Iran vs. Trump: Suleimani's Legacy, and Khamenei's Ambitions
The supreme leader and Trump may well end the long-running, region-defining clash. We just don't know yet quite how.
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 Times, The 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.
The Quds Force commander was, above all else, a Shiite warrior, an awe-inspiring general who generated fear and loathing among Sunnis throughout the Middle East. In his halting Arabic and more menacing Persian, he was a social-media poster boy for the Shiite downtrodden. He was a symbol of Shiite pride against centuries of Sunni hubris.
Suleimani was the archetype of the militant Shiite: faith converted into violent idealism and brotherhood, propelled by an individualized, indomitable will. But unlike Shiism’s doomed iconic heroes, unlike the legions of Iranian death-wish believers who bled out in the battlefields of the Iran–Iraq War, Suleimani survived. He saw horrible combat in that conflict and yet didn’t hide his contempt for tactics that wasted the lives of his men. He was a man of action amid clerics who rarely were.
Old-time Shiism had a lot of Christianity’s faith in redemption through trials that may leave one dead but blessed. Patience and perseverance, not violence, was always required against injustice. However, new-age Shiism, which Khomeini helped to birth, is bold, assertive, averse to compromise, and, most important, confident that victory against superior numbers (Americans or Sunnis) is possible. One may need to martyr oneself, but the cause can actually win. The faithful don’t have to wait for the Mahdi for the righteous to triumph. Suleimani was the incarnation of that hope and awe until Trump killed him. With his death, that dream probably perished.
The Arab Shia of Iraq and Lebanon, who constitute most of the Arab Shiites who share Iran’s version of the Shiite faith, had, of course, stopped embracing Suleimani’s revolutionary mission civilisatrice long before President Trump tired of the general’s machinations. Suleimani’s standing, like the reputation of the Iranian regime in general, had fallen precipitously among them. Among the young, it appears to have collapsed. Persian hubris and the unconcealable Iranian intention to keep the Iraqi Shiite community beholden tanked the general’s reputation, which had risen high when Sunnis seriously threatened (2005-2007 and 2013–2016).
As much as Syria, Iraq is where the general truly invested himself, where his clandestine actions surfaced and he eventually became a public personality, an open player in Iraq’s fractious, hard-ball democratic politics. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for young Iraqi Shiites to storm the Iranian consulate in Karbala, the historic home of Shiite militancy and martyrdom, and take down the Islamic Republic’s flag and raise the Iraqi one. But they did just that last November. As much as anyone, Suleimani helped to revivify the ancient “Arab-Ajam (Persian)” antagonism, which has sometimes splintered Muslim and Shiite solidarity.
It shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone, except perhaps Westernized Iranian expatriates who believe that militant Shiism has been completely drained from Persian society by the clerical regime’s tyranny, that Suleimani’s demise would lead to massive processions. His fame rarely descended into the pitch-black notoriety that has surrounded so many from the Guards and the Basij.
No one cried when the Guard commander, Brigadier Gen. Hossein Hamadani, died in the battle of Aleppo in 2015; he was as important as Suleimani to Iranian victory in Syria. But he had an open and instrumental role in smashing the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009. Even among university students who have separated themselves from the Islamic Republic, who use social media to snipe at the regime and voyage to freer realms, Suleimani didn’t always elicit the hatred that is so quickly expressed for Khamenei, Rouhani, and others.
For many, the general had become what Shiites insist on in their guides: a living myth. For the large number of Iranians who’ve embraced a popular, mystical “village Shiism,” who see the coming of the Mahdi before “the end of times,” and who’ve grown particularly hostile to the Shiism of clerics, the processions for Suleimani, a truly poor Kermani boy who rose, were where one could pour out one’s sadness. His death was a national passion play, the beloved ritual that gives the faith some meaning beyond the hypocritical orations of mullahs. Bidding farewell to the general was a way for many, especially those who once cherished the Islamic Revolution and warmed to the anti-Western themes that are part of both Islamic and Persian pride, to part with a forlorn hope and a man who, if nothing else, terrified the Sunnis of Iraq, who’d brought misery to countless Iranian families. As a ferociously anti-regime Iranian exile in Europe pithily put it: “He killed thousands of Sunni Arabs. He scared the shit out of the Saudis. What’s not to love?”
