Last week’s events were marked by a significant escalation between the United States and Iran following the assassination of the Commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani, in an American strike in Baghdad. The attack also killed the Deputy Commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as well as several operatives in the ranks of the Qods Forces and the Shi’ite militias, who were in the convoy attacked by the United States.
- In an initial response to Soleimani’s elimination, the IRGC launched ballistic missiles toward the Ayn al-Assad base in western Iraq, in which U.S. forces are present. The attacks did not result in any American casualties. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, stressed after the Iranian attack that military actions are not enough to achieve revenge, and what is important is to end American military presence in the region.
- Shortly after Soleimani’s assassination, his deputy, Esmail Qa’ani, was appointed in his stead, as the commander of the Qods Force. Qa’ani vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death, persist in his path and remove the United States from the region.
- Over the past two weeks, officials in Syria and Iran have been engaging in deliberations: a delegation of prominent tribal figures arrived in late December for a visit in Iran and met with senior Iranian government officials; the senior adviser to the Iranian minister of foreign affairs arrived for a visit in Damascus and met Syrian officials, chief among them, President Assad; and the Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, met in Damascus with the Senior National Security Adviser to the Syrian president, Ali Mamlouk.
- Qasem Soleimani’s assassination provided an opportunity for a meeting between the heads of the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with senior Iranian officials. A delegation of both organizations, who came to Tehran to participate in Soleimani’s funeral, met during their visit with the incoming Qods Force commander.
The Assassination of Qods Force Commander
- On January 2, 2020, American drones struck two vehicles in Baghdad that were carrying senior commanders in the IRGC’s Qods Force. The attack eliminated Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of the Qods Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy Commander of the Pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq (the Hashd al-Shaabi, Popular Mobilization Units), and several members of the Qods Force and Shi’ite militias who were in the targeted convoy. Shortly after Soleimani’s assassination, his deputy, Esmail Qa’ani, was appointed as his replacement as the commander of the Qods Force. During the ceremony welcoming the coffin with Soleimani’s remains, Qa’ani vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death, remove the United States from the region as payback for the martyrdom of Soleimani, and continue down the path laid by Soleimani, until the establishment of the rule of the 12th Shi’ite Imam, the Mahdi (Fars, January 6).
- In an initial response, the IRGC launched over 12 ballistic missiles toward the Ayn al-Assad base in western Iraq, which houses American forces. No Americans were harm in the strike. In a speech delivered on January 8, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, called the Iranian attack “a slap in the face” of the United States, but stressed that revenge is another matter, and that military actions are not enough to achieve this, and that what matters is ending U.S. presence in the region (Fars, January 8).
Iranian Involvement in Syria
- On December 28, a delegation of senior tribal figures from Syria arrived for a visit in Iran and met high-ranking government officials in Tehran, including the Senior Adviser for International Affairs of the Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, and the Speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani. Velayati stressed in his meeting with the delegation Iran’s opposition to any foreign meddling in the countries of the region, and declared that Iran will resist the plots of the enemies and their aggression, which aim to weaken and divide the countries of the region. He expressed opposition to establishing safe zones in Syria, arguing that this policy is intended to allow countries to partition Syria and hand over to them the management of Syria’s affairs, contrary to the country’s interest. The adviser to the Supreme Leader added that any change in the Syrian constitution can be made by the Syrian people alone, and without foreign meddling (Fars, December 28).
- In his meeting with the members of the delegation, the Speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani, stated that the crisis in Syria is over, and the phase of reconstruction in the country has begun. He remarked that the statements by U.S. President Donald Trump prove that the United States is only interested in Syria’s oil. Addressing Israeli strikes in Syria, the chairman of the Majlis stated that they stem from Israel’s nervousness as Syrian authorities regain control of their county. The members of the delegation expressed their gratitude for Iran’s support for Syria in recent years (Fars, December 29).
- On December 31, Ali-Asghar Khaji, the Senior Adviser to the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, held a one-day visit in Damascus. The meetings focused on developments in Syria and the region, and the negotiations process concerning the settlement of the war in Syria. During the visit, Khaji also met with the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid al-Mualem and his deputy, Faysal Meqdad (IRNA, December 31).
