In 2018, the United States executed a drone strike to assassinate Kasem Soleimani, the man spearheading Iran’s covert operations. Soleimani, a highly recognizable military figure in the Middle East, had placed the Quds Force he commanded at the center of a network of regional militias, thereby expanding Iran’s military influence across the Arab world for two decades. His funeral drew such large crowds that over 50 people were crushed to death.
The successor to Soleimani, Ismail Kenny, is a significantly different figure. Kenny, who works largely behind the scenes, has the challenging task of utilizing armed organizations to increase Iran’s footprint without eliciting a deadly response from the US.
As the new commander of the Quds Force, General Ismail Kenny has been discreetly working to consolidate militias across the region, from Baghdad to the Red Sea. These militias, which include Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, have the potential to ignite a series of regional conflicts, further drawing the US into the Middle East conflict. The US has responded with strikes against Iran-backed militias across Syria and Iraq, sending a message to Kenny to de-escalate tensions.
Iran’s control over arms has weakened – and this is a problem
The American assassination of Soleimani was an attempt to undermine the chain of command, which starts in Tehran and reaches its armed allies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. But instead of undermining their ability to cause regional escalation; It only made the attempts more wild, on the front of harming trade in the Red Sea, attacks against Israel and the growing threat they pose to American forces.
Kenny’s next moves, and whether the Iran-supported militias will heed his directives, are significant sources of uncertainty in the region.
Deep friendship with Soleimani
Kenny, born in the late 1950s, has spent much of his career overseeing Iranian interests in Afghanistan. He formed a deep friendship with Soleimani in the early 1980s when they fought together in the Iran-Iraq war. In the 1990s, Kenny climbed the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, operating in Afghanistan where he fought against drug smugglers and supported the “Northern Alliance” against the Taliban.
The militia network became political actors
As the wars in Iraq and Syria have waned, Iran’s militia network has become more embedded in political landscapes. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is both a political party and a force working against Israel. In Yemen, the Houthis have seized the capital and effectively function as the government. Similarly, in Iraq, the militias are deeply rooted in the country’s political and security systems, wielding power to influence national politics while remaining outside the control of the Iraqi government.
These militia organizations receive funding and ammunition from Iran and operate within the framework established by Iran. However, they also have the freedom to pursue local agendas. While this growing independence reduces the economic burden on Tehran, it also diminishes its ability to restrain them, which is a problem for Iran.
As tensions escalate in the Middle East, Kenny and other senior Iranian government officials are working to ensure the militias don’t incite further conflict. The question remains: will the militias listen?