In recent years, Iran has projected its power across the Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen. One of the keys to its success has been a unique strategy of blending militant and state power, built in part on the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The acknowledged principal architect of this policy is Major General Qassem Soleimani, the long-serving head of Iran’s Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force. Without question, Soleimani is the most powerful general in the Middle East today; he is also one of Iran’s most popular living people, and has been repeatedly touted as a possible presidential candidate.
Despite its ongoing economic woes, today’s Iran has fashioned itself into one of the premier military and diplomatic powers in the Middle East—and Saudi Arabia’s principal rival for hegemony over the entire region. It has achieved this with a mix of policies—among them, deft diplomatic maneuvering; a tactical alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia; and the provision of arms, advice, and cash to Shi`a militias across a variety of countries. In the latter case, Iran has pioneered a seemingly unique strategy that combines insurgent and state power in a potent admixture—a strategy that is evident today in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
One man is recognized as the principal architect of each of these policies: Major General Qassem Soleimani, long-time chief of the Quds Force, a crack special forces battalion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Although revered in his home country and feared on battlefields across the Middle East, Soleimani remains virtually unknown in the West. Yet to say that today’s Iran cannot be fully understood without first understanding Qassem Soleimani would be a considerable understatement. More than anyone else, Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence—which Iran terms its “Axis of Resistance”—extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Today, with Assad’s impending victory in his country’s calamitous civil war, this Iranian alliance has become stable enough that Qassem Soleimani, should he be so minded, could drive his car from Tehran to Lebanon’s border with Israel without being stopped. And, as the Mossad chief Yossi Cohen has pointed out, the same route would be open to truckloads of rockets bound for Iran’s main regional proxy, Hezbollah.1
This article reviews Soleimani’s career and assesses his contribution to Iran’s regional ascendancy.
“Come, we are waiting for you:” Hamdan, Iran, 2018
On a normal day, the most powerful soldier in the Middle East shies away from bluster; indeed, he typically tends toward self-effacement. In meetings with everyone from local warlords to Ayatollahs to the Russian foreign minister, Major General Soleimani prefers to sit quietly in a corner and take it all in.2 When he speaks, he does so politely and simply in a pillow-soft tenor, rarely raising his voice.3 He deprecates all attempts at hero worship, refusing, for example, to allow admirers to kiss his hand.4 One American journalist who has profiled Soleimani calls him “almost theatrically modest.”5
Physically, he is unprepossessing. His face gently frosted with a close-cropped white beard, his dreamy eyes seeming to shine with the recollection of a fond memory, he bears more than a passing resemblance to mid-career Sean Connery, circa Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He is short in stature—a fact he has been known to highlight, dubbing himself “the smallest soldier.”6
One day in the summer of 2018, Soleimani’s modest façade dropped—to be replaced, albeit briefly, by righteous anger. The source of his ire was one to which many Americans might relate: a furious tweet from President Trump. On this particular occasion, the object of Trump’s wrath was Soleimani’s nominal boss.
“To Iranian President [Hassan] Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”7
During a speech in Hamdan, a city 200 miles southwest of Tehran, Soleimani tore into Trump with unusual bombast. He scowled. He wagged his finger. And he yelled, despite the half-dozen news microphones clipped to the lectern in front of him—a relatively modest crop, given Soleimani’s celebrity status in his home country.
“The U.S. president … made some idiotic comments on Twitter. It is beneath the dignity of the president of the great Islamic country of Iran to respond, so I will respond, as a soldier of our great nation. You threaten us with a measure that the world has not seen before. First of all, it has been over a year since Trump became U.S. president, but that man’s rhetoric is still that of a casino, of a bar. He talks to the world in the style of a bartender or a casino manager.”8
Soleimani’s audience responded in kind. Where typically they would hear his words in reverent silence, occasionally interjecting pro-forma Islamic revolutionary slogans, on this occasion they laughed and clapped and whistled and hollered and even heckled as if watching a standup comic.
Then came the threat.
“Mr. Trump, the gambler! […] You are well aware of our power and capabilities in the region. You know how powerful we are in asymmetrical warfare.9 Come, we are waiting for you. We are the real men on the scene, as far as you are concerned. You know that a war would mean the loss of all your capabilities. You may start the war, but we will be the ones to determine its end.”10
If anyone is in a position to make such brazen threats, it is Qassem Soleimani. One American commentator compares him to John LeCarré’s ubiquitous yet invisible Soviet spymaster Karla.11 Another calls him “Iran’s real foreign minister.”12 Both have a point. Although practically unknown to the U.S. public, Soleimani in fact manages vast swathes of Iranian foreign policy almost single-handedly. For the best part of 20 years, he has enjoyed the unmediated ear of his country’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls Soleimani, uniquely among all the Islamic Republic’s heroes, “a living martyr of the Revolution.”13 Abroad, he has made himself the confidant of political leaders in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and even Moscow.