- On January 5, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, met in Tehran with Ali Mamlouk, the National Security Adviser to the Syrian president. Mamlouk delivered to Shamkhani the condolences of the Syrian president for the death of the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, and pointed to his special status among Muslims in the Middle East. Shamkhani thanked Mamlouk for the condolences, and added that the Americans will soon realize that Soleimani’s death will cause them greater danger than he did in his life, and that Iran’s response will surely involve military steps, but will not be limited to military steps alone (Fars, January 5).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
- Iran condemned the attack carried out on December 29 by the United States against targets of the Shi’ite Iraqi militia, Kataeb Hebollah, near the Syrian-Iraqi border. The attack was a retaliation for the launch of dozens of missiles by the militia toward an Iraqi base near the city of Kirkuk on December 27, which killed an American civilian contractor, and injured several soldiers. The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, declared that the American military attack against Iraq is an act of terrorism, which Iran forcefully condemns. He demanded that the United States honor the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq, and halt its meddling in Iraqi domestic affairs. He added that attacking forces who have waged a campaign against ISIS terrorists for years proves, once again, that the United States is lying when it is claiming to be fighting ISIS, declaring that the United States must bear responsibility for its illegal actions (ISNA, December 30). The Spokesman of the Iranian Government, Ali Rabei, also addressed the American attack, denying any Iranian role in striking the military base near Kirkuk. He asserted that this claim of Iranian involvement is groundless and can not justify bombing and killing civilians in violation of international law. He warmed that the American attack will only increase the hatred toward the American occupiers and regional insecurity (Fars, December 30).
- Following the American attack on Kataeb Hezbollah, the IRGC published a special statement concerning the action, emphasizing the “natural right” in accordance with international law of the Iraqi people and armed forces to avenge the attack. The statement added that the attack violates Iraqi sovereignty and is further proof of the fact that the United States is the main cause of instability and chaos in the region, and only the removal of “the American terrorist occupiers” will ensure Iraq’s security and stability. The statement concluded by stating that “the Zionist entity” should not rejoice in light of the American attack, since a day will come, and the rage of the “resistance front” will hit the occupiers of Jerusalem (Tasnim, December 30).
- On January 1, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, addressed the American strikes against Kataeb Hezbollah in a speech. Khemeni condemned the attack, stating that the United States seeks to take revenge against the Shi’ite militias for their struggle against ISIS, which according to him, was established by the United States. He rejected the claims of the U.S. president, who blamed the attack on the American embassy in Baghdad on Iran, arguing that the people of the region hate the United States for the crimes it has committed, and that if Iran wished to fight any country, it would do so out in the open (Fars, January 1).
- The U.S.-government funded Arab TV channel, al-Hurra, reported (January 2) based on sources close to a senior Iraqi security official and a senior commander with the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, that it was the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, who planned the assault on the American embassy in Baghdad. According to this report, carrying out the attack was made possible due to rare cooperation with a senior security official in the central government in Baghdad, which facilitated the entry of the Shi’ite militiamen into the secured compound, the Green Zone, where the embassy is located. The report also claimed that an officer in the IRGC’s Qods Force, known as al-Hajj Hamed, participated in a meeting with senior commanders of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, in which the assault on the embassy was planned.
- On December 30, the President of Iraq, Barham Saleh, met with the Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, and discussed bilateral relations and internal political developments in Iraq, in light of the ongoing protests and political dead-end in the country. A statement issued by the Iraqi presidency reported that the president of Iraq and the Iranian ambassador highlighted the need to preserve the stability and independence of Iraq without foreign meddling (ISNA, December 30).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
- On January 6, a delegation of Hamas senior officials, led by the Head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, arrived in Tehran to participate in the funeral of Qods Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani. The delegation also included Haniyeh’s deputy, Saleh al-Arouri, and the members of Hamas’ political bureau, ‘Izzat al-Rishq and Musa Abu Marzouq. During their visit to Tehran, the members of the delegation met with the incoming Qods Force Commander, Esmail Qa’ani (Mehr, January 6).
- In his condolences speech delivered at the funeral, Haniyeh condemned the “reprehensible crime” carried by the United States, and expressed great admiration for Soleimani’s contribution to the “resistance,” emphasizing that it will persist and not die down until the “occupiers” are expelled from Palestine and Jerusalem (Erem News, January 6). Before arriving in Tehran, Haniyeh spoke to the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, over the phone and expressed his condolences for Soleimani’s death. He praised the role played by Soleimani in supporting the resistance and his backing of the rights of the Palestinian people in all spheres. Foreign Minister Zarif thanked Haniyeh for his words, stressing that Iran will continue to support the Palestinian people and its resistance (ISNA, January 5). A delegation of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, led by the Secretary General of the group, Ziad al-Nakleh and his deputy, Akram al-Ajouri, also reached Tehran to participate in the funeral (Radio Nour, January 6).
- The members of both delegations also visited the home of Qasem Soleimani and paid condolences to his family (the official website of Hamas, January 6). During the condolences visit, Haniyeh remarked that Soleimani played a central role of great importance in supporting the Palestinian “resistance.” According to him, Soleimani was directly involved in the resistance, made a strategic pact with it, and saw it as the “tip of the spear” in dealing with Israel. Haniyeh added that the masses in Iran and Iraq who took part in Soleimani’s funeral proceedings can be seen as a referendum, proving that the option of resistance lies in the heart of the nation (al-‘Alam channel, January 6).
 See the publication of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, “Responses in Iran and Initial Assessment of the Impact of Eliminating Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps,” January 6, 2020.