Iran vs. Trump: Suleimani’s Legacy, and Khamenei’s Ambitions

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to bring you this comprehensive and authoritative two-part analysis of Donald Trump and Iran, written by Reuel Marc Gerecht. Gerecht is a widely published author, with regular contributions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York TimesThe Atlantic and The Weekly Standard. He’s a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and one of the country’s leading experts on Iran and its Islamic revolution. The first part, “The Coming Collision,” examined the incentives the Iranian regime has to continue its confrontational approach to the United States and President Donald Trump. In the analysis below, “The Fallout,” Gerecht looks at the death of Qassem Suleimani, the regime’s internal challenges, the consequences of the Obama nuclear deal, and what we might expect from the coming collision with the Islamic Republic.

Part II. The Fallout

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, appears to believe that the massive public turnout for funeral processions honoring Qassem Suleimani, shows that the revolutionary spirit, Iran’s “divine power … the love, the loyalty, and the resistance of the Iranian nation,” is strong. The United States targeted Suleimani in an early-January attack in Iraq, pointing to the Iranian general’s role in past and—the Trump administration credibly argued—future attacks on Americans, their interests, and their allies. Leaked internal deliberations among senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards after the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement was crushed and disconcerted commentary among clerics and members of parliament after the 2017 provincial demonstrations certainly suggest that the theocracy’s frontline guardians have had doubts about the “love” of the Iranian people. 

What Khamenei doesn’t see or refuses to admit: Suleimani was sui generis. He was the last charismatic figure of the Iranian revolution. The hundreds of thousands who came out to pay their respects probably weren’t in the streets because the regime had coerced them to be there. The mullahs have missed numerous opportunities to orchestrate mass rallies in their favor after big, sometimes violent, protests against the theocracy. The early Islamic Republic loved such gatherings to show popular support. After 2009, the clerical regime avoided these marches, surely because it was uncertain about the loyalty of the middle and lower classes. Massive crowds can overwhelm, and the Iranian security services are neither that large nor that mobile. (The regime remains hesitant to use local police and Basij units, which are far more numerous, against the denizens of their own neighborhoods.)  

Yet with Suleimani it was different. 

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