Updated: Sep 19
Wikistrat: Thank you Dr. Zimmt for joining me in this interview to discuss the implications of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by the United States under orders of President Trump. We want to get your perspective on the implications of this killing for Iran and for the broader Middle East. So just to start off with one more obvious question, how do you think that Iran will react to the killing of General Soleimani?
Zimmt: First of all, I think that Iran was surprised by this attack. I mean the perception in Iran was that the United States will do nothing, which might evolve into a military confrontation. They were positive that the United States doesn't have any interest to open up a military confrontation with Iran. So, I think they were very surprised by that. And we have to remember that even Qasem Soleimani did not take any steps to be more off the radar of the United States. The most important issue now is that Iran is in a very major dilemma because, on the one hand, it certainly wants to respond to this attack. Soleimani was not just a national symbol but also one of the most important Iranian commanders and the most influential one in carrying out Iran's regional strategy.
On the other hand, Iran has said again and again, and I think Supreme Leader Khamenei really believes it, that Iran is not after a full-scale military confrontation between Iran and the United States. So it will have to choose very carefully what you do in order, on the one hand, to respond and, on the other hand, not to complicate itself in a worse situation, especially as we know that Iran is already being confronted with major internal, regional and international pressures.
There are different kinds of responses. One thing that Iran could do is use one of its proxies against either American targets or interests in the Gulf or in Iraq. This is possible, mainly if they want to carry out an immediate response to take revenge. The problem is that I'm not sure it will be enough because Iran would certainly want to show that it doesn't act only through the use of its proxies, but also carry out a direct attack against American interests. So, another thing which might happen is for Iran to just wait and see when the operational opportunities become available and then to choose the more, I would say, better American targets.
Another possibility is not directly against American targets but against one of the US allies in the region, for example, Saudi Arabia. But again, it might be considered as a more problematic kind of response because they certainly want to take action directly against the United States.
Wikistrat: Okay. And given the actions by the pro-Iranian Shia militia, Kata'ib Hezbollah, a few days ago – the attack of the US Embassy in Baghdad – do you think that Iran or Soleimani himself even could have foreseen such a scenario in which the United States would respond so harshly to the actions in Baghdad?
Zimmt: No. I think what we've seen over the last few months is more and more self-confidence in Iran. They're more assertive and aggressive in the Gulf, including the recent attack in September against Saudi Arabia. This remained without response and I think it gave the Iranians strength and [led to] the Iranians’ perception that the United States will do nothing. I do think that as an American civilian was killed in that attack, Iran might have thought that the United States might take certain responses against the Iranian proxies, as we saw in the attack carried out by the United States against Kata'ib Hezbollah. But I think that in Iran they certainly didn't believe that the Americans will act directly against Iran, and especially not against someone like Soleimani.
Wikistrat: I see. We've heard Qasem Soleimani's name quite a lot in recent years, looking at events in Syria and elsewhere, especially in the US media. So to what degree was Soleimani really important, really as much of a regional player as he was portrayed in the international media? Or was he more of a mid-level functionary in Iran's wider security apparatus?
Zimmt: No, I think he was very important. Naturally, it's the Iranian supreme leader and Iran's supreme national security council which makes the ultimate decisions concerning Iranian strategy both in the region and the other areas, but he was the main deliver of this strategy in the region. His importance was not just because of the long-time he served as the commander of the Quds Force, but also because of his unique capabilities, his charisma and his connection to the leader. He really managed to turn the main challenges Iran faced over the last decade, especially the civil war in Syria and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, into opportunities to expand Iran's influence, especially in Syria and Iraq. And I think that in almost every arena in the region – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, or Lebanon – we could certainly see the involvement of Soleimani. So, even if he was not the one who made the decisions in Iran, he was certainly very influential in carrying out the Iranian strategy.
Now, I would say that he was not the only Iranian commander, especially not in the last year, to carry out Iran's strategy. We certainly saw several actions carried out by Iran since May 2019, such as sabotaging the oil carriers or pulling down the American drone or the attack of Saudi Arabia, where Soleimani, even if he was somehow involved, was not the man responsible for those attacks. But having said that, I still think that concerning Iran's regional policy and its involvement and its military entrenchment, especially in Syria and Iraq, or the support is given to Hezbollah, including the delivering of the precise missiles and rockets, he was certainly the number one Iranian player.
Wikistrat: Given this unique role and his involvement in Iran's strategy, how do you think that his death will impact Iran's strategy in the Middle East in the long term?
Zimmt: Well, I'm not sure that Iran's strategy will change because he's not the only one who supports Iran's ambitions in the region or the conception that Iran should be more involved in the region in order to achieve what it considers to be national vital interests. But I would definitely say that his successor will find it more difficult to carry out this strategy, especially as we know who his successor is, which is Esmail Ghaani, who doesn't have the same charisma or, I would say, the commanding capabilities of Soleimani. So, even if the strategy itself is not going to change, the Iranian ability to carry it out might face some obstacles.
