Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed “severe revenge” after the country’s most senior soldier was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq.
The revered General Qassem Suleimani, 62, who was predicted to take over as the country’s next president, was killed in a drone strike in Baghdad ordered by US President Donald Trump in the early hours of Friday morning.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Greece to return to Jerusalem to coordinate any defensive actions necessary, as the world held its breath over the expected Iranian reaction.
Suleimani was no typical general. He led the Quds Force, the expeditionary unit of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is active on the front lines of all the Arab world’s conflicts, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
His soldiers set up forward-operating bases not far from the Golan Heights, which have been repeatedly targeted by airstrikes attributed by analysts to Israel, but such was his influence in Syria that US intelligence reported that he was “running the Syrian civil war all on his own”.
He was the second most powerful person in Iran after Khamenei and drove Iran’s strategy of arming militias such as Hezbollah to Israel’s north. US generals recently called him “the most powerful and unconstrained actor in the Middle East today”.
Among Suleimani’s more recent projects was providing Quds Force assistance to Hezbollah to help the Lebanon-based militia convert some long-range rockets into precision-guided missiles by fitting them with special GPS components, giving them an improved accuracy to within 10 metres – a huge advance.
Alongside Suleimani, the deputy commander of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia was also killed in the early hours attack, when a missile struck their car as it was being driven to the airport.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said Arab countries “will take his revenge” while foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the US was guilty of “international terrorism,” adding that Suleimani’s troops had been “the most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al”.
In a rare televised interview with Suleimani last year he described how both he and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were almost killed by an Israeli air strike 13 years earlier, during hostilities in 2006.
The US has also had opportunities to kill Suleimani before. In 2007, American General Stanley McChrystal was leading elite US troops in Iraq and losing men to roadside bombs made by the Quds Force.
McChrystal called his opposite number “a ghostly puppet master, relying on quiet cleverness and grit to bolster Iran’s international influence” who displayed “brilliance, effectiveness and a commitment to his country”.
The American general recalled how there had been both the opportunity and the reason to kill him in 2007, but chose to monitor his convoy rather than attack it “to avoid a firefight and the contentious politics that would follow”.
Iran sees Suleimani’s killing as “an act of war” by the US and world markets appear to fear the worst, the price of oil rocketing four percent in the hours after the strike.
Russia said Suleimani’s killing amounted to “murder” and denounced it as a “reckless step” while Hezbollah said his death would be “avenged”.