On 3 January 2020, the United States assassinated Major General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Corps Guard (IRGC). The event was an escalation by the Trump Administration in what many critical analysts consider a decades-long war waged by the United States against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Soleimani himself joined the IRGC shortly after its establishment in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Since then, he has been involved in major battlefield engagements, including fighting in the Iraq-Iran War (1980–88), collaborating with the United States in the initial phase (2001–2002) of the US war in Afghanistan, and (at different times) directing Iranian support for allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
This is a two-part roundtable convened by Arash Davari, Naveed Mansoori, and Ziad Abu-Rish on the regional backdrop and (admittedly short-term) fallout from the US assassination of Soleimani. Part 1 features scholars of Iran reflecting on the place of Soleimani and the IRGC in the political and institutional dynamics of the Iranian state. They also address the reactions in Iran to the assassination and their intersection with various instances of popular mobilization, including the most recent one against the downing of Flight 752. Part 2 features scholars of regional states reflecting on the specific nature of Iranian policy and reaction to Soleimani’s assassination in those states.
1. Soleimani was a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. What role does the IRGC, the Quds Force in particular, play in the political, military, and economic structures of the Iranian state? How autonomous is the IRGC as an institution? Has its institutional history changed since 1979? If so, did 2003 mark a turning point? How might Soleimani's assassination materially change Iranian statecraft, foreign policy, and/or strategic decision-making?
Eric Lob: The Quds (Jerusalem) Force is the IRGC’s extraterritorial and clandestine unit that operates throughout the Middle East and beyond to extend the geopolitical influence of Iran and provide it with strategic depth and deterrence capabilities against regional and foreign adversaries, including the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Gulf or GCC countries. In the conflict zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, the Quds Forces has created and supported Shi‘i militias that have become key players and power brokers in their respective states and societies. As part of the IRGC and Iranian military, the Quds Force plays a prominent role in the political and economic structures of the Iranian state. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the IRGC gained unprecedented access to state institutions (the cabinet, bureaucracy, and parliament) and expanded and diversified its portfolio of corporate assets as the government pursued crony-capitalist privatization under Article 44 of the constitution.
In April 1979, the IRGC was established as a revolutionary organization and parallel institution to the conventional army while it was purged of real and suspected monarchists or royalists. The IRGC acted as a praetorian guard whose mission was to protect or defend the fledgling revolutionary state from internal and external enemies, including ethnic insurgents and Iraqi forces. During these counterinsurgency campaigns and the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC became increasingly experienced, battle-hardened, professionalized, and institutionalized as an elite force and a government ministry. After the war, the IRGC ceased to exist as a ministry, lending it a level of organizational dynamism and flexibility that contrasted with other revolutionary organizations (e.g., Construction Jihad), which permanently languished in the bureaucracy with its rigid centralization and red tape. Within the Islamic Republic’s factionalized and bifurcated political system, the IRGC’s de-bureaucratization reduced the influence of the president over the organization and placed it firmly, if not exclusively, under the purview of the supreme leader. Nevertheless, the IRGC continued to receive an operating budget from the government with parliamentary approval while being privy to extra-budgetary funds from the supreme leader’s office and other non-elective institutions.
The supreme leader comprises the commander-in-chief of the IRGC and the armed forces at large and is considered the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to Iran’s national security and foreign policy. That being said, this policy is deliberated over and formulated by a constellation of disparate institutions, including the Supreme Leader’s Office, Expediency Discernment Council, Supreme National Security Council, Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With the exception of the first two institutions (the members of which are appointed by the supreme leader), these institutions fall under the purview of the president, who appoints their heads and ministers with a parliamentary vote of confidence and after negotiations with the supreme leader and other officials. The generals and commanders of the IRGC and other branches of the military are appointed by the supreme leader and follow and execute his orders and directives with input from other clerical and civilian elites. These generals and commanders wield autonomy by weighing in on and influencing policy and carrying it out as they see fit in response to rapidly changing or fluid, geopolitical conditions and dynamics–a scenario that especially applied to Qasem Soleimani and the Quds Force.
