The death of Qassem Soleimani is a sobering blow for the Iranian regime. Soleimani embodied everything the regime wanted to project about itself—influence, ruthlessness, agility, confidence. He kept Iran’s enemies awake at night, and his theocratic masters sleeping soundly in a world of real and imagined threats at home and abroad.
For years, Tehran’s leadership talked fatalistically about Soleimani as a “living martyr,” but it surely did not anticipate President Donald Trump’s audacious targeted killing. Now the Iranians will seek vengeance—methodical, cold-blooded, and nasty. They will look to avoid an all-out war with the United States that they cannot win. But they will also look to turn a tactical blow into a strategic boon.
Unlike the Trump administration, which cannot reconcile its desire to get tough on Iran with its desire to leave the region altogether, the Iranian regime has a strategy, tethered to the realities, dysfunctions, and limits of the Middle East. Its tactics are often ugly; its capacity for misreading the terrain is sometimes self-defeating; and the pain and stupidities it inflicts on so many across the region, let alone its own people, can be horrific. But it does connect its means to its desired ends: keeping the clerics in power, keeping its imperial project in the region alive, and keeping sworn enemies, including America, off balance and out of its neighborhood.
No one really knows what comes next, not even the protagonists themselves. But as the dust settles, the collateral damage from the strike on Soleimani will likely be greater than the Trump administration bargained for. Indeed, the strike already appears to be feeding the gnarled ambitions of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by producing a more unified regime with a tighter grip at home; an even more precarious American military position in Iraq and Syria, with the Iraqi Parliament now calling for U.S. withdrawal; and the death of the Iranian nuclear deal and the whole notion of diplomacy with the Great Satan. All this will cost the United States far more than Soleimani’s killing cost Iran. In his death, Soleimani may exact his own final act of revenge against the United States.