Wikistrat: And how do you think that Iran's proxy forces across the Middle Eastern region will be affected by it, looking here specifically at Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Zimmt: Well again, I don't think that they will be less committed to Iran or that Iran will be less committed to supporting its proxies, especially strategic proxies such as Hezbollah or the Shia militias in Iraq. Iran will certainly continue its support for those proxies. But again, I think that nobody can really replace Soleimani, at least in the short term. And anyone who replaces him, it will certainly take some time until he reaches the level of Soleimani's understanding and capability to deal with the very delicate situation in the Middle East. You have to remember that, in a way, Soleimani became so strong mainly because of the circumstances in the Middle East in the last decade.
I mean he really was able to use the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria and the battle against ISIS in order to expand Iran's influence. Now the situation is totally different. The civil war is almost over. ISIS is no longer threatening Iraq. So, I think from the beginning it will be more difficult for Iran to play a crucial role in the post-ISIS and post-civil war era. So, especially now when Soleimani is no longer there, it will be even more difficult for someone like Ghaani to take [over] the role in leading Iran's role in the region.
Wikistrat: Okay. And looking here also specifically at Iraq then. We've seen many reports in the past two or three months that Soleimani was also personally involved in the political engineering in the country looking at nominating the next Iraqi prime minister. So, looking here at the personal factor, do you think that his death will have any impact on the political development in Iraq in the coming months and coming future?
Zimmt: Well again, we have to make a distinction between the Iranian strategy, which will not change, and I think Iran's considered it to be very crucial to take a role in order to prevent any kind of change in the political order in Iraq. Iran certainly has many interests in Iraq, both political and economic, and others that it considers vital. So, they will try to affect the process of nominating the new prime minister.
The second thing is that Soleimani was actually not that successful in trying to impact this process. And as we know, most of the candidates supported by Iran that were mentioned in the last few weeks did not succeed to form a coalition because of the opposition within the Iranian protesters in Baghdad. But I do think that if Soleimani was quite unsuccessful in doing that, it will be even more difficult for someone new.
And I don't know what exactly the contacts and the relations between his successor and the political parties in Iraq are. But there's no doubt that if Soleimani was not that successful, it will be even more difficult for someone new to proceed. The bottom line is that it is just too important for Iran and I think we will see a continued Iranian effort either by his successor or by other Iranian officials such as Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's supreme national security council, to take a role in the political process in Iraq.
Wikistrat: Okay. Looking here also at the events in Iran domestically, in the short and long term, how do you think that his death will impact the internal political situation between reformist and conservative camps in the country?
Zimmt: Well, first of all, Soleimani was supported by both political camps in Iran, both the reformers and the conservatives. I would say that the death of Soleimani will be another blow to the political position of the so-called pragmatic camp led by President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. Rouhani is already considered to be a weak president, as his number one achievement, meaning the JCPOA – the nuclear deal – is dying. And there has been more and more criticism inside Iran against his so-called diplomatic way rather than the more military aggressive way of the revolutionary.
But now, as Soleimani was decimated, the political establishment in Iran will have to close ranks and to show their unity vis-à-vis the United States. And I think it will just decrease even further the political position of the so-called pragmatic camp. Which means that I think it will be even more difficult for someone like Rouhani to convince the supreme leader to change Iran's attitude toward the United States and even to consider the possibility of going back to the negotiating table.
I didn't think that the prospects were very high for Iran's readiness to go back to negotiations even before. But right now I think it diminishes almost entirely because Khamenei is certainly not in the mood to take any step which might be considered to be an attempt to reconcile with the United States or going back to negotiation.
Wikistrat: Okay, I see. And also, do you think it will have any impact on the protest movement in the country, in Iran itself?
Zimmt: Well, if we were in the midst of an active protest in Iran, then I would say that it would be even more difficult for the protesters to continue the protest. And that the regime would be even less restrained in trying to deal with the protest. But we have to remember that the protests in November faded away. They were crushed with a major force by the regime. So right now, there is no active protest throughout Iran. And I think that right now is more time for rallying around the flag. And you can already see the public responses inside Iran, whether they support the regime or are more critical concerning the regime.
Many Iranians, I would say, considered Soleimani as a national hero, as someone who is responsible for Iran's achievements in the region. And I think that they certainly consider his decimation as something which affects not just the Revolutionary Guards but also humiliates Iran's national pride. I think we should expect more Iranians, right now, to be less ready to go to the streets and demonstrate against the regime, but as the basic problems of the Iranians are not going to be resolved soon, it's probably only a matter of time until the protests will be resumed.