Maryam Alemzadeh: As the epitome of a “revolutionary” organization, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has enjoyed an exalted, and eventually untouchable, status within Iran’s political leadership for almost all of its forty-one-year history. The IRGC started not as a centrally organized military, but as clusters of dedicated volunteers ready to take direct action whenever their leaders, or in many cases, themselves, saw necessary. In the midst of civil conflicts and Iraq’s invasion of Iran, this characteristic was both reinforced within the IRGC and appreciated as authentically revolutionary in political circles. This initially exalted status of the IRGC was further consolidated as Banisadr, the IRGC’s strongest critic in the early phase of Iran’s war campaign, was removed from office. After the war, the Guards and Basijis were re-mobilized in the economic sphere. The IRGC intelligence and security branch, which had already grown in size and complexity during the war, expanded as well. The organization acquired the infrastructure to become increasingly independent, further its economic interests and exert influence on presidential politics.
The extraterritorial IRGC Quds Force, however, has been rather detached from this history and political dynamics within Iran. It was established in the late 1980s, around the time when the IRGC was on the verge of being “mercantilized.” An internationally shunned Islamic Republic sought to establish new coalitions, even if non-state entities were the only possible allies. It set up the Quds Force to serve these purposes. In its first large-scale mission, the Quds Force backed Bosnian Muslims in the Bosnian war of the early nineties. These efforts failed when a peace treaty urged all foreign military personnel to leave the country. The US invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq created a fertile ground for Iran’s Quds Force to reinforce and expand state-recognized Shi‘i militias outside of Iran and thus to influence regional politics in Iran’s interests.
Soleimani emerged at this point, as a trustworthy strategist and pragmatic commander who could secure Iran’s interest through a network of militias in the region. Under Soleimani, the Quds Force was considerably independent of Iran’s internal affairs. He was trusted to come up with strategies and implement them based on his direct relationships with other countries’ military and political leaders. Under his successor, Brig. General Qa’ani, the Quds Force is likely to become more dependent on political decision-making within Iran (specifically to military advisors to the supreme leader and the Joint Chief of Staff), thereby entangling internal and foreign politics. On the other hand, in the absence of Soleimani, the Quds Force’s presence will become weaker in the region, which means that it will depend on state decision-makers even further to preserve its international position. As a result of this dependence, Quds Force affairs are more likely to influence and be influenced by internal politics.
Eric Lob: The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 marked a seminal moment for Soleimani and the Quds Force. With the political and security vacuum caused by the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and purging of the Baʿth Party through the policy of de-Baʿthification, the opportunity presented itself for Soleimani and the Quds Force to create, finance, arm, and train Shi‘i militias inside the country, as well as to groom and guide opposition politicians (who had been living in exile in Iran) from the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council to assume key positions in successive governments. The goals of these activities were to: (1) Establish a congenial and tamer government in Baghdad sympathetic to Iranian interests with the specter of the Iran-Iraq War lurking in the background; (2) Render the situation in Iraq for US forces uncomfortable, if not intolerable, and prevent them from marching into Iran—which had been labeled part of the Axis of Evil by President George W. Bush in 2002; (3) Particularly after 2014, defeat ISIS in Iraq and neighboring Syria—a campaign that involved air support from the US military and tacit cooperation with it against a common enemy.
After Soleimani’s assassination, the Iranian government will sorely miss his strategic and tactical acumen, military and political leadership and experience, and long-standing relationships with politicians and militiamen in Iran, the Middle East, and beyond. On the one hand, the assassination will not cause Iranian national security and foreign policy or strategic decision-making to fundamentally change. Iran will likely continue to rely on asymmetric warfare through its arsenal of ballistic missiles, network of regional proxies and partners, and team of cyber hackers to inflict pain on the United States and its allies, compensate for their conventional superiority, and avoid a direct conventional conflict. On the other hand, the assassination will raise the urgency and accelerate the efforts of the Islamic Republic to expel an increasingly belligerent and unpredictable United States from Iraq and other surrounding countries in the region. This desired outcome constituted a chief policy objective of Soleimani as commander of the Quds Force and could potentially come to fruition with the Iraqi parliament and caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi passing a non-binding resolution to expel US forces from Iraq and by default Syria.
