In the Wake of Soleimani’s Death, Experts Discuss What’s Next for Iran, the U.S., and the Middle East


Panelists Colin Kahl, Abbas Milani, Lisa Blaydes and Brett McGurk shared their perspectives on what the future of U.S.-Iran relations may entail with moderator Michael McFaul (far left) at the Freeman Spogli Institute on January 10, 2020
Panelists Colin Kahl, Abbas Milani, Lisa Blaydes and Brett McGurk shared their perspectives on what the future of U.S.-Iran relations may entail with moderator Michael McFaul (far left) at the Freeman Spogli Institute on January 10, 2020. Photo: Ari Chasnoff

Following the death of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, five international affairs experts from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) gathered to discuss Soleimani’s prominence in Iran, the potential consequences of Soleimani’s death on the surrounding Gulf states and U.S.-Iran relations, and the rising presence of Russia and China in the region.

Several hundred people packed Encina Hall for the panel discussion, “The Strike on Soleimani: Implications for Iran, the Middle East & the World,” which was moderated by FSI Director Michael McFaul.

Soleimani was a unique figure in Iranian society, said panelist Abbas Milani, who is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford. Soleimani had perhaps a closer relationship with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini than anyone, and his assassination was a major event that transformed the country for several days.

“Iranian television and radio were constantly talking about him, and they described him as a pious soldier, and a national hero,” Milani said. “For the first time in maybe 15 years, Iran played an iconic secular song, which to most Iranians is the equivalent of ‘La Marsailles.’ Hundreds of thousands of people turned out [for Soleimani’s funeral] — it was a huge demonstration of support.” 

Soleimani was portrayed by the American media in a much different way, said Colin Kahl, the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). The description of Soleimani by some U.S. news organizations as a “terrorist mastermind” is accurate to a certain degree, Kahl said, but it doesn’t fully describe his role in Iran.

“His title doesn’t really have an equivalent in the U.S., but you can think of him as a mashup between the director of the CIA, the Secretary of Defense, and the shadow Secretary of State all rolled up into one,” Kahl said. “You can imagine how escalatory it would be in our view if an American secretary of defense was killed on foreign soil by another state.”

The effects of the strike on Soleimani are reverberating throughout the Middle East, said Lisa Blaydes, who is a professor of political science at Stanford and a senior fellow at FSI. Iraqis are very unhappy about Iranian intervention in their country and about U.S. intervention in Iran, she said.

“A national poll conducted in Iraq last year found that most Iraqis want to open up their country more to the international economy — and guess which country they are interested in having intervene to a greater extent?” Blaydes asked. “It’s not Iran, it’s not the U.S. — it’s China.”

Brett McGurk, the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at FSI and CISAC, discussed changes to the United States’ national security strategy, which outlines the major national security concerns of the United States and how the administration plans to deal with them. The strategy that was released in 2017 — when he was still working for the government — was a major shift from what it had been in previous years, he said. 

“It said that we were actually going to reduce our commitments in the Middle East — that we’ve been too invested in the Middle East,” McGurk said. “It said that we were going to shift to a great power competition, which meant we were going to shift our resource focus, our diplomatic focus, and our prioritization to Asia, China, and Russia. A few months later, President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and announced an uber-maximalist Iran policy.”

Meanwhile, other countries are beginning to expand their influence in the Middle East, Milani said. He told the audience that the degree of influence that China and Russia have in the region has never been as great as it is today.

“In 200 years, Russia never had a naval base in the Persian Gulf — but they’re about to get one,” Milani said. “Never in history has China, Russia, and Iran had joint naval operations in the Persian Gulf — but they just had one about three weeks ago. I can tell you with absolute certainty that China and Russia have never been as strong in the Persian Gulf as they are now.” 

Related: Listen to Abbas Milani discuss Iran’s response to the strike against Soleimani, Iran's economic and political troubles, and why Soleimani’s death is a big deal on the World Class podcast.