The airplane that was hit by Iranian missiles above Tehran is not “just” a disaster that killed hundreds of innocent people. Its effects are much more significant than they might seem, with a government that’s staggering before the accusations of the West and before a population that quickly forgot its united objective after the death of Qasem Soleimani, turning its rage towards the authorities.
That night in Tehran seemed like it would never end. After Soleimani was murdered, time seemed to stop in Iran and was stuck in a nightmare that the ayatollah system seems unable to bounce back from. And those who have been weakened first are the Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, who have lost not only their leading figure in the Middle East and their connection to foreign powers and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but also a level of credibility that is fundamental for remaining tethered to the system of power that has been constructed in recent decades.
The Ukraine Airlines plane was hit by a missile that left a nearby Revolutionary Guards base. And the Pasdaran air force commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, has assumed “full responsibility” for the hit. “We assume full responsibility for the error, and whatever the government decides, we are ready to obey,” said the official at a dramatic press conference. And he also revealed that he would have preferred dying after seeing what had happened.
Hajizadeh did not die. But his position is now particularly weak, especially because masses are calling for the heads of those who shot down the airplane and hid the evidence. But, more than anything, the public are starting to have little faith in the strength of the Pasdaran. And this is a particularly significant problem for an Islamic Republic that is experiencing a considerable systemic crisis due to the protests this past winter (unofficial sources spoke of hundreds dead) and sanctions that are strangling the economy, and which awaits next month’s elections with much up in air. Reaching this crisis with Soleimani dead, Hajizadeh weakened and with a Supreme Leader who has been blamed by part of the population complicates the life of the Guards and that of Khamenei himself. Never has he been harassed and his strengths hit so hard as this.
With the death of Soleimani, Khamenei lost his connection between Tehran and the Middle East and one of the men who was closest to him politically. The general was a strategic threat to the United States and Washington’s allies in the Middle East, starting with Israel. And he was the only one who was capable of reversing the fate of the war against Isis in Iran’s favor, infiltrating all countries with a strong Shiite community. In addition to Soleimani’s political and military experience and skill, there was the strength of Hajizadeh, the head of one of the most feared branches of the Guards, the Aerospace Force (Afagir).
As leader of the Irgc missile program, Hajizadeh has directly threatened to hit bases and cities in the United States (in the past few days) and Israel (over the years) many times. And he is, in essence, the head of the second most dangerous force of the Pasdaran after the Quds.
Tunnels for launching the missiles, new technology for shooting down drones, the ballistic capabilities demonstrated (according to some) in raids against bases in Ein al-Asad and Erbil and especially the program that led Iran to develop the ability to hit US bases in the Gulf and all the largest cities in the Middle East are all elements that made the Pasdaran Aerospace Force a key part of the ayatollahs’ strategy. It’s true that the goal of the US sanctions and of the negotiations for the agreement with Tehran is the missile program.
The nuclear program, the missile program, the network of regional allies and the system of central power have always been the main goals of the political, military and financial siege laid by the United States. These are the cornerstones of the “anti-Iran” agenda. And in just two nights, in an endless dark week for the Islamic Republic, this system has faltered. The Quds force has been decapitated, the aerospace force has been gravely weakened in their leadership, the image of the Pasdaran has been wounded and Khamenei’s close circle of supporters has shrunk. Soleimani has paid in blood and Hajizadeh with an error that will surely be a permanent stain on his career in the eyes of Iranians.
The impression is that in Iran there is something much more important than the protests. There is a change of power in the state within the state, which has always been the target of the United States, the Revolutionary Guards, with the final goal of perhaps definitively weakening Khamenei. However, it’s unclear whether this will be done from within or from the outside, or just by tragic fate.
Translation by Alexa Ahern