Arshin Adib-Mogaddam: I would describe the IRGC as a network of a particular form of militarized power, hierarchical sovereignty, and polymorphic ideological verticality. The first term speaks to its epistemological origin as a revolutionary-military institution immediately after the revolution of 1979. The institution has metamorphized into a “deep state” that operates, repeatedly, beyond the sovereignty of other institutions of the Iranian state and certainly the government. The hierarchical sovereignty of the IRGC speaks to its rootedness in the revolution, and in particular the Iran-Iraq war which baptized the organization in blood, and determined the world-view of the Soleimani generation. Its ideological verticality conceptualizes the form of power exercised, which is exactly vertical in the sense that the IRGC has transmuted into a politico-cultural institution with its own universities, media outlets, business enterprises etc., but continues to operate in a top-down fashion. 2003 marked a turning point in the sense that it galvanized all those three aspects of the IRGC giving impetus to its transnational effects. The three aspects did not so much galvanize the IRGC as a vehicle to “export the revolution” (sudur-e enghelab). Rather, they galvanized the organization’s military rationale, buttressing its role in Iranian society and beyond as a securitized and securitizing actor. 2003 made it almost impossible for the IRGC in general, and the Quds force in particular, to be “pacified.” The state embarked on the “culturalization” of the organization after the “reconstruction period” in the 1990s for precisely these purposes.
2. What can we learn from Soleimani’s biography about the relationship between Iran’s domestic and global politics? What are the continuities and discontinuities between his earlier activities in the Iran-Iraq war, his participation in the alliance between Iran and the United States in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the role he played in facilitating IRI support for Bashar al-Asad in the Syrian civil war, and his efforts in the war against ISIS? How does Soleimani’s symbolic significance internationally align with his significance in Iran as a venerated war hero? How are domestic critics of Iran's regional role, often associated with Soleimani, interpreting this event?
Eric Lob: Soleimani rose to prominence as a young division commander during the Iran-Iraq War. During the conflict, he relied on irregular warfare and forged connections with leaders and officials of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Badr Brigade. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, these contacts served Soleimani and the Quds Force well in helping Iran gain and expand influence inside the country, create and support Shi‘i militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, wage attacks against American forces, and launch an offensive against ISIS. Soleimani was a pragmatist in the sense that he cooperated with the United States when doing so advanced Iran’s strategic objectives and national interests. In the wake of September 11, Soleimani helped US forces overthrow the Taliban and weaken al-Qa‘ida by offering logistical support and leveraging his contacts with the Northern Alliance and other Afghan militias. Beginning in 2014, US-Iranian interests again aligned in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Soleimani was instrumental to this campaign by providing ground forces in the form of IRGC-Quds Force units and Iranian-backed Shi‘i militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
At the same time, other activities undertaken by Suleiman directly conflicted with the interests of the United States and its allies. After 2003, he financed, armed, and trained Iraqi Shi‘i militias, and supplied them with roadside bombs and other hardware to inflict American casualties in Iraq and prevent US forces from marching on Tehran. Soleimani continued and increased support to Lebanese Hizballah, which the Quds Force had helped create in the early-to-mid 1980s before he became its commander in 1998. During the Syrian civil war, Soleimani was instrumental in propping up the Assad regime and seizing territory from rebels and extremists by organizing and deploying IRGC-Quds Force advisers and operatives, and Shi‘i militias from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon under the umbrella of the National Defense Forces–not to mention convincing Russia to intervene militarily in 2015. The Iranian intervention involved elevated expenditures of blood and treasure, exacerbated sectarian tensions inside and outside of Syria, and created controversy in Iran. Nonetheless, Iran’s leadership considered the conflict an existential one to save its only dependable ally in the Arab world and maintain supply lines to Hizballah in Lebanon.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: Soleimani was the nodal point of a very particular historical constellation that delivered his aura and “charisma.” In many ways, his role was manufactured. The Iranian state actively created the metaphysical aura surrounding him, as a Trojan Horse for its strategic preferences in the region—preferences primarily geared to preventing a “Saddam Hussein effect,” i.e., rolling back against movements and leaders that would be a threat to Iran’s borders. Soleimani was made into someone that his predecessor will never be: The charismatic figurehead of Iranian efforts to reshape Syria and Iraq in accordance with Iranian transnational interests. The fact that General Soleimani had a distinguished career during the Iran-Iraq war, which included a role in the liberation of Khorramshahr, an event which is celebrated in Iran as a national symbol of “resistance” to Saddam Hussein to this day, lent itself to passing him the mantle of a “just” warrior. The mantle chimes with Iranian psycho-nationalism and its propensity to dramatize the roles of Rostam and Hussein and to reengineer contemporary, eponymous heroes of this eternal Persian battle for metaphysical justness. Once one steps out of this grandiose narrative, Soleimani could be viewed as an imperial mastermind for Iranian dominance, of course. This has been the dilemma of the aggressive push into the Arab state system that has delivered a radically altered geopolitical landscape. From the perspective of the Iranian state, however, General Soleimani functioned brilliantly, even with his death alongside Commander al-Muhandis, which has galvanized the Iranian-Iraqi dialectic along the “resistance axis” even further.