The international community has taken note. The United Nations Security Council sanctions Soleimani for supporting terrorism and selling Iranian weapons overseas.14 The U.S. government brands him a nuclear proliferator, a supporter of terrorism, a human rights abuser, and a leading suspect in the 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing a Washington, D.C., restaurant.15 While most Americans and Europeans may never have heard the name Qassem Soleimani, their intelligence services might wish it came up less often.
Soleimani has become the leading exponent of a uniquely Iranian style of insurgency. Typically, militias define themselves against governments, fight them, and seek to sweep away all vestiges of their power. Those under Soleimani’s control, by contrast, have tended more often to work with the grain of government power, and thus to co-opt governments from within, fusing militant and state power into a formidable whole. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is the most prominent example; but, as this article will note, it is far from the only one.
The Goat Thief: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, 1953-200216
Little in Soleimani’s personal background could have hinted at the power he would one day wield. He hails from a village in the mountains of Kerman Province, a region in Iran’s southeast, not far from the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.17 In Kerman, tribal politics traditionally have held far more sway than any edict of the central government 500 miles away in Tehran.
Owing to a botched land reform introduced by the Shah as part of the “White Revolution,” Soleimani’s father, a small-time farmer, wound up owing the government around 9,000 rials. This debt, which was only on the order of $100, seems to have brought the family to the brink of ruin. In order to help pay down the debt, Soleimani left school at 13 to labor on construction sites in the provincial capital, Kerman City. By the time the Islamic Revolution erupted in 1978, he had become a technician with the municipal water authority.18
Prior to that point, the young Soleimani had shown little, if any, interest in politics; but he joined the IRGC shortly after it was founded in April 1979. He found his calling. At any rate, he must have impressed someone, for immediately after completing basic training, he became an instructor of new recruits.19 That was the moment Qassem Soleimani began his remarkable upward trajectory.
In many ways, Soleimani’s rise from provincial obscurity to the heights of power parallels Iran’s regional ascendancy over the past 40 years. His frontline career began in the turmoil that followed the Islamic Revolution, when his unit was sent to the northwest to quell a Kurdish separatist uprising—a mission regarded to this day as a badge of honor within the IRGC. (It was in the course of that effort that Soleimani, just 22 years old, first encountered a 23-year-old political operative named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then acting as an adviser to the regional government. Nearly 30 years later, Ahmadinejad would go on to serve as one of the Islamic Republic’s most hardline presidents—with vocal support from Soleimani.20)
In September 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq opportunistically invaded its neighbor, hoping to capitalize on the post-revolutionary chaos. Initially, Soleimani was sent back to Kerman to raise and train troops, but he soon found himself redirected to the front, where he volunteered to spend extra time. Soleimani served throughout the war in almost every part of the front, from the retaking of Bostan in December 1981 to the invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1987, during which Saddam’s forces attacked his unit with chemical weapons, to the climactic expedition to the al-Faw Peninsula in April 1988, whose failure helped precipitate the ceasefire that ended the war.21
Soleimani developed a reputation for treating the men under his command well. He made a habit of returning from behind-the-lines reconnaissance missions with live goats and other provender to feed his men, earning him the admiring sobriquet “the Goat Thief.”22 On many occasions, he publicly questioned the decisions of his commanding officers, culminating in a shouting match in which he told his commander-in-chief, Mohsen Rezai, “We don’t have any plan for the war!”23 But this insubordinate streak did not prevent him from rising to leadership of the IRGC’s crack 41st Division, nicknamed Tharallah—Vengeance of God—an alias of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet and one of the key figures in Shi`a Islam.24 He was starting to attract attention from the very top; a photograph from the period shows Soleimani seated on the floor, enjoying a meal at the right hand of then-President Ali Khamenei.25
Following the close of hostilities with Iraq in 1988, Soleimani was sent back home to Kerman to wage war on the drug gangs threatening order in the region. Like the United States’ own “War on Drugs,” it was a bloody campaign; but within three years, forces under Soleimani’s command had pacified the province, earning him the lasting gratitude of its residents.26
Little is known about the next six or seven years of Soleimani’s life, but by March 1998 at the latest, he had risen to become commander of the Quds Force, the lethal special forces unit of the IRGC tasked with bolstering pro-Iranian regimes and militias abroad. (“Quds” comes from the Farsi name for Jerusalem.27) As the remainder of this article will show, Soleimani excelled at this task, establishing or strengthening contacts with Shi`a militias and political parties across the region, as well as the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
At the same time, the then-newly installed administration of Mohammed Khatami put him in charge of managing Iran’s burgeoning confrontation with the upstart Taliban movement in neighboring Afghanistan.28 Not for the first or last time, Soleimani inborn familiarity with tribal culture and politics would stand him in good stead.
