The Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is dead, and tensions with Iran appear to be simmering down. But the landscape he helped build is still very much a problem for the United States.
Since his killing in a U.S. drone strike last week, experts have been rushing to explain just why Soleimani mattered so much to Iran’s ambitions—and what consequences his death really holds for the region. One simple way to think about it: He was the one man who had mastered the new landscape of the Middle East.
Soleimani’s particular skill was in controlling what’s known as “nonstate actors”—a dry name that, in the Middle East, covers the fractious group of militias, religious groups and tribal forces that actually wield power in much of the region. These groups have grown vastly in importance in the past 20 years, confounding traditional diplomats and statecraft, and Soleimani not only exploited but empowered them in Iran’s interests. His absence might help the U.S. in the short term, but it also shows just how deep a challenge the region will pose in the near future—and why our adversaries, whether Iran or Russia, still enjoy a significant and unpredictable advantage in exerting power.
For people who normally think of foreign relations in terms of governments and heads of state—Iran versus the U.S., or Vladimir Putin vs. Xi Jinping—it can be hard to grasp just how little governments sometimes matter in parts of the Middle East. Over the past four decades, nearly every institution in the region has been transformed in ways that weaken the traditional system of state power. [Continue reading…]