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How Iran Will Move Forward Without Gen. Qassem Soleimani

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now here in Washington, let's bring in Ariane Tabatabai, who is a political scientist with the Rand Corporation focused on the Middle East and Iran. Welcome to the program.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So we heard that Soleimani was a very, very popular person, maybe the most popular person in Iran. But was there also some divided opinion? Was he really that popular with everybody?

TABATABAI: Well, first of all, we always have to take opinion polls with a grain of salt. Yes, there have been a number of polls that suggest that he was incredibly popular within Iran. But the IRGC writ large and Soleimani specifically have also been viewed widely in the country, rightly so, as forces of repression at home and of chaos abroad.

INSKEEP: I guess we should explain - you used that acronym IRGC, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, right?

TABATABAI: The Islamic Revolution...

INSKEEP: Islamic. Thank you very much for correcting that. I appreciate it. And this is a military force that is parallel to the regular Iranian military, but it's really powerful and really influential - right? - I mean, economically as well as other ways inside Iran.

TABATABAI: Yeah. They're a bit of a strange entity that we don't really have a counterpart to in the United States. So Iran has two different branches of its armed forces. The first one is the conventional military, which existed before the revolution. And the second one is the IRGC, which sort of operates in the same areas as the conventional military, but it has additional responsibilities. And as you said, it's not just a military force at this point. It's also a big economic and political powerhouse.

INSKEEP: And foreign policy powerhouse because of this Quds Force, which projects Iranian power overseas. And would it be the Quds Force that works with Iran's various allies - Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, forces in Yemen, that sort of thing?

TABATABAI: Yeah, that's exactly right. Soleimani personally oversaw a lot of these relationships, and the Quds Force more generally has worked to train, equip, assist and deploy more recently forces to various theaters where Iran is involved, from Afghanistan all the way to Lebanon.

INSKEEP: So that leads to two questions - would the Quds Force possibly be at the forefront of any retaliation against the United States?

TABATABAI: You bet. They're going to be involved in any attacks that happen next. They are typically involved in - and they have been involved over the past few months in the tensions that have unfolded between the United States and Iran. So the latest attack that led to the killing of a U.S. contractor, that would have been done with Soleimani's approval and green light, and the Quds Force would have been involved in it.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you do not have much doubt that Soleimani was guilty as charged here.

TABATABAI: Yeah, I think that's pretty crystal clear. The question right now is not whether or not Soleimani was guilty. He was responsible for killing a number of Americans, hundreds of Americans in the 2000s. He's been responsible for spreading terrorism in the region. I think the major question is whether it made sense strategically for the United States to do this at this stage.

INSKEEP: Oh, because there will be quite possibly further escalations, and we don't really know what.

TABATABAI: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And, of course, there is also a question - we have not verified U.S. statements today that there were imminent attacks planned, that this was in many ways a preemptive strike. Let me ask another question, though. Soleimani was just described as Iran's indispensable man. Well, he's gone. Does that significantly weaken Iran?

TABATABAI: I do think that it's hard to overstate how significant this is. You know, Soleimani had very close personal relationships with the leaders of all these different groups that it works with throughout the region, from Hezbollah to the Shia militias to the Houthis. So that is pretty significant. And he had incredible experience and knowledge that had made him such a powerful force in the region.

That said, he has built this apparatus that is going to be there for the foreseeable future. And that's not going anywhere with a decapitation attack. So, you know, I don't expect Iran's foreign policy to change fundamentally following the strike.

INSKEEP: One more thing. It's been presumed that full-scale war is not seen in either countries' interests, that neither government really wants that. Is that still true?

TABATABAI: I think that's exactly right for both parties. But, you know, I think the major question is, what happens next? And at what point does the cycle of escalation stop? I think that both sides - you know, President Trump has said so, Iranian leaders have said so - want to avoid direct war. But it seems increasingly difficult to manage and control that.

INSKEEP: Thanks for your insights. Really appreciate them.

TABATABAI: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Ariane Tabatabai is a political scientist with the Rand Corporation focused on the Middle East and Iran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.