The Pentagon confirmed in a statement that it killed Maj. Gen. Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite military forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, as well as the commander of Iranian-controlled Shia militia forces in Iraq, Syria, and around the world.
“The reported deaths of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and the Iraqi commander of the militia that killed an American last week was a bold and decisive military action made possible by excellent intelligence and the courage of America’s service members,” said Lt. Col. (Ret.) James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.
“His death is a huge loss for Iran’s regime and its Iraqi proxies, and a major operational and psychological victory for the United States,” Carafano added.
Phillip Smyth, an expert at the Washington Institute on Iran-controlled Shia militias and the Middle East, agreed.
“This is a major blow,” he said. “I would argue that this is probably the most major decapitation strike the United States has ever carried out. … This is a man who controlled a transnational foreign legion that was controlling governments in numerous different countries.”
Smyth said Soleimani had a cult of personality, as well as a unique leadership role in the Iran-controlled Shia militia network.
“He had a hell of a lot of power and a hell of a lot of control,” he said. “You have to be a strong leader in order to get these people to work with you, know how and when to play them off one another, and also know which Iranians do I need within the IRGC-QF, which Lebanese do I need, which Iraqis do I need … that’s not something you can just pick up at a local five and dime. It takes decades of experience.”
Several other experts also agreed that Soleimani’s death was even more significant than al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s.
The Pentagon indicated that Soleimani’s death would have a significant operational impact.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
The Pentagon said Soleimani had orchestrated attacks on U.S.-led coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months, including one on December 27 which killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. service members and Iraqi personnel.
The Pentagon also said Soleimani approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place earlier this week.
The group that carried out the December 27 attack, Kata’ib Hizballah, is the same group that pioneered the use of explosively formed penetrators that killed and maimed hundreds of U.S. service members during the Iraq War, according to Smyth.
Carafano argued that Soleimani’s death should be treated similarly to bin Laden’s. Trump designated the IRGC-Quds Force a foreign terrorist organization in April, essentially designating Soleimani a terrorist leader.
“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by Suleimani, was responsible for the deaths of more than 600 Americans in Iraq between 2003-2011, and countless more injured. He was a chief architect behind Iran’s continuing reign of terror in the region. This strike against one of the world’s most odious terrorists is no different than the mission which took out Osama bin Laden – it is, in fact, even more justifiable since he was in a foreign country directing terrorist attacks against Americans,” he said.
According to local reports, the U.S. airstrikes also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of Kata’ib Hizballah and leader of the network of Iranian-controlled Shia militia groups in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
“It’s an incredible two-fer,” Smyth said. “This is another one of those old hands. These guys don’t grow on trees. It takes time.”
The U.S. airstrikes also reportedly killed the public relations chief for the umbrella group of Iran-controlled Shia militia in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces, Mohammed Ridha Jabri, as well. Smyth said Jabri had some significance to the militia network as a spokesman, but his death would not be of the same significance as Soleimani or al-Muhandis.
As for what to expect next, Smyth said a response could come in many forms and in different places and perhaps not be even recognized as a response. But he pushed back against the notion that the U.S. started a war with Iran with the death of Soleimani.
“Iran has been at war with the United States since the Islamic Revolutionary regime took power in Tehran in 1979. To say that we are going to war or that this is yet another American escalation — I think we need to be a little more detailed,” he said.
He said over the past year, Kata’ib Hizballah, was launching rockets and mortars at Americans in Iraq and eventually killed one.
“Over the past couple of years we’ve had a number of issues in the Gulf, we’ve had a number of issues in different countries, we’ve had international terrorism issues, you name it, you can throw everything at the wall, and the Iranians have in some way been behind some of it. Even arm supplies to the Taliban … so this didn’t just appear in a vacuum because ‘we didn’t like the Iranians,'” he said.
Carafano said going forward, the Trump administration must keep its maximum pressure strategy in place.
“What the administration must offer now is firm diplomacy backed by the continuing, credible threat of the use of military force. President Trump has wisely shown that he will act with the full powers of his office when American interests are threatened, and the extremist regime in Tehran would be wise to take notice,” he said.