Maryam Alemzadeh: Although “exporting the revolution” has been a persistent theme in the IRGC’s official propaganda, Soleimani’s Quds Force should not be seen as an extension of the IRGC of the Iran-Iraq War. The thought of pursuing extra-territorial activities has existed since the early days of the IRGC’s establishment. A number of activists involved in the formation of the IRGC had been involved in guerrilla organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese Amal Movement in the months leading up to the revolution. They envisioned an extra-territorial branch for the IRGC to continue liberating oppressed Muslims in neighboring countries—i.e., to “export the Islamic revolution.” The Liberation Movements Unit was soon introduced as a branch of the IRGC to realize this goal. This branch and its radical ideology were quite similar to the IRGC of early war years—passionate about the cause of the “Islamic Revolution” and ready to take extreme measures to realize it. However, the Liberation Movements Office did not last long. The majority of militiamen and politicians, including Ayatollah Khomeini himself, were inclined to focus on internal affairs, unless external activities proved to be of pressing geopolitical significance. Political conflicts and the eventual shunning and elimination of Liberation Movements leaders, including Ayatollah Montazeri and his relatives, happened partly as a result of such inconsistencies.
As opposed to the Liberation Movement Unit’s idealistic agenda, the Quds Force and the extra-territorial activities that took place before its introduction followed a more pragmatic, realpolitik approach to Iran’s regional presence. The formation of Hizballah in the early 1980s to counter Israel’s influence in Southern Lebanon (which happened shortly after the Liberation Movements Office was dismantled) is one such move. The shifting grounds that the United States created in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks and, a decade later, the Syrian civil war created a chance for Iran to expand its influence in the Middle East. The pragmatism of Soleimani and the Quds Force becomes apparent here. In this time period, alliances were not formed on ideological grounds, but on practical ones. The Quds Force cooperated with the United States and its allies against the Taliban in the early 2000s and against ISIS in 2014-15; they reinforced Shi’a militias in Iraq against the US alliance before and after the war with ISIS; and they fought against US-backed forces in Syria to keep Bashar al-Asad, Iran’s longstanding ally, in power.
This is why Soleimani’s persona had greater significance in the Quds Force than in the Iran-Iraq War. Like every other prominent IRGC commander, he started his career with no military experience and training. He learned warfare by doing it. This met the requirements of a straightforward infantry war conducted mostly on home turf. In the Quds Force, however, he tackled tasks that were much more sophisticated technically and required coordinating multiple, semi-independent militias as well as various state actors. In this sense, his time as an extraterritorial agent cannot be seen as a continuation of the Iran-Iraq war experience; just as Iran’s rational goal-orientation on international grounds is not a continuation of domestic ideologized governance.