Despite Suleimani’s death, Khamenei and senior members of the Corps probably believed, at least before COVID-19 struck, that they were in decent shape, at least better than before. In 2009 when pro-democracy demonstrators marched en masse, Khamenei thought Islam was on “the edge of the abyss;” Soleimani’s funeral processions symbolized for him, however, a national-religious awakening. And this efflorescence of zeal arrived via an American missile. This take on Suleimani is, most probably, egregiously wrong, but the supreme leader may well believe that another small-scale confrontation with America is worth the risk given the inspirational upside. Even if Khamenei and senior Guard commanders know the vast majority of the Iranian people have gone south on them and the revolution, the slim hope offered by Suleimani’s killing could be enough for them to tempt fate since only a clash with the United States has offered any hope that the regime still has a base of believers.
The coronavirus eruption, perhaps brought directly from China via sanctions-busting flights run by the Revolutionary Guards’ Mahan Air, may heighten the regime’s awareness of its internal fragility. Surely all know in Iran the regime lied badly and poorly about the infection rate and fatalities. They know that the Mahan Air flights kept coming until Beijing shut them down. And the Islamic Republic’s public health system has long been a mess. The regime’s coronavirus dishonesty and insufficiencies may not do much, however, to weaken the regime’s oppressive capacity unless it affects the confidence of the riot-control forces in the Guards and the Basij. Pandemics can advance state collapse. The Muslim Arab invasions in the seventh century were greatly aided by plagues that had depopulated important buffer zones for both the Byzantine and Persian empires. The Mamluk empire never recovered from the Black Death. But unless the death rate in Iran skyrockets further, or Khamenei becomes one of the virus’ victims, it seems unlikely that the Iranian citizenry will grow any madder or bolder than they already are.
In the short term, COVID-19 will certainly keep people from gathering, which is what the security forces since 2009 have feared most. Down the road the disease might be seen as a tipping point, a viral variation of Chernoybl. The disease may do what U.S. sanctions have failed to do: paralyze the non-oil-based economy. Iran is an institutionally weak state. But the strongest institutions in the country—the clergy and the Revolutionary Guards—are likely to weather the virus without cracking. They have the most to lose in another revolution. And one of the regime’s strongest assets has been widespread, dispiriting cynicism and emigration. Iranians expect the regime to cock up. They expect it to lie. Too many among the best and brightest have fled. And the people’s righteous anger, which is certainly growing, would need to overcome the security forces.
And the bloody efficiency of the supreme leader’s gunmen isn’t yet in doubt. The slaughter last November and December (there are numerous reports of enfilading fire against protesters) shows Khamenei’s and the Guards’ determination to quell any new threat quickly. And rather than try to conciliate demonstrators and the families of the fallen (Khamenei isn’t averse to doing a kill-and-regret two-step), he has mocked them.
And the anti-regime explicitness of these demonstrations coincided with large, anti-Iranian protests among the Iraqi Shia and “anti-corruption,” bad governance protests among the Lebanese Shia, which were clearly aimed at the country’s status quo, which is led by the Hezbollah, the first and favorite Arab child of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Infuriated, Khamenei saw conspiracy everywhere. And in Iran he acted decisively.
The denouement of the gasoline protests complicates Iran policy for the White House. Senior administration officials are hopeful that the clerical regime is on the precipice, that more economic coercion producing a crisis in hard-currency reserves just might convulse the system enough to produce even bigger rebellions and fissure the Guards and the Basij. No doubt the collapse of oil prices is bad news for Tehran even though U.S. sanctions have already taken away most of the regime’s hard-currency earnings from oil. Some senior officials may even believe that they are close to a reckoning that could produce new nuclear talks.
