The fact is that much of Soleimani’s strategy had begun to falter, and in ways advantageous to U.S. interests. While Soleimani fought the ground war in Syria on Bashar al-Assad’s behalf, only Russian intervention prevented Assad’s fall. Russia will dictate the terms of Syria’s future, not Iran. Iraq’s Kurdish president had succeeded in preventing a pro-Iranian successor to pro-Iranian Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The protests in Iraq and Lebanon were about corruption and unrepresentative governance, which Iran was associated with because of its influence in those countries even before Iranian-affiliated militias responded violently. In the case of Iraq, they killed more than 500 protesters and wounded a staggering 19,000.
Iran’s strategy of gaining depth beyond its borders succeeded because it was opaque. Soleimani’s desire for credit—pictures from regional battlefields, chairing the Iraqi-government meeting that decided whether Abadi would remain in power—removed the plausible deniability of Iranian orchestration, activating nationalistic antibodies in Iraq and Lebanon.
It’s possible, even likely, that recent attacks by Iran on U.S. bases in Iraq were an overt attempt to distract from the validity of protests in Iraq. In that, Soleimani may have succeeded in death at what he was failing to achieve in life. Judging by the crowds at Soleimani’s funerals in Iran, his killing erased fissures between Iranians and their government, at least temporarily.