Eric Lob: The Trump administration attempted to justify the assassination of Soleimani by labeling him a terrorist and claim legality on the grounds that the IRGC had been designated a terrorist organization in 2017—even if the attack never received Congressional approval and violated Iraqi sovereignty. Apart from being a senior government and military official, Soleimani was considered a war hero in Iran with popularity or approval ratings hovering between sixty and eighty percent in domestic and international polls. One reason for his venerated status was that he was perceived as a defender or protector of Iranian interests in the region, including containing the threat of ISIS. Another was that the Quds Force operated outside of Iran and, consequently, did not repress its activists, protestors, and other citizens, unlike other branches of the IRGC. Nevertheless, given that the Iranian authorities responded in an unusually heavy-handed manner by killing hundreds and arresting countless more during the mass protests in late 2019, some citizens refuse to differentiate between the Quds Force and the rest of the IRGC, with the wounds and memories of repression still fresh and seared into the mind. Some Iranians recall that Soleimani had signed a letter with other IRGC officers threatening to crush the 1999 student protests and orchestrate a military coup against President Mohammad Khatami if he failed to take action.
Some Iranians have criticized the Iranian government and military for funding and supporting Shi‘i militias in the region and the Assad regime in Syria at the expense of domestic development and prosperity. However, such criticism has been drowned out in an increasingly securitized, geopolitical climate. Between 2017 and 2019, the Trump administration issued the travel ban against Iranians, designated the IRGC a terrorist organization, withdrew from the JCPOA or nuclear deal, and re-imposed and intensified economic sanctions against Iran as part of a campaign of “maximum pressure.” These measures were followed by escalating military tensions between the United States and Iran, culminating with Soleiman’s assassination. During this period, Iran experienced two waves of widespread demonstrations, which were met with heavy repression, and two ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks against the Iranian Parliament and Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran and a military parade in Ahvaz. As the Iranian government confronts rising external and internal pressures and threats, critics of Iranian foreign policy risk being stigmatized and repressed as traitors or enemies of the state.
3. What does rallying around the flag—or a national hero—tangibly mean for domestic affairs in Iran? For instance, do you see parallels between our current moment and the outset of the Iran-Iraq War, the last instance of full-scale war in Iran? Or has Iran’s domestic sphere fundamentally changed in the past forty years?
Maryam Alemzadeh: In the early rounds of mobilization for the Iran-Iraq War, revolutionary-ideological motivations and nationalistic drives had successfully converged. This convergence was not surprising, as post-revolutionary states have been historically successful in mobilizing citizens for war campaigns. With the end of the war in 1988, the tide of revolutionary fervor had already subsided and a consumerist and implicitly secular economy and culture was introduced into infrastructures. In the decades after the war, IRGC leaders recognized the need to shift from a strictly religious-revolutionary discourse to a nationalist one. A successful venue for this campaign arose with the Quds Force’s participation in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2014 onward, and Soleimani was illustrated as the national hero that was revered even by those not loyal to the government’s political Shi’ism.
But it was not simply the IRGC’s general discursive turn and the threat of ISIS that elevated Soleimani’s status to a widely respected figure. To this favorable context, we should add Soleimani’s specific positioning within the IRGC and the Islamic Republic, and the professionalism that his performance implicated. Soleimani’s dedication to Ayatollah Khamene’i and the Islamic Republic’s ideology was clearly stated. In this, he resembled every other IRGC commander that the disgruntled public has known and distanced itself from, over the years. However, he was not a figure to appear in the media frequently to emphasize this dedication. Whether intentionally or not, he appeared detached from the IRGC and the Islamic Republic’s omnipresent propaganda. Simultaneously, and heightened by his international reputation, he was perceived as a skillful and effective military commander—a characteristic which the critics of the IRGC do not generously attribute to just any guard.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that rallying around Soleimani’s figure does not necessarily signal a spike in the regime’s legitimacy. Citizens who were ideologically distanced from the Islamic Republic’s core might have been attracted to the figure of Soleimani exactly because they assessed him to stand in contrast to the average state- or military man: efficient and professional (not just loyal), and detached from the IRGC’s perceived empire of propaganda and corruption. The sharp turn of protestors against Soleimani, this time as a figure endorsed by the state, attests to this observation.