Yet this analysis has always reflected more domestic U.S. politics (since another war in the Middle East isn’t an option, something else must work), a certain exuberance about the possibilities unleashed by disciplined economic warfare, and a hopeful, somewhat Marxist, theory of economic rebellion than a deep dive into what makes the clerical regime tick (God, man, and Iran welded into a transforming, often violent, mission). It also downplays the probable key factor behind the initiation of Obama’s nuclear talks—big, pre-emptive American concessions, especially uranium enrichment—and overestimates the coercive effect of U.S. and European sanctions.
This hopeful analysis is increasingly off-kilter after the Iranian dead of last winter. No doubt: Big demonstrations will come again. If enough parents and grandparents die from coronavirus, a bigger swath of the youth might take to the streets. Senior Guard commanders certainly give the impression, in their unguarded moments, that spontaneous combustion is an omnipresent possibility. But the regime’s military and security services do not appear as did the shah’s before the fall: divided, listless, and leaderless. When soft power meets hard power in the Middle East, the former loses. No exceptions.
Despite Khamenei’s and the Revolutionary Guards’ resolution, President Trump is playing a decent hand against the clerical regime—so long as he is prepared to escalate and is willing to walk away from Washington’s bipartisan proclivity for nuclear negotiations with the Iranian theocracy. With the possible exception of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, there is no more powerful, just-can’t-kill-it aspiration in U.S. foreign policy than arms control. Unintentionally, Trump’s unorthodox approach may have already deep-sixed it as the preeminent factor in U.S.-Iran policy (Tehran may no longer indulge us), which opens up the possibility for containment, that is, a regime-change strategy however patiently delivered.
Containing Iran would mean that the United States is willing—given the disparity in power, it really ought to be eager—to box the clerical regime’s ears whenever required. The more often the United States demonstrates that it is willing to use overwhelming force, the less likely Khamenei will seriously challenge. Since 1979 the United States has done an abysmal job of holding the Islamic Republic accountable for its actions, even when the mullahs murdered Americans. The killing of Suleimani was a shocker in Tehran in part because it was so un-American. But that effect is fading. The eagerness with which the State Department announced that the administration didn’t want to escalate after the Ayn al-Assad reprisal shows that the White House doesn’t want to change its sanctions-heavy, no-containment, no-challenge approach. The decision by the president not to respond to recent lethal Iraqi Shiite militia attacks against U.S. and British personnel with bombing runs against Iranian forces and facilities, in Iraq or elsewhere, shows that there was give in Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s warning that Tehran would be held accountable for its proxies.
Washington may suspend reprisals for the death of Americans inside Iraq in an effort to help friendly candidates for prime minister, first Adnan al-Zurfi and now Mustafa al-Khadhimi, and President Barham Salih, a politically brave, pro-American Kurd. But that logic, if rigorously adhered to, will neuter American power in Iraq and ultimately undermine anti-Iranian Iraqis. (Salih’s standing in Iraq went up, not down, after Suleimani’s death.) It could also shut down any American military reprisal against Iran anywhere. Tehran and its Iraqi Shiite proxies will know we won’t kill to protect our own, let alone our allies, which invites more attacks. This line of reasoning only works if our Iraqi allies can politically and militarily gain the upper hand on Iran and its allies within a relatively short period of time, and we can strike the clerical regime elsewhere, and the U.S. armed forces in Iraq can hunker down adequately in the interregnum. None of these is easily achieved.
Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was a disaster for Iraq and the United States, which was only partly reversed when we returned three years later. But what was done may not be undone. If Iran’s minions continue to kill Americans, then Washington will either have to strike back much more harshly than it has so far, get out, or watch its influence in the country collapse. Fortunately, Iraqi political dysfunction works here to Washington’s advantage: it’s actually hard for Iran, through threat, murder, bribery, and appeals to Shiite fraternity, to rally effectively the Iraqi Shiite community against the United States. Iranian designs on Iraq have become open and crude. And the Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who represent around 40 percent of the country, want America to stay. Kicking the U.S. out probably can’t be done by a poorly executed and divisive parliamentary vote when the parliament—the entire political establishment—is held in contempt by an increasingly large slice of the electorate. Washington has some maneuvering room.
