There are many reasons for Americans to celebrate the death, last night, of Qassem Soleimani. Most recently he was crucial in orchestrating a bold raid on an American embassy. Most importantly, during the Iraq War, he led the organization and training of Shi’a militia forces that maimed and killed at least hundreds of American servicemembers, as well as Iraqis who opposed Iran’s domination of their country. He rose to the rank of division commander in his twenties killing our allies the Kurds. His organization, the “Quds Force” branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, has likewise organized and trained militant and terrorist groups across the Middle East. He worked with the Russians to plot their joint, successful, intervention to prop up the war-criminal regime in Syria. They planned a bombing in Washington D.C. as part of a worldwide campaign to murder ambassadors. They funded their wars in part through the opium trade from Afghanistan through Iran, to Lebanese Hezbollah who turned it into heroin that they sold to drug cartels in the Americas.
All of these — any of these — are good reasons for Americans to be glad that Soleimani is dead. To appreciate the power of the blow to the Iranian regime, however, you have to see him in a different light than is natural for Americans. To say that he was a terrorist, or a mastermind of terrorism, that is insufficient to appreciate how much he meant to Iran. To say that he was a master criminal misses the mark: he was operating with the full backing of a sovereign state. To see how great the effects of his death are likely to be, one must appreciate his virtues.
Most Americans might say that he, or at least very much of what he did, was evil. It may seem odd to say that such a man had virtues. Many people think of “virtue” as an unalloyed good and a unified whole, such that it would be strange to say that a murderer and terrorist was in any sense a virtuous man. But courage is a virtue, and Soleimani definitely had that: he was killed because he was at the forefront of his nation’s wars, operating abroad rather than in safety in spite of his notoriety. Nor was this the first time he came under fire. He was nearly killed a few years ago by an artillery shell in Syria, once again right on the front line of his nation’s wars. When Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei says that Soleimani spent years “wishing for martyrdom,” all the evidence suggests that he is right. “Virtue” means “strength,” after all, not “goodness.”
Soleimani had a number of strengths. He was personally disciplined, of course, or he could not have continued waging unfettered war into his sixties. He was, by the standards of the Iran regime’s interpretation of Twelver Shi’a Islam, intensely pious in a way that won him the admiration of other members of his faith. He was capable of generosity, especially towards those whom he viewed as the children of martyrs to his cause.
Most importantly, though, he won the respect of the militants he worked with across the Middle East. These organizations are not natural allies. They often differ by ethnicity or tribe, even by sect: the Yemeni Houthi factions, for example, are Fiver rather than Twelver Shi’a. These groups often were in direct competition with each other for money and power, influence and authority. They were not merely devout warriors, who could be held together by appeal to their ideas about the divine, but were organizations often swimming in drugs and guns and relationships with international criminals. These militant organizations have every reason to strive against each other, to try to seize from each other wealth and power. Ambitious younger members within the organizations have every reason to buck the extant authority, which risks fragmenting the organizations. Even among the most religious, sectarian intensity often leads even churches to break apart into competing congregations — how much more so militant groups?
The ability to smooth out conflicts between these organizations and hold them together is a quality that will be extremely hard to replace. It is a quality that was built upon his personal relationships with all of the leaders of these organizations, not merely upon Iranian cash or power. It was built on his willingness to stand under fire with them, to be there on the front lines with them, as well as his ability to bend their competitor organizations. Soleimani could make promises and keep them because his word was respected. His word was respected because he was respected. In the same strange way as a great mafia lord, he was a man of honor. The honor in which he was held by these militants was often the glue that allowed them to work together instead of falling into competition.
It is not at all clear that any replacement will be able to keep the peace among these militants. The most obvious path is that they will not. If Iran is not able to hold this fractious alliance of militants together, its regional power will collapse. Decades of personal relationships died last night. Soleimani was so long the great man, and in so many places and to so many people, that he will be very difficult to replace. It may be impossible to replace him.