The January 3 assassination by the United States of Qassem Soleimani — the commander of Iran’s Quds Force — transformed Iran, Abbas Milani told Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast.
Posters of Soleimani’s face were plastered everywhere, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni announced three official days of mourning, and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to grieve Soleimani’s death, Milani explained.
“There is no one in the Iranian domestic structure that was as close to Khameni as Soleimani,” said Milani, who is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies and founding co-director of the Iran Democracy Project. “The regime had begun a very sophisticated propaganda campaign: they talked about Soleimani as a poet, and as a mystic. When he was taken out, it was a very direct hit to the power structure.”
Milani explained that before Soleimani’s death, tensions were already high in Iran. The country had been experiencing its deadliest political unrest in 40 years after the regime raised gasoline prices by as much as 200 percent in November. Within hours, Iranians took to the streets to protest and call for the removal of President Hassan Rouhani. The regime responded by shutting down the internet for nearly the entire country and by opening fire on unarmed protesters — as of January, more than 1,000 people had been killed, Milani said.
Although the regime began to talk about immediate revenge on the U.S. following Soleimani’s assassination, its decision to fire missiles at two Iraq military bases that housed U.S. troops demonstrates that the country was hesitant to escalate things further, according to Milani.
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The missiles did not kill either U.S. or Iraqi troops, and Milani told McFaul that he suspects that Iran had not been looking to produce casualties in the hit.
“I have no evidence for it, but I would be profoundly surprised if Iraq didn’t tell the U.S. that the missiles were coming,” Milani said. “Then the U.S. moved all of their personnel before Iran had two hits and multiple missiles — but no loss of life. They had done their duty of revenge, and they had done it in a way that would allow President Trump to de-escalate.”
[Ready to dive deeper? Learn more about long-term Iranian economic, demographic, and environmental trends from the Iran 2040 Project.”]
A Missed Opportunity
Milani told McFaul that he thinks Iran missed an opportunity to create a moment of national unity in the midst of its severe economic and political troubles.
“Every indication is showing that Iran’s economic challenges are going to increase, and once this euphoria has ended, I would be very surprised if we don’t see more demonstrations,” Milani said. “If the regime had any prudence, they could have used this to their benefit. Instead, they’re doubling down on oppression, and these economic difficulties are not going to go away.”
Related: Watch five FSI experts — including Milani — discuss “The Strike on Soleimani: Implications for Iran, the Middle East & the World” on YouTube.