In August 1998, a few months into Soleimani’s tenure at the head of the Quds Force, Taliban forces swept into the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i Sharif, home to a substantial community of ethnic Hazaras—Farsi-speaking Shi`a Muslims. The Taliban initiated a brutal pogrom against members of the minority, trashing homes, raping women and girls, and massacring hundreds of Shi`a men and boys.29 Among the dead was a group of nine Iranians: eight diplomats and a journalist.30 At this naked provocation, factions on both sides turned white-hot for war; the IRGC’s overall commander at the time, Yahya Rahim Safavi, requested Supreme Leader Khamenei’s permission “for the punishment of the Taliban, to advance to Herat [a city in western Afghanistan], annihilate, punish, eliminate them.”31 Iran began massing an invasion force of almost a quarter-million soldiers along the Afghan border. Reportedly, it was Soleimani who stepped in and defused the situation without resorting to further violence. Instead of confronting the Taliban directly, Soleimani opted to throw increased Iranian support behind the opposition Northern Alliance, personally helping to direct the group’s operations from a base across Afghanistan’s northern border in Tajikistan.32 It was a model of proxy warfare to which he would return again and again.
In the months after 9/11, Soleimani saw an opportunity to defeat the Taliban once and for all by unconventional means—namely, cooperation with the United States. Early in the war, he directed Iranian diplomats to share intelligence on Taliban military positions with their U.S. counterparts. The Americans, in return, told the Iranians what they knew about an al-Qa`ida fixer hiding out in eastern Iran.33
For a brief moment, it seemed as if this contact might lead to a more general thawing of relations between Iran and the country its leaders refer to as the “Great Satan.” Indeed, back in Tehran, behind closed doors, Soleimani was pronouncing himself “pleased with [the] cooperation,” and musing at the highest political levels that “maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.”34
This cooperation came to an abrupt halt in January 2002, however, after President George W. Bush used his State of the Union address to throw the book at Iran, branding it a nuclear proliferator, an exporter of terrorism, a repressive state, and part of an “Axis of Evil.” Soleimani, predictably, was apoplectic, and canceled future meetings with the Americans—a huge setback.35
Worse was to come.
“When we say no, he makes trouble:” Iraq, 2003-2011
The Islamic Republic’s relationship with Syria’s Assad regime has deep roots, extending back as far as the Iran-Iraq War when Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, closed a key oil pipeline in a bid to harm the Iraqi economy. In 2003, the U.S. invasion of Iraq pushed Syria and Iran still closer together, as both regimes realized that if the Americans succeeded in Iraq, they could be next. To damage the U.S. occupation, Soleimani helped Syrian intelligence create pipelines for funneling Sunni jihadis into Iraq. Once there, the jihadis attacked U.S. forces, often using roadside bombs supplied by Soleimani’s Quds Force from factories inside Iran.36
Soleimani soon intervened more directly in Iraq, too, sending in Shi`a militias as proxies. Under his leadership, the Quds Force stood up a number of militias for the express purpose of attacking U.S. and allied troops. Collectively, these organizations were responsible for hundreds of coalition deaths. One of them, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), claimed more than 6,000 such attacks between its creation in 2006 and the U.S. withdrawal in 2011—an average of more than three per day, every day, for five years.37
In 2006, at the height of the bloodshed in Iraq, Soleimani took a break from managing Asaib and its sister groups in order to supervise another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, in its escalating war with Israel.38 During his absence, U.S. commanders in the Green Zone noted a sharp decline in casualties across the country. Upon his return from Lebanon, Soleimani wrote to U.S. commanders, “I hope you have been enjoying the peace and quiet in Baghdad. I’ve been busy in Beirut!”39
Following the reestablishment of government in Iraq in 2005, Soleimani’s influence extended into the country’s politics as well. Under prime ministers Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki, one of Soleimani’s militant proxies, the Badr Organization, was allowed to become, in effect, an arm of the state when the interior and transport ministries came under the control of its political wing.40 Iraq’s president from 2005 to 2014, Jalal Talabani, had benefited from IRGC help (as well as that of the CIA) when he served as a leader of Kurdish resistance to Saddam in the 1990s, and Soleimani took full advantage of that history.41 Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker quoted an intelligence officer as saying that he had never seen the normally formidable Talabani “so deferential to anyone. He was terrified.” No wonder; the same profile quoted one of Talabani’s fellow Kurdish officials as saying, “When we say no [to Soleimani], he makes trouble for us. Bombings. Shootings.”42
In early 2008, Soleimani sent General David Petraeus, then the most senior U.S. commander in Iraq, an imperious message:
“Dear General Petraeus: You should be aware that I, Qassem Soleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”43
This was conveyed to General Petraeus via a text message to Talabani’s personal cell phone—effectively relegating Talabani to the role of Soleimani’s mailman. The symbolism was not lost on anyone. Legend has it that Petraeus’ piquant reply read, “Dear General Soleimani: Go pound sand down a rat hole.”44 Privately, however, the U.S. State Department appears to have concurred with Soleimani’s assessment of his own bailiwick, describing him as “the point man directing the formulation and implementation of [his country’s] Iraq policy, with authority second only to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei.”45