Nevertheless, the administration would be well advised to prepare for a worst-case scenario, which means that it needs to develop the necessary capacities to keep U.S. troops at Dayr az-Zor, Syria, regardless of U.S. troop presence in Iraq if Washington intends to deny Iran control of the northern Middle East. That won’t be easy, and at a minimum may require the U.S. Air Force and Navy to violate routinely somebody’s airspace. America could be driven out of Afghanistan by the Taliban and Pakistan, from Iraq by Iran, and from Syria, by Iran or Trump himself. Such a rout of the United States would likely have cascading, global consequences.
And it won’t just be in Iraq where Khamenei tries to degrade President Trump’s writ. Tehran has already started pushing its nuclear program beyond the confines of the JCPOA. It is ignoring requests from the International Atomic Energy Agency to explain apparent violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, including denying access to a site at Turquz-Abad, southwest of Tehran, where uranium conversion appears to have taken place.
The Obama administration played fast and loose with the “possible-military-dimension” questions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Secretary of State John Kerry liked to dismiss concerns about weaponization by suggesting that we knew everything. (That would be a first for the Central Intelligence Agency.) The Europeans, too, have shown little desire to push for answers since any information gathered that suggests Iran has an active arms program that extends beyond uranium enrichment and intermediate-range ballistic missiles might well crater the hope, to which the Europeans still cling, that the JCPOA can be reborn with a Democratic president. But the clerical regime has a way of alienating the Europeans. Stonewalling the IAEA on the NPT while openly increasing the quality and quantity of enriched uranium may be enough to move the Europeans, however begrudgingly, into opposition—despite their loathing of President Trump. They probably wouldn’t implement their own punishing sanctions. COVID-19, and economic self-interest, likely would prevent that. But Iranian bad behavior could stop European statesmen from publicly opposing Washington.
In any case, eventually Trump, assuming the Iranians refuse his future offers to negotiate, will have to decide whether he’s really going to do anything about an Iranian A-bomb. One day Tehran will inject uranium oxide gas into its more advanced centrifuges to test them. Khamenei may do it in the open to see what Washington does. He may not, in which case the administration will be in the dark since, outside of a lucky intelligence penetration, Washington simply has no means to detect this work. With or without the JCPOA, we are blind outside of IAEA-monitored sites. If the Iranians can technically do this before November, and Khamenei believes doing so would hurt Trump, the supreme leader will most likely give the green light.
This come-to-Muhammad moment for Washington was inevitable after Trump pulled America out of the JCPOA. The administration hasn’t really prepared itself, and certainly not public opinion, for this eventuality. The White House and State have preferred to not think about the Iranian atomic progress since it complicates what has been a simple and effective policy: billions have been denied to the most troublesome, convulsive and murderous regime in the Middle East. They stopped what had been the most successful case of foreign blackmail in American history. And the economic contraction has helped to produce a continuous stream of domestic protests since 2017, protests aimed explicitly at the theocracy, not America. It is striking that Trump and the United States have not become targets in these protests. Trump is responsible for a punishing economic war against the Islamic Republic, yet it’s the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards, the entire theocratic apparatus of oppression, that have taken the hit. The standing of the United States in Iran may have actually gone up.
Many critics of the president who adamantly opposed the renewal of U.S. sanctions now are tirelessly pushing the line that sanctions have been a significant factor in Iran’s COVID-19 pandemic. Given the past commentary of brave Iranian officials on the delinquency and corruption that exists in the Islamic Republic’s government and health care system, given the actions of Mahan Air, given the Swiss channel for procuring medical supplies and the billions of dollars the regime still possesses, these criticisms seem obtuse. The Islamic Republic has tenaciously sought what it wants, through legal and illicit channels, for decades, often paying much more than others to ensure it gets what it requires, especially if it has had anything to do with the nuclear program. And yet we have not seen the regime use the same determination to contract for medical supplies. We have, however, watched Khamenei suggest that the virus may be an American plot, tailor-made to infect Iranians, possibly even with the help of jinn (Khamenei’s conspiracies are vivid, omnipresent, religious, and occasionally supernatural). This conspiracy, which the supreme leader likely, deeply, believes, will certainly amplify his desire to strike the United States.
