For four decades Iran has been a perpetual underdog. Its conventional military is weak. It is surrounded by an array of extremely well-armed, fiercely hostile powers. It has very few state allies. A brutal war – never to be forgotten in Iran – resulted in a million deaths. And a long, sordid history of American malign influence – from overthrowing a democratically-elected Iranian government (for oil) to propping up a tyrannical regime – elevates national security to the forefront of the Persian psyche.
To millions of his countrymen, General Qassem Soleimani embodied Iran’s defense against a laundry list of existential threats. Soleimani – by far the most popular figure in Iran when he died – served as the central player in managing Iranian relationships with armed “proxy” groups. Given Iran’s unenviable strategic position, such groups provide Tehran with an asymmetric deterrent against attack. Due to his efforts – from the battlefield to the negotiating table – Iranians of all political stripes viewed Soleimani as a humble, low-key guardian of their country. His death unites a deeply fractured population against America. Trump’s follow-on threats to bomb Iran’s cultural sites only deepen and broaden Iranian anger and hostility.
Importantly, Iranian (and, thus, Soleimani’s) strategic priorities frequently aligned with American objectives. U.S. air power effectively provided cover to Soleimani’s fighters as they battled the Islamic State and its depraved barbarism. Soleimani organized militias fighting al Qaeda-linked groups from Syria to Yemen. Moreover, Soleimani worked tirelessly to keep the Syrian government – one of Iran’s few state allies – afloat. While the Syrian regime is ruthlessly authoritarian, Soleimani’s troops prevented its collapse, which would have resulted in yet another Middle Eastern power vacuum and drawn in thousands of jihadists, making the rise of the Islamic State seem like a picnic.