Soleimani’s habit of taunting U.S. officials did not end with the American withdrawal in 2011. As recently as 2017, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo wrote to Soleimani again, warning him to restrain militias under his command from attacking U.S. interests in Iraq. The response from ‘Karla?’ “I will not take your letter nor read it and I have nothing to say to these people.”46
“We must witness victory:” Syria and Iraq, 2011-present
When the Arab Spring began in late 2010, Soleimani was quick to recognize the potential benefits for Iran, declaring in a May 2011 speech in Qom that the uprisings “provide our revolution with the greatest opportunities … we must witness victory in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This is the fruit of the Islamic Revolution.”47 In the months that followed, Soleimani made himself even more indispensable to the regimes in both Damascus and Baghdad—by deploying militants under his command.
On battlefields in both countries, Qassem Soleimani made himself ubiquitous. One might see him standing on the hoods and flatbeds of trucks, surrounded by fighters jostling and shushing each other to hear and see better.48 His rapt audiences consist of Shi`a militiamen from various countries who fight in support of the Assad regime or against the Islamic State group, but there is never any doubt as to where their principal loyalty lies. Not only do these groups sing songs about Soleimani, they produce music videos featuring militants doing parkour stunts and saluting the general’s image.49
Following the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Soleimani ordered some of his Iraqi militias into Syria to defend the Assad regime.50 For the same purpose, he also set up additional Shi`a militant groups; these included a group of Afghans resident in Iran, the Fatemiyoun Division, and a Pakistani outfit, the Zeynabiyoun Brigade.51 The very names of these groups announce Iran’s sectarian intentions: Shi`a Muslims accord Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, a status comparable to that of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism; while Zaynab, Fatima’s daughter, was the sister of Hussein, whose death at the Battle of Karbala formed a pivotal moment in the Sunni-Shi`a schism. Forces under his command were instrumental in many major offensives of the Syrian war, including the recapture of Qusayr from rebels.52 True to form, Soleimani has sought to blend state and insurgent power as seamlessly as possible; the staff at his secret headquarters in Damascus reportedly includes Lebanese and Iraqi militia chieftains working alongside generals from both Iran and Syria.53
In June 2014, Islamic State forces captured Mosul, a city of nearly two million in northern Iraq. In the face of the jihadi advance, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and federal police doffed their uniforms and melted away.54 By October 2014, the Islamic State had reached the outskirts of Baghdad and was lobbing mortar rounds at the city’s main international airport.55 In the absence of a credible Iraqi army, someone had to save the capital, and Soleimani’s Shi`a proxies—alongside other militias drawn from other communities—were only too happy to oblige. Soleimani now ordered some of the Iraqi militias tasked with defending Assad to cross back over the border to rescue the Iraqi state.56 The militants participating in the defense organized themselves into the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization for coordination with the government in Baghdad. Most of the PMF’s constituent groups are Shi`a, and most of those are aligned in some way with Iran, although not all fall under Soleimani’s direct control.57 But Soleimani’s forces are among the biggest, and have seen much of the most intense fighting—often benefiting from U.S. military support to Iraqi troops on the ground. For example, they were pivotal to the retaking of Tikrit in early 2015, during which Soleimani himself was frequently pictured on the frontlines.58
Speaking later that year at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi thanked Iran for its “prompt” deliveries of arms and ammunition, “without even asking for immediate payments.” He reserved particular praise for Qassem Soleimani, calling him out by name as one of Iraq’s most important allies in the fight against the Islamic State.59
Today, the Islamic State no longer holds any meaningful territory in Iraq. But the PMF has not gone away. As of early 2018, its strength was being estimated at around 100,000 to 150,000 fighters, most of them aligned with Iran.60 Long after the Islamic State’s defeat became an inevitability, Prime Minister Abadi was referring to the PMF as “the hope of the country and the region.”61 Indeed, Abadi’s government further entrenched the PMF’s power, making it an independent security force reporting directly to the prime minister’s office—a position that, by longstanding convention, is always held by a Shi`a Muslim.62 While some PMF groups have indeed integrated their command structures under the prime minister’s office, others—including prominent militias with close ties to Tehran—have refused to do so, preferring to retain their independence.63 The Abadi government’s attempts to bring these groups into line met with resistance, denunciations, and in some cases violence, suggesting that future administrations will need to tread carefully when dealing with the PMF.64
