On 3 January 2020, the US military assassinated Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), along with his companion, the deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Three years later, the motives for this decision – and its timing – are still being debated. The reasons for the US’s shock killing, however, may not be solely related to Soleimani’s role in regional conflicts, but could also arguably stem from his growing international clout.
Why was Soleimani assassinated?
Soleimani was reportedly responsible for leading Iran’s plan to surround Israel with an arc of missiles and precision drones in the West Asian region – from Lebanon to Syria, Iraq and Gaza, all the way to Yemen – which was viewed by Israeli officials as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
The US has long accused Soleimani of being behind much of the resistance it faced after invading Iraq in 2003, as well as allegedly ordering operations against US forces in the period leading up to his assassination.
The Quds Force commander – along with Muhandis – were critical in the Iraqi effort to defeat ISIS, outside of the control and agenda of the US and its regional allies, who often used the terrorist group to secure political and geographic gains.
Furthermore, the US held Iran, and by extension Soleimani, responsible for the Yemeni attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities on 14 September, 2019. The Aramco attack was so massive that it disrupted half of Saudi oil production, and was the largest of its kind since former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
A leader in the Resistance Axis
Soleimani was the “keyholder” in the Axis of Resistance, according to an Arab politician with strong ties to decision-making circles in both Washington and Riyadh.
“Hajj Qassem,” says the politician, was uniquely capable of making decisions and then implementing them, which is considered a “rare advantage” among leaders. He was able to achieve significant strategic results – rapidly – by moving freely and negotiating directly with various statesmen, militias, and political movements.
Examples of this are rife: The Quds Force commander persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 to intervene militarily in Syria, and organized the complex ‘frenemy’ relationship between Turkiye and Tehran through Turkish intelligence director Hakan Fidan.
Soleimani played a pivotal role in preventing the fall of Damascus, maintained and developed important links with Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah in Beirut, led a region wide campaign to defeat ISIS, and successfully managed the delicate balances between various political components in Iraq. In Yemen, he was able to supply the Ansarallah movement with training and arms that arguably changed the course of the Saudi-led aggression.
Together or separately, the aforementioned points made him a desired target of assassination for both the US government and the security establishment in Israel.
A visit to Venezuela
There may, however, be additional factors that contributed to the US decision to assassinate Soleimani on 3 January, 2022. While some analysts cite, for instance, the storming of the 2019 US embassy in Baghdad by demonstrators three days before the extrajudicial killing, US decision makers were unlikely to have mobilized its assassins in reaction to this relatively benign incident.
More significant for them would have been Soleimani’s unannounced trip to Venezuela in 2019, which crossed Washington’s red lines within its own geographic sphere of influence.
His visit to the South American country was publicly revealed more than two years later by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, during an interview with Al-Mayadeen in December 2021.
Maduro stated that Soleimani visited Caracas between March and April 2019, during which time the US launched a cyber and sabotage attack on Venezuela, resulting in widespread power outages. He glorified the Iranian general as a military hero who “combated terrorism and the brutal terrorist criminals who attacked the peoples of the Axis of resistance. He was a brave man.”
Although Maduro did not reveal the exact date of the visit, it can be assumed that it took place on 8 April, 2019, and that Soleimani came on board the first direct flight of the Iranian airline Mahan Air between Tehran and Caracas.
At that time, the US attack on Caracas was at its peak: Washington’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, comprehensive economic sanctions, and then, at the end of April, the organization of a coup attempt that succeeded only in securing the escape of US-backed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez to the Spanish embassy.
Expanding military ties with Caracas
During Soleimani’s Caracas visit, military cooperation between Iran and Venezuela was likely a key topic of discussion. Prior to his visit, Maduro had announced the establishment of “Popular Defense Units,” or revolutionary militias, to maintain order in the face of US-backed coup attempts.
Both Iranian and Latin American sources confirm that Tehran had a role in organizing these militias. However, the most significant military cooperation between the two countries has been in the field of military industrialization.
Since the tenure of late, former President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has been working on a project to manufacture drones. This was announced by Chavez on 13 June, 2012, noting that “We are doing this with the help of different countries including China, Russia, Iran, and other allied countries.”
A few months earlier, the commander of the US Army’s Southern Command SOUTHCOM (its assigned area of responsibility includes Central and South America), General Douglas Fries, spoke about the same project, downplaying its importance by claiming that Iran was building drones with “limited capabilities” in Venezuela for internal security purposes.
In fact, Iran, represented by Soleimani’s Quds Force, was busy increasing military cooperation with Venezuela by developing new generations of drones and providing Caracas with spare parts for its existing American-made aircrafts. Interestingly, the raising of the Iranian flag has become routine in the Venezuelan Air Force’s military ceremonies.
On 20 November, 2020, President Maduro delivered a speech announcing plans to produce different types of drones. Near him, on display, was a miniature model of a drone which appeared to be that of the Iranian “Muhajer 6” aircraft that entered service in Iran in 2018.
This issue was raised by then-Israeli Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, while receiving the heads of American Jewish organizations in February 2022.
Soleimani’s legacy in Latin America
These developments were the direct result of Qassem Soleimani’s efforts. A Venezuelan official has confirmed to The Cradle that the country’s drone project was built with full Iranian support: from training engineers to setting up research and manufacturing centers, all the way to production.
In October 2019, the commander of US Southern Command, Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, warned that Russia, China, Iran and Cuba were operating in varying capacities in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility. He noted, specifically, that Iran’s influence and presence is being felt in South America.
In March 2020, the US SOUTHCOM commander repeated the same warning, placing Iran at the “top of the list of countries” that have assisted Venezuela in skirting US sanctions.
The US has long viewed Latin America as its “backyard” and has sought to prevent the influence of rival or hostile powers in the region through its adherence to the Monroe Doctrine. The influence of Soleimani in the western hemisphere may have been viewed as a threat to US interests and a crossing of this “red line.”
His role in assisting Venezuela in developing military capabilities, including the production of drones, was seen in Washington as a qualitative leap in Iran’s foreign relations and was likely a factor in the decision to assassinate Soleimani.