regional influence.
Iran did not halt its offensive operations: in March 2020, Iranian-backed militias attacked Iraq’s Camp Taji. This led to the killing of two Americans and a British national, but again, it fell short of the “hard revenge” that Iran had promised to deliver in response to the killing of Soleimani.
There is a possibility that the attack intended to signal Tehran’s deterrent capabilities to Washington amid the rising political tensions between the two countries. Iran’s envoy at the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, had promised military action at some point, but the hardliner member of Iran’s Parliament, Mojtaba Zolnouri, vowed that Tehran would never start a war over the killing of Soleimani.
Tehran took no further large-scale military actions to avenge Soleimani’s killing. Soleimani’s successor Esmail Qaani said that Iran would act and indicated that those responsible for Soleimani’s killing would not be able to escape justice. Qaani even managed to raise concerns that an Iranian-led attack might take place on US soil, or that the US Central Command as well as several top US officials including President Donald Trump would be targeted.
Apparently, Iran does not have the military power it has been boasting about. Iran’s inability to enact the “hard revenge” it had promised in response to Soleimani’s killing indicates a potential decline in Tehran’s military power in spite of the fact that the IRGC has claimed it has spent $17 billion to build Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Iran’s standing is undermined by its constant bragging about its tremendous influence in the region, which is not reflective of the ground reality. In January, the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen was designated by the United States as a terrorist group. The recent attacks launched by militias close to Iran targeting Yemen’s legitimate government, and the US Embassy in Iraq, have isolated Iran further and international pressure increases on Tehran to end its belligerency in the region.
This January in Lebanon, people protested when posters of Soleimani were mounted on monuments in Beirut’s suburbs. The Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah movement vowed to avenge Soleimani’s killing, but it has not undertaken any action to date.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi established closer relations with the United States and its Arab allies including Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that Iran has a considerable amount of influence over Iraq’s government. Tehran was also unable to pressure Kazimi to adopt a soft policy towards Iranian proxies operating inside Iraq after Soleimani’s killing. The Iraqi people believe that one of their government’s main challenges is to disarm the Iranian-backed militias mushrooming across the country.
For now, Iran is trying to depict a false image of invincibility to uphold Soleimani’s legacy. To mark the anniversary of his death, Iran organized demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to prove that it retains influence in Iraq. However, according to some observers, the protests were likely initiated by Iran to dissuade Washington from launching an attack against it in the remaining days of the Trump administration, taking into account that Washington and Tehran are locked in a political and military deadlock.
In late December, to put Iran on the back foot, the Pentagon flexed its military muscle by dispatching an aircraft carrier, a guided missile submarine, cruisers and long-range bombers to the Gulf. In addition, it supported Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Iran has claimed that the United States and Israel aim to increase tensions in the Gulf, adding that it would not provoke a military clash. In response to Washington sending military reinforcements to the Gulf, the mood in Tehran is somber, as the Iranian government has been unable to keep US troops at arm’s length.
Instead, Iran is diverting attention from its failings by publishing Soleimani’s memoir entitled, “I am Not Afraid of Anything.” Zeinab Soleimani, who the Iranian government uses to keep her father’s legacy alive in Iranian minds, heads the Qassem Soleimani Foundation which promotes the so-called “Soleimani doctrine of resistance” against the United States.
In addition to keeping Soleimani’s legacy alive, Iran produces videos and computer games and publishes books and records songs paying homage to Soleimani and to promote him as a national hero. Iran has invoked a national spirit to motivate Iranian mothers to nurture and train their sons to follow in Soleimani’s footsteps. It is clear that these attempts to promote Soleimani as a national icon hide Iran’s failure to avenge his killing, with Tehran falling woefully short of the “hard revenge” it had promised.