Eric Lob: It may be tempting to draw parallels between the current crisis and the outset of the Iran-Iraq War. However, the high costs of that war, which many Iranians lived through and from which they still suffer, have made them reticent to engage in another conflict, particularly against a conventionally superior adversary like the United States. Soleimani was a venerated figure, as attested to by the ubiquitous displays of public outcry and support during his funeral. By assassinating him and threatening to attack Iran’s cultural sites, the United States committed a strategic blunder by increasing Iranian nationalism and unifying Iranian elites and citizens only weeks after the Islamic Republic faced mass demonstrations at home and in other parts of the Shi‘i world, including Iraq and Lebanon. Yet, the fundamental changes that have occurred in the domestic sphere during the past forty years will likely erode this solidarity. During this period, elite factionalism has steadily intensified and will probably continue to do so ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election on 21 February 2020—even if the hardliners ostensibly possess a discernable advantage thanks to US escalation. This factionalism has permeated and polarized society with some citizens ardently supporting the state and others openly defying it during the protests of 1999, 2009, 2017, and 2019—not to mention more latent episodes and forms of resistance that occurred before and between those years.
Arshin Adib-Mogaddam: At this historical juncture rallying around the flag means that Iran is creating heroes born in war, rather than peace. Connecting to my answer to question one, this has securitizing, rather than liberalizing effects on Iranian domestic politics and foreign affairs. Soleimani was a soldier, after all, and his role was defined by the traumas and terrors of the battlefield, which he and his generation absorbed during the devastating Iran-Iraq War and thereafter. Having said that, these institutions of Iran’s contemporary political culture are continuously challenged by what I have called a pluralistic momentum, a bottom-up process from Iranian civil society acting upon the state which has repeatedly extracted concessions in favor of Iranian civil rights—less so through repeated spasms of violence in this state-society dialectic (which have not had a “democratic” dividend) but through techniques of everyday resistance to some of the confines held up by the state. It is this pluralistic momentum that has continuously differentiated Iranian institutions, to the degree that they have ceased to function in a one-dimensional mode. Even the IRGC has to engage in perception management and public relations, despite of their near-monopoly over the instruments of violence. That near monopoly can easily subdue with impunity whenever the state feels cornered, which particularly happens when the international context is deemed to be threatening to the sovereignty of the Iranian state. In these junctures, the “deep state” lashes out. But it is always also careful to embed such spasms of violence in a “justified” narrative. This speaks to a notion of public accountability, however confined, that the original IRGC did not have. Hence the cultural apparatus and media conglomerates tied into its organisational structure today.
4. How have different institutional and non-state actors in the Islamic Republic responded to past violations of Iranian state sovereignty and/or assassinations of leaders? What have been the immediate responses to Soleimani's assassination in Iran? Are there salient discrepancies across familiar factional lines (e.g., reformists and principalists) and/or unexpected cleavages within Iranian society? Or is there an unambiguously unified front?
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: Ironically, the differences between reformists and principlists in Iran are rooted exactly at the rhizome of the sovereignty of the Iranian state. Here, their opposing versions coalesce, whenever necessary, to rescue their common project of defending the Islamic Republic as a competing locus for a better future for Iranians. In other words: The reformists have an objectively different idea of sovereign rule in Iran, geared to notions of civil rights, democracy etc, whereas the principalists essentially hold on to a “deified” sovereignty, next to the popular one. However, despite these opposing views, the interests of both factions meet where most of their quarrels end: At the juncture of Iran’s interests, in particular the survival of the state, its legitimacy and the main tenets of the country’s strategic preferences abroad.
Eric Lob: Given the importance of Soleimani as a national figure and the dangerous precedent that the assassination sets in terms of conducting drone strikes against senior government and military officials, the incident may have momentarily unified Iranian elites across the political spectrum, along with segments of the population. Nonetheless, as indicated earlier and depending on what happens next between Iran and the United States, elite factionalism will likely continue and further intensify ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election on 21 February 2020. At the societal level, outraged and emboldened activists and citizens could mobilize again against the state in response to its heavy-handed response to protests in late 2019 and its economic mismanagement and austerity measures (among a host of other grievances) in the face of increased US sanctions. Less visible to the Iranian and international media and public were disaffected Iranians who refused to watch or partake in Soleimani’s funeral processions and mourning ceremonies. As previously mentioned, some Iranians associate the Quds Force with other branches of the IRGC that have repressed activists and citizens. These Iranians remember the letter that Soleimani signed urging Khatami to quell the 1999 student demonstrations. These Iranians also perceive the activities of Soleimani and the Quds Force as a liability to Iran’s international image and domestic development, not to mention regional and global stability.
