The U.S. assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qasem Soleimani offers Iran an opening to change the way its presence is perceived in the region. Soleimani spent his career building Iran’s network of allies and proxies across the region. He was the face of Iran’s presence in the region, and importantly, the face of the fight against the Islamic State. When Islamic State fighters got close to Iran, and the IRGC forces were able to combat it effectively, Soleimani and the IRGC’s popularity surged.

Tehran will want to ensure continuity in the IRGC leadership, its presence in the region, and the relationships Soleimani spent so long establishing and maintaining. But it may also use his departure as an opportunity to correct some worrisome trends. As effective as Soleimani’s methods had been at building powerful armed militias and proxies around the region, the increasingly heavy-handed approach of those militias had been turning local opinion against Iran.

Soleimani’s double-edged visibility

Soleimani’s death may be a setback in terms of the personal relationships he had built, but he wasn’t alone in establishing them. The IRGC was a large, state institution, not a one-man show. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei already appointed Soleimani’s successor: Brigadier General Ismail Ghani. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Ghani was active in the Quds Force for years, including in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. He represents institutional continuity, with an in-depth understanding of the Quds Force and their operations in the region.

Ghani is not as well-known and charismatic as Soleimani was, but that may be an opportunity. The protests in Lebanon and Iraq over the past few months highlighted the limits of Iranian influence in the region. Protesters in both countries were focusing on poor economic and social conditions, and tackling their corrupt governments. Iran was guilty by association: it increasingly bore the brunt of their discontent because it is so closely aligned with both governments.

As the very visible face of Iranian policy in the region, Soleimani was the driver of the form that presence took. When in 2012, at the height of the conflict in Syria, the IRGC made its presence more visible and launched a campaign publicizing Soleimani’s work and relationships in the region. He made himself a celebrity, taking selfies with militiamen and crafting a narrative of his predominance in regional affairs.

This notoriety was double-edged: good for raising the profile of the Guards, increasing their popularity, and boosting nationalism as Iran made progress in the fight against the Islamic State, but bad because the actions of Iran’s partners in the region became directly associated with the Guards and Iran.

Iran’s overt backing of and close ties to the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al Shaabi) — an umbrella group for a number of Iran-backed militias -- meant that all their crimes, including those committed against Sunnis, the overt sectarianism, and more recently, their reactions to the protests in Iraq, were directly attributed to Iran.

When Soleimani broadcast his role in leading the PMF, it meant Iraqis directly blamed him for the atrocities they committed. While the public relations campaign may have painted Soleimani as an iconic military strategist and leader, it also fostered fear and hatred for him among Iraqis.

More problems than Soleimani

The sustained sectarianism and violence carried by the IRGC and its proxies have been part of their modus operandi in the region. They broadly didn’t care about the negative impacts that their overt sectarianism might have on locals, believing in their invincibility and the depth of their influence.

They are now paying a price for that approach.

While the ties that bind Iran to Iraq — religious, sectarian, family, economic — are long-standing and deep, Iran remains a foreign power. Iraqis will put their country above Iran. So will Lebanese, and other nations with a major IRGC presence.

This was different from the way Iran conducted business in the region before Soleimani’s PR campaign. The Islamic Republic’s entire strategy in the region and its reliance on proxies and nonstate actors, depended on deniability and flexibility. The increasing visibility of Iranian presence, embodied by Soleimani, removed some of that flexibility and a big chunk of the deniability, instead placing the spotlight squarely on Iran. The scale and severity of the recent anti-Iran protests in Iraq and Lebanon surprised Tehran.

What follows Soleimani?

Some parts of the Iranian system have been warning of this for a while, calling for the IRGC to reassess the visibility of its presence. But they were not taken seriously. After months of protests in Lebanon and Iraq, and Soleimani’s death, those skeptics may have been provided with an opportunity to reassess and alter the form Iran’s presence has taken in the region.

After the smoke clears from the current crisis, it will be critical to watch whether Iranian regional policy returns to its previous modus operandi after Soleimani. Such a change would involve Iran exercising its influence in the background rather than through overt campaigns circulating photographs of the Quds Force elite in the region. Importantly, it would involve Iran using its influence to ensure it buys itself the goodwill of locals.

At a time where the Lebanese are protesting the corruption of their government, Hezbollah — a key political actor — should have disassociated itself from the Lebanese government and sided with the protesters. This would have bought the group, and by extension Iran, significant goodwill.

Instead, the group sought to return to the status quo through violence and intimidation against protesters. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speech vowing revenge against the United States for Soleimani’s assassination continues the gross misreading of what its constituents want.

Looking ahead

It is unclear whether Iran will be able to capitalize on this potential opportunity. Within the Iranian system, the protests in Lebanon and Iraq (as well as in Iran), reinvigorated fears of change.

The balance currently lies in favor of maintaining the status quo at all costs. The hybrid actors’ own interests and grievances mean they maintain a degree of independence from Tehran, which means they won’t always follow Iran’s lead — even if Tehran were to capitalize on this opportunity.

Dina Esfandiary is a fellow at the Century Foundation

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