The American left has long been conflicted about the Islamic Republic. Theocracies don’t normally elicit sympathy from progressives. Yet since the 1970s, the Western left has felt bad about the MI6/CIA-supported 1953 coup against the oil-nationalizing Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. That guilt grew in the 1990s as the anti-clerical Iranian left locked onto the coup as the decisive factor in aborting the rise of an Islam–resistant democracy. But Obama’s “transformative” outreach to Khamenei broke the dike, releasing the left’s discomfort with American hegemony, sympathy for “exploited” Third World countries, growing distaste for Saudi Arabia, and an estimable reverence for Persian culture and history.
And what Obama unleashed Trump has put into overdrive. What he is for, the left is against, especially if it entails the use of force. And Trump may see declining support among Republicans if he chooses to contain the Islamic Republic or check its nuclear advance. Americans now focus on the cost of action; they don’t focus on what happens when Washington does nothing. (The Munich dictum is kaput.) The odds that the United States was ever going to stop the mullahs’ quest for an atom bomb were poor; in an age of American retreat, when politics are so harshly polarized, those odds are worse.
Since World War II, nuclear proliferation has been slow in part because American resolve against it has been great. But the American world order is cracking, and Iran certainly has the capacities of North Korea. If the military option exists, it’s probably Israel that will exercise it. And given the considerable success the Israelis have had in Syria in checking Iranian ambitions, the odds of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites have certainly increased. Israeli senior officials seem less fearful, of both Iranian and American repercussions, than they did in 2011–2012, when prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu was seriously exploring the possibility of a preventive military action. In any unity government, Blue & White-now-Israel Resilience leader Benny Gantz, a pretty ardent Iran hawk, might well fortify Netanyahu, whose bark has always been more profound than his bite.
Yet President Trump is a live wire precisely because he often takes actions that don’t appear to be politically astute. But if he doesn’t strike as Iran advances, and the smart money still is that Trump isn’t sufficiently unconventional to do so, especially given his deep desire to lessen America’s responsibilities abroad, then it will become more pressing for him to adopt a policy that makes sense against an Islamic Republic armed with nuclear weapons. The same would be true of a President Biden if he decides not to throw money at Tehran.
Leaving behind the idea that the United States can actually thwart the Islamic Republic’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might at least oblige Washington to focus more seriously on the nature of the clerical regime, with whether the moderation-through-engagement approach of the Democrats makes any sense. Dartmouth’s Misagh Parsa has done a fine comparative study of unpleasant authoritarian regimes that have evolved into democracies or just less oppressive political systems. The Islamic Republic fails these evolutionary tests. Without the illusion of arms control distorting the foreign-policy debate, we might have greater clarity about how we view, 20 years after 9/11, the Iranian Islamist threat (how much do we fear virulently anti-American mullahs with nukes?), the Middle East (can we leave it?), human-rights and democracy among Muslims (do we believe in their ameliorative effect on Muslim societies?), or whether we would just prefer to trade with Iran’s theocracy because we don’t really have the will to do anything else (scrape off the varnish of the European Union’s love affair with soft power, this is essentially where most Europeans have been for years).
For whatever reasons, Trump has taken Tehran head on. He has probably scared the mullahs and their guardsmen more than any president since Reagan in 1980. By rejecting his predecessor’s evolutionary optimism about the Islamic Republic, and a deeply flawed nuclear agreement that really only made technical sense if one thought Iran was in rapid transition toward something less wicked, he has set the United States on a collision course with religious revolutionaries who have become accustomed to winning. Barring an electoral defeat in 2020 or death by virus or just old age, Khamenei and Trump may well end the long-running, region-defining clash. It could end in war. Or rebellion in the streets. Or just the dismissive shrug of a declining superpower turning inward.
For his part, Khamenei will certainly not go gentle into the night.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Photograph by Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/Getty Images.