5. How might we assess the relationship between the uprisings last month and the ostensible “rally around the flag” effect at play in Suleimani’s mourning ceremonies? Is this a moment—as was proposed in a recent article in the New York Times—when the disunity of the uprisings has turned into national unity? Likewise, provided that there are mourning ceremonies in Iran and Iraq, has the United States created conditions for solidarity? Is that solidarity likely to be expressed in interstate relations between Iran and Iraq?
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: Undoubtedly, the fissures in Iran’s polity will remain. But the Soleimani effect was very valuable analytically as it clearly demonstrated the deep resonance that the metaphorical power of the Iranian state continues to radiate. The millions mourning his death are exactly the constituencies that are embedded in all strata of Iranian society. Does anyone really think that the death of any of the Shah’s generals would have brought similar numbers to the streets in the 1970s? This very simple thought-exercise explains why there was a revolution in 1979, and why there has not been one since, despite the immense pressures to that end from the outside.
Eric Lob: As alluded to earlier, Soleimani’s assassination may unify and distract some Iranians in the short term, but will not necessarily mend the social fabric during the aftermath of the popular uprisings and state repression in late 2019 nor will it address or remedy their root causes. It would be a mistake to assume that Iranians rallying around the flag during a moment of national emergency and crisis in the face of escalation by the United States would cause the grievances of activists and citizens to dissipate, especially after hundreds were killed and countless more arrested during and after the Aban protests. So long as these wounds continue to fester without meaningful reform, and economic hardship endures as a consequence of US sanctions and Iranian mismanagement and corruption, it is difficult to rule out another wave of popular uprisings, which have been occurring with increasing frequency and intensity. Only one week after Soleimani’s assassination, protests have erupted in Tehran and other cities in response to the government’s failed attempt to cover up its unintentional downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed 176 people, many of who were Iranians. As in the past and while making conciliatory statements and gestures, officials have not responded to these protests with resignations, reforms or other tangible actions, but with riot police, tear gas, live ammunition, and other repressive measures.
Outside of Iran and around the region, Shi‘i politicians, militiamen, and citizens mourned and condemned Soleimani’s assassination. The US drone strike not only killed Soleimani, but also Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other senior commanders and officials of the Iranian-sponsored, Shi‘i paramilitary group, Kataʾib Hizballah, which is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces and vowed revenge. Tehran called for Kataʾib Hizballah and other militias in Iraq and elsewhere to exhibit restraint in order to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. While funded and supported by Iran, these proxies and partners do not necessarily march to its orders. These groups could attack the United States if they deem that doing so is their prerogative and in their interests. Another factor that could disrupt or impede transnational solidarity between Iran and Iraq is the issue of Iraqi and Arab nationalism and sovereignty despite the religious affinity that exists between Iraqi and Iranian Shi‘a. As demonstrated during the widespread protests in Iraq that began last October, some Iraqi Shi‘a oppose Iran for meddling in Iraqi politics, corrupting the system, and violently suppressing the protests–in which Soleimani allegedly played a key role. Given that Suleimani’s assassination violated the sovereignty of Iraq and made it a battleground for intensified conflict between the United States and Iran, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel all foreign forces or those of both countries. In the end, Iraq’s national identity and sovereignty will continue to rival, if not supersede, its political loyalties and religious ties to Iran.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: One of the reasons why modern forms of psycho-nationalism have tried to think Iraq and Iran apart—Ba’thism in Iraq and Pahlavism in Iran—is exactly because the historical narratives are so conjoined. Ctesiphon is the ancient equivalent of Najaf for this common historical plane. In many ways, Iraq is to Iran, what Switzerland is to Germany. There are immensely rich transnational territories to traverse that go beyond sectarian clichés. Undoubtedly, regional peace in West Asia can only be achieved once such post-national embeddedness is diagnosed and then furthered. The Westphalian nation-state after all has done more harm than good, as it is premised on a particularly divisive form of psycho-national difference. In this sense, thinking beyond borders can only be a good thing.