Meanwhile, PMF groups have themselves become a force at the ballot box. In 2018, several of the larger militias loyal to Soleimani, including the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (both of which battled Western troops during the U.S. occupation) formed a political coalition, the Fatah (Victory) Alliance, which won 48 seats in Iraq’s parliament in the May 2018 elections.65 In the political negotiations that followed those elections, Tehran initially identified Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization and the Fatah Alliance, as one of its preferred candidates for prime minister (the other being former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki).66 Al-Amiri has acknowledged his friendship with and admiration for Soleimani in effusive terms.67 As transport minister in the al-Maliki government from 2010 to 2014, he allegedly permitted supply flights from Iran to Hezbollah to overfly Iraqi airspace at Soleimani’s behest.68
Soleimani’s own role in Iraqi politics also persists. Prior to the retaking of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmergas in the fall of 2017, Soleimani personally traveled to Kurdistan on at least three occasions to deliver veiled threats to the Kurdish leadership on behalf of then-Prime Minister Abadi.69 No doubt these warnings factored heavily into the Kurds’ eventual decision to yield the city almost without a fight. Wily as ever, Soleimani positioned his own militias so that they would wind up in control of key sites around the city.70
It remains to be seen how Iraq’s new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, will handle the PMF. Now a political independent, Abdul Mahdi came to prominence during the Saddam years as a leader in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—a political party-in-exile created by (and indeed, in) Tehran in the early 1980s.71 However, he also worked productively with U.S. officials following the 2003 invasion.72 The Fatah Alliance, together with other Iran-aligned political groups, initially opposed his candidacy, while other influential Shi`a figures, including the clerics Moqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, backed him.73 Given this eclectic background, Abdul Mahdi’s nomination has been seen as representing a compromise, both between the two major Shi`a political blocs and, on a wider level, between U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq.74
In the near term, Abdul Mahdi’s government will have little room to curb the power of the PMF; as long as the Islamic State retains any presence in Iraq, the militias will remain essential to the country’s security.75 Even after the Islamic State is fully eradicated (if that day ever comes), the PMF’s influence, militarily and politically, has reached the point that no successful government will be able to ignore its wishes for the foreseeable future; indeed, amid a slate of cabinet nominees comprised largely of moderates and technocrats, Abdul Mahdi also nominated the Chair of the PMF, Falih al-Fayadh, to serve as his interior minister.76
(Graphic by Larisa Baste)
Summoning the Bear: Moscow, 2015
By mid-2015, things were not going exactly to plan for Soleimani back in Syria. Assad’s forces were plagued by defections, leaving Iranian-backed militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other countries, almost single-handedly fighting Sunni rebels for control of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.77 They needed the backing of a larger outside power, one with formidable air capabilities, and the natural broker for the deal was the top general on the scene—Qassem Soleimani. In July 2015, despite peremptory U.N. sanctions prohibiting him from travel outside Iran, Soleimani flew to Moscow (reportedly on a commercial flight) for talks with the Russian defense minister and, reportedly, President Putin himself.78 A few weeks later, Soleimani was back in Syria, spearheading a coordinated offensive against rebel and jihadi groups, under cover of a massively stepped-up Russian air campaign. Putin’s intervention turned the tide decisively in Assad’s favor. By December 2016, Soleimani was pictured touring the remains of Aleppo’s historic heart, a few days after his militias, fighting alongside Syrian regulars, retook the city.79
Iranian forces have made significant sacrifices in Syria. Soleimani’s IRGC has an active presence, and they have not held back from the thick of the fight. Accurate totals for Iranian personnel deployed to Syria are hard to come by—Assad himself, naturally enough, claims the number is zero—but the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimates that the number generally deployed there at any one time has been around 700, except during the height of the Russian air campaign in the second half of 2015, when it ballooned to perhaps 3,000.80 According to one October 2017 analysis in The Washington Post, at least 349 Iranian soldiers died in Syria and Iraq between February 2012 and August 2017, suggesting a high casualty rate.81 The same analysis showed that the dead included at least 39 of Soleimani’s fellow IRGC generals.82
But Soleimani evidently calculates that the cost justifies the expense, and he has a point, given Tehran’s current strategic priorities: as long as it remains under the control of the Assad family, Syria lies at the western end of an arc of Iranian influence stretching from the western borders of Afghanistan to the shores of the Mediterranean—a crimp on Iran’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Tehran also sees economic reasons for cultivating this “Axis of Resistance,” not least the fact that it will need its cooperation if it is ever to build a long-planned overland pipeline to the Mediterranean from the giant South Pars–North Dome gas field on the Persian Gulf. The Iran-to-Lebanon crescent has already transformed the geopolitics of the Middle East; backed up by petrochemical power, it would truly be a force to reckon with.
