The Islamic Republic of Iran has suffered a loss with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, its most prominent military general. The nature and dimensions of that injury, however, are not a simple function of Soleimani’s high-profile regional role. The Quds Force, the external operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, will outlast its erstwhile commander, as will Iran’s regional security policy.
But Soleimani’s assassination must still occasion soul searching within an establishment that failed to foresee the danger to his person and that has now lost a conspicuous star from its firmament.
Viewed from Tehran, the success of the U.S. air strike on Soleimani and his longtime colleague Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, looks like a counterintelligence and security failure on the part of the Islamic Republic. An increasing number of unofficial accounts and news media reports suggest that intelligence leaks and breaches in Soleimani’s security protocol made the general’s effective elimination possible.
“We know that the Americans have been chasing the two men for a long time, but without success,” an Iraqi paramilitary leader said on January 4.
“It is clear that they [the Americans] have recruited some people close to the two to follow their movements and determine the place and time to assassinate them.” Two people who were aboard the plane that transported Soleimani have reportedly been detained by Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces for further investigations.
Such incidents suggest that, as I argued in these pages in November, Iran’s revolutionary core, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the country’s security apparatus more generally, have been compromised. But the loss of Soleimani speaks to even deeper and more important problems.
A fundamental failure of imagination and a fatal miscalculation blinded Iran’s leadership to the imminent attack.
Distracted by the controversy surrounding the suppression of nationwide protests at home, and emboldened by having adopted a more offensive posture in the region, Iran’s leaders failed to imagine that tensions could escalate to a new level.
They were altogether too sanguine, given that U.S. President Donald Trump, erratic in the best of times and now entangled in a discrediting impeachment plight and surrounded by Iran hawks, had just ordered the fatal targeting of Iranian-backed paramilitary fighters in Iraq and explicitly threatened Tehran over the ensuing breach of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Such overconfidence led Tehran, rather than undertaking special precautions, to arrange a business-as-usual security protocol for the commander of a force that the United States had designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization last April.
Fortunately for Khamenei and Qaani, the IRGC is a complex institution with deep roots, making it less than susceptible to “leadership decapitation.” Qaani lacks Soleimani’s charisma and sense of humor, and since leading a vast network of militia groups depends as much on informal connections and friendships as it does on organizational discipline, he might never become as smooth and popular as his predecessor. This deficiency alone, however, will not detract substantially from the Quds Force’s effectiveness under his command.
Source: Iran’s Quds Force After Soleimani