6. If Soleimani’s death was, in fact, a moment of unity and transnational solidarity, how have the downing of the passenger flight and ensuing protests (if at all) changed those sentiments? That is, how would you explain the appearance of these various crowds (Aban, Soleimani funeral, Amir Kabir University) in such short proximity?
Eric Lob: Although the unintentional downing of the Ukranian passenger jet triggered the current protests at Amir Kabir University and elsewhere in Tehran and Iran, they can be viewed as an extension of those that occurred in Aban 1398/November 2019, if not before. With hundreds killed and countless more arrested by security forces, the wounds from those protests have not healed nor have their grievances related to authoritarian politics, economic mismanagement/corruption, and social restrictions been addressed. The Soleimani funeral may have provided the Iranian government with a brief respite from popular protests. However, only one week later, government and military officials have found themselves in the same predicament, if not worse, due to their lack of competence, transparency, and accountability during the incident and investigation involving the downed airliner–deficiencies that Iranians perceive as being symptomatic of the wider political establishment and system. As in the past, these officials have responded to the latest protests with riot police, tear gas, live ammunition, and other repressive measures that will likely further enrage and embolden the protesters and public. While offering their condolences, senior officials have refrained from taking the type of tangible actions–including dismissals, resignations, and reform–that many Iranians expect–an outcome that risks further inflaming tensions between these officials and the protestors. Though exacerbated externally by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, the Iranian government’s legitimacy crisis is the byproduct of its unwillingness to institute meaningful and substantive reform during the past forty years, as evidenced by the protestors calling for the supreme leader’s resignation and refusing to desecrate the American and Israeli flags.
Maryam Alemzadeh: For the reasons discussed above, it was not surprising that Soleimani’s assassination claimed a prime spot in many Iranian minds, replacing the violent repression of the Aban protests. In addition to Soleimani’s cross-sectional appeal among people, the fact that the killing was read as an act of war helped mobilize more citizens—at least to attend Soleimani’s funerals, if not to enlist for an actual war. When the IRGC anti-air missiles shot down a passenger plane by a disastrous mistake, everything that Soleimani’s persona had pushed to the margins came to the center of attention again. The mistake was immediately connected to the many mistakes that the IRGC’s learning-by-doing had caused during the Iran-Iraq War, including the shooting down of Iranian Army jets; it was traced to a decades-long preference for loyalty over skill.
Soleimani, although revered by non-loyal citizens because of his being detached from such flaws, was now seen as a figure heavily endorsed by the state. The state propaganda apparatus has been seizing every opportunity to benefit from Soleimani’s killing—to further demonize the United States, to repress internal dissent, and to claim all Soleimani’s mourners as its loyal subjects. Even if the plane crash had not outraged the public so shortly after the killing, the state’s move in owning Soleimani would have probably backfired eventually. For the ideologically loyal, the event and its state endorsement prompted a renewal of their allegiance. For others who respected Soleimani, however, it robbed them of the rationale for respecting him in the first place.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: In the absence of a structured form of agonistic politics that can reveal itself within institutions of the state, political expression in favor of fundamental changes to the very sovereignty and legitimacy of the state are pushed onto the "streets," which are less governable. This is a form of "street politics" that has been unfolding itself in Iran for decades now. It is a part of the bottom up process that I mentioned, which will continue until state institutions manage to absorb and diffuse this pluralistic momentum in a grand spectacle of democratization. Until then, it will continue to manifest itself, even in an anarchic, unstructured form, that does not yield to the mold of "reformism." Of course, it is in this de-institutionalized locus where violent protests can be fostered, exactly because of the political "loneliness" of this space, one that is devoid of leadership and headquarters. The Soleimani effect is comparable, but in the reverse direction. It molds a wider constituency that is distinctly transnational (in the way the former movement is not) into several commonalities: Resistance against the United States, Israel, support of Palestine, etc. It is a form of post-national politics that benefits the political status quo in Iran, and is thus functional to the legitimacy and sovereignty of the state in the way that the Amir Kabir University example, obviously is not.
[Click here to read Part 2 of this roundtable, featuring scholars of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria reflecting on Iranian policy in these countries and the fallout from Soleimani's assisination.]