The Cat’s Paw: Lebanon and Syria, 2011-present
Tehran’s biggest concern, however, is maintaining the supply corridor to its most important regional and global proxy, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah (Party of God). Hezbollah was established in its current form in 1985 with funds and training from Soleimani’s IRGC; its manifesto of that year proclaimed the group’s ultimate allegiance to then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.83 Hezbollah has evolved since then. In 2009, the group adopted a new and less stridently Khomeinist manifesto. But Iran remains its principal backer. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary general, said in June 2016:
“Hezbollah’s budget, salaries, expenses, arms and missiles are coming from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is this clear? This is no one’s business. As long as Iran has money, we have money. Can we be any more frank about that?”84
This support is almost as important to Iran as it is to Hezbollah itself; Hezbollah is probably the most important non-state actor in the Middle East today. Without it, Soleimani’s Quds Force could not operate abroad in the way it does; and without a strong Quds Force, Iranian power in the region would not be nearly as formidable. To sustain Hezbollah, Iran must maintain supplies to its most significant proxy, but weapons shipments directly into Lebanon are risky at best because of Israel’s naval and air patrols in the region. Thanks to Iran’s alliance with Assad, however, Iranian supply planes have carte blanche to land at Damascus International, where their cargo is loaded onto trucks for transshipment over the mountains to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley—a Hezbollah stronghold.85 Were the Syrian government to fall into the hands of the country’s Sunni majority, those planes would be turned back, and Iran would be left with a significantly diminished card to play in the Middle East’s most symbolically significant fight. This is Iran’s—and Hezbollah’s—most important reason for being in Syria.
Over the years, Soleimani himself developed a particularly close bond with Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah military chief whom Western and Israeli officials identify as the mastermind behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, attacks on the U.S. embassies in the Lebanese capital and in Kuwait City, also in 1983, the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 in which a U.S. Navy diver was beaten and murdered, and the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively.86 (Mughniyah’s ability to destroy large buildings with truck bombs later became the template for al-Qa`ida’s 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa.) Mughniyah went into hiding around 1995, but Mossad tracked him down more than a decade later when he was passing through Damascus. In February 2008, Mossad reportedly had an opportunity to assassinate Mughniyah, but held back because at the crucial moment the target was hugging a longtime friend whom the agency was not legally authorized to kill—Qassem Soleimani.87 Mughniyah was killed in a second attempt later that day; but, under Soleimani’s close guidance, Hezbollah has continued to operate a highly effective paramilitary wing.88
Hezbollah’s recent history follows Tehran’s strategy of seeking to blend insurgent and state power. Since 1992, Hezbollah has been active in Lebanese national politics, and since 2005, it has held seats in the cabinet.89 Today, thanks to its parliamentary caucus, its seats in cabinet are guaranteed, and it holds veto power over cabinet decisions. Meanwhile, Hezbollah justifies retaining its private army (not to mention an effective parallel state with its own hospitals, schools, welfare programs, and propaganda wing) on the basis that it is the only group capable of defending Lebanon against attack from Israel—and with the war raging in next-door Syria, against incursions by Sunni extremists. In this regard, its leaders speak of a tripartite “golden formula”—the resistance (i.e., Hezbollah itself), plus Lebanon’s army, plus the Lebanese people.90 Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, a Christian former supreme commander of the armed forces whose mother was born in New Hampshire, has endorsed this view. In an interview with the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, Aoun rejected calls for Hezbollah to disarm, saying that its forces “ensure our resistance against the State of Israel.”91 Recently, Hezbollah has been working still more closely with the military. Over the summer of 2017, Hezbollah and the Lebanese armed forces participated in joint operations against al-Qa`ida-aligned militants along the Syrian border; after the success of these initiatives, Hassan Nasrallah publicly praised the army as an “essential” partner.92
