After the shocking assassination of Soleimani, it is likely there will be a protracted war of attrition launched by Iran through proxies and allies in Iraq. How effective such a strategy will be, depends on several factors. Most important, however, will be the extent to which Esmail Qaani, the new Commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-QF) is able to amalgam Iran’s proxies and allies in Iraq to implement the strategy. His predecessor possessed charisma and personal relationships which Qaani may currently lack. He will need time to develop them or have to use other tools in their absence. It is believed that he has long-standing experience in building networks; therefore, Iraq in this stage will be a testing ground for his capabilities. The IRGC-QF could also launch operations against US targets in Afghanistan where Qaani has experience of working. This could then make Afghanistan a theater for protracted retaliation against US military personnel and diplomats via Iran-backed Taliban forces or proxies.
Additionally, in the Iraqi political arena, Kurdish and Sunni political actors perceive the US presence as a guarantee for preventing wider Iranian influence.* Qasem Soleimani had connections with Kurdish and Sunni political actors and through his engagement with them he may well have succeeded in winning favor from his local Shia proxies and allies. Whether Qaani will be able to engage with them in the same manner is something which should be watched. The Iranian diplomatic mission to Iraq headed by Iraj Masjedi (a former IRGC affiliate) could become more proactive in networking with local political actors in the future in order to offset the impact of Soleimani’s absence, at least in the short-term. It is also possible that other senior figures in the Iranian establishment, such as Ali Akbar Velayati, may take up more regional portfolios to fill the gaps left by Soleimani’s death.
The Gulf region will also be a crucial factor in tensions between the USA and Iran. If Soleimani’s assassination and ensuing escalation lead to less communication between Iran and the Gulf states, then tensions in the region are likely to increase. Interestingly, Iran’s relations are already worsening with Kuwait, an occasional messenger between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oman’s foreign policy under the new Sultan could have either a positive, or negative impact on regional tensions in the Gulf. However, Iran’s arch-rivals in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have signaled their interest in de-escalation. Communications between Iran and the UAE appeared to have improved after the military escalation in the Gulf last year, and Saudi Arabia also softened its tone towards Iran.
* Correction: This sentence was edited on 20 January 2020, where it originally stated: “Additionally, in the Iraqi political arena, Kurdish and Sunni political actors perceive their presence as a guarantee for maintaining a form of sectarian balance and preventing wider Iranian influence.”