The exact extent of Iran’s support for Hezbollah remains unclear, but in 2010, the Obama administration estimated that it amounted to between $100 million and $200 million per year.93 In 2009, the Israeli navy interdicted a vessel carrying arms apparently bound for Hezbollah from Bandar Abbas, Iran’s main seaport—a shipment that included 3,000 rockets, 9,000 mortar rounds, 20,000 hand grenades, and over half a million rounds of small-arms ammunition.94 It is worth bearing in mind that these potential measures date from before the outbreak of violence in Syria, during which, it is safe to assume, Iran would have increased its support for Hezbollah. Indeed, in early 2018, U.S. officials speaking to The Washington Post estimated that Iran’s financial support had mushroomed to around $700 million per year.95
In Syria, Hezbollah has proved invaluable to its sponsors in Damascus and Tehran. It began by sending military advisors to Soleimani’s other Shi`a militias, but its fighters soon became actively involved in some of the bloodiest fighting, especially near the Lebanese border.96 Hezbollah has undoubtedly changed the balance of the Syrian conflict in favor of Assad, and therefore of Iran, but it has come at a terrible cost: the group’s estimated nearly 2,000 dead in Syria may represent as much as 10 percent or more of its global fighting strength.97 The dead have included some very senior figures. At one point, Soleimani was overseeing a crack Hezbollah unit and mentoring one of its most prominent members—Jihad Mughniyah, the 23-year-old son of Soleimani’s old friend, the terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyah. The younger Mughniyah was reportedly killed in an Israeli airstrike along the Golan Heights, along with a high-ranking Hezbollah commander and an IRGC brigadier general.98
Soleimani has not been slow to demonstrate his gratitude for Hezbollah’s sacrifice. He makes a point of visiting the graves and families of the fallen, treating them with the same hushed reverence he shows toward Iranian dead. In January 2015, he was pictured reading the Qur’an alone at the flower-scattered tombs of Hezbollah fighters, including Jihad Mughniyah.99
Despite these losses, on balance Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has strengthened the organization. Hezbollah has acquired a range of advanced weaponry, including drones and anti-tank weapons, from Iran.100 The IRGC is reportedly helping the group to develop underground weapons factories inside Lebanon.101 Hezbollah has laid the groundwork for a more permanent presence in Syria—a presence with Iranian support.102 It has gained experience fighting adversaries other than Israel, including the Islamic State, and in coordinating operations not just with its IRGC overlords but with the armed forces of Syria and Russia.103 By providing training and guidance to other Shi`a militias, it has expanded its network, not just in Syria but in Iraq and as far afield as Pakistan.104 No wonder, then, that Hezbollah’s deputy leader has said, “In the end, we consider the results that we reached in Syria much greater than the price, with our respect to the great sacrifices that the young men of the party put forward.”105
Playing the “Great Game:” Yemen, 2015-present
Soleimani’s plans for regional hegemony do not end with Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah, however. At the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, he has doubled down on Iranian support for another armed Shi`a faction—Yemen’s Ansar Allah rebels, better known as the Houthi movement.
As the Middle East analyst Michael Knights has pointed out, the Houthis’ ideology bears a striking similarity to that of the Islamic Republic, as is apparent from the militia’s creed (which it calls “the scream”): “Death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the Jews, victory to Islam.”106 At first, however, Iranian support for the Houthis was, in the words of commentator Peter Salisbury, “speculative.”107 It consisted of small shipments of arms and cash, together with limited training from Hezbollah and a handful of advisers provided by Hezbollah and Soleimani’s Quds Force. A shipment of Iranian arms seized from a dhow in January 2013 suggests the type of material support on offer during this period: the consignment included shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile systems, Soviet-era rocket artillery, RDX explosives of the type commonly used in terrorist attacks, and relatively crude anti-vehicle land mines.108
Presumably, Tehran’s intention in this phase of the conflict was to stick a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side rather than to force a strategic showdown. But that changed in 2015 when Saudi Arabia stepped up its own intervention, more or less openly dubbing itself the Middle East’s “Sunni protector” in the face of Iran’s “Shi`a meddling.” From the beginning, this Saudi-led campaign of aerial bombardment has benefited from U.S. support in the form of aerial surveillance and resupply.109 Geopolitically, the Saudis hoped to end the war quickly and remove a distracting regional irritant along their exposed southern flank, but that plan has failed in spectacular fashion. In fact, it has only entrenched and prolonged the fighting.
First, the conflict has divided Yemeni society along sectarian lines like never before. When the author was in Yemen in the early 2000s investigating the bombing of the USS Cole, most Yemenis barely knew whether they were Sunni or Shi`a (and in fact, the Zaydi school of Shi`a Islam indigenous to Yemen is almost as distinct from the Iranian Twelver school as it is from Sunni Islam). Today, it has become commonplace for the two sides to refer to one another derisively as “Persians” or “Daeshites” (Islamic State supporters).110
Second, the escalation has created a humanitarian disaster second only to that in Syria. By June 2018, almost 10,000 civilians had been killed since the bombing campaign began, and there are indications that the casualty rate has increased still further since then.111 A U.N. investigation published in August 2018 found atrocities on all sides, but blamed Saudi-led bombing for a majority of the documented civilian deaths.112 U.N. reporters recorded airstrikes that hit homes, hotels, marketplaces, funerals, weddings, prisons, fishing boats, and clinics—many of which had been specifically placed on no-strike lists ahead of time.113 According to another independent monitor, the Yemen Data Project, nearly a third of all coalition strikes have hit non-military targets.114 That is not to mention the chronic fuel shortages cutting off power to hospitals and food distribution facilities, nor the famine threatening 12 million people, nor the raging cholera epidemic that now infects more than 10,000 additional Yemenis every week.115
This catastrophe plays into Soleimani’s hands. While the Saudis pour untold billions into a brutal air campaign—Middle East analyst Bruce Riedel estimates that the Kingdom spends “at least $5-6 billion a month” on bombing—Iran’s relatively low-tech investment in the Houthis costs it pennies by comparison.116 Soleimani has a wealth of experience exploiting sectarian tensions, and a presence on the ground, in the form of Hezbollah and IRGC advisors, through which to do so. And the more civilian casualties Saudi bombing creates in Yemen, the more support the Houthis will attract; indeed, the foreign nature of the intervention is a pillar of the Houthis’ recruitment propaganda.117
Yet Saudi policy toward Yemen is unlikely to change in the near future, in part because of palace intrigue in Riyadh. The escalation is a signature initiative of Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the King’s favored son. When the bombing began in 2015, MbS was Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed defense minister. As well as a means of confronting Iran, the policy was widely seen as a deliberate attempt to stoke Saudi nationalism at home, in a bid to shore up flagging support for the House of Saud.118 In June 2017, MbS engineered a palace coup, displacing his rival, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had been more moderate on Yemen.119 As the new crown prince and effective head of government, MbS has staked his reputation on Yemen, and is unlikely to back down unless he can find a face-saving way of doing so.120
At the time of writing, it was unclear how, if at all, the crisis over the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi might affect the Saudi intervention in Yemen. In light of the Khashoggi murder, the international community has been vocal in its critique of Saudi Arabia and MbS, threatening the stability of diplomatic and financial relations crucial to MbS’ domestic ambitions and aspirations for the Saudi economy.121 Should the crisis ultimately lead to a more permanent diminution in MbS’ power, there is a chance that the political pendulum in Riyadh may swing back toward a more measured approach to the war.
In some ways, the Houthis represent the apotheosis of the Iranian model of state and insurgent power. They did not seek to destroy the government. Instead, they made an alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who previously had been in the Saudi camp. Saleh, having been president of a unified Yemen for over two decades—and of North Yemen for a dozen years before that—still had loyalists in all the key government institutions, especially in the armed forces. When its forces entered the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, the Houthi-Saleh alliance was able to take control of the whole administrative apparatus of government almost without firing a single shot.122 The Houthis, in turn, began embedding their own “overseers” in government departments, their own operatives in the intelligence apparatus, and their own commanders in the military, creating in effect a “shadow government.”123 They abolished military units, such as the Republican Guard, that remained loyal to Saleh alone (one side-effect of this practice being an increased need for assistance from the IRGC and Hezbollah).124
Here, another version of Hezbollah’s “golden formula” has become apparent, knitting together the army, the resistance—in this case, the Houthis themselves—and the people—meaning the Zaydi sect to which Houthis belong and which forms a majority in the territory currently under Houthi control. Saleh failed to understand the power of this arrangement; in December 2017, he tried to flip his support back to the Saudis, assuming he could do so with impunity. He was wrong, and he paid for the error with his life.125 Saleh’s return to the Saudi camp, had it succeeded, might have opened up the tiniest of windows for ending the conflict with a political settlement. But with his death, that window slammed shut.
In March 2017, Soleimani convened a meeting of senior commanders in Tehran to discuss ways of further “empowering” the Houthis.126 Following the meeting, one anonymous Iranian official told a Reuters correspondent that “Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on … winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.”127 Another said that Iran’s plan was now “to create a Hezbollah-like militia in Yemen to confront Riyadh’s hostile policies.”128 In keeping with this strategy, Iran has begun providing the Houthis with an array of increasingly complex weapons, to include anti-tank rockets, sea mines, airborne and seagoing drones, and long-range ballistic missiles.129 Since April 2017, the Houthis have carried out an average of six strikes per month using unmanned aerial vehicles, and have used Iranian Shark-33 drone boats to mount attacks on a Saudi frigate and oil terminal in the Red Sea.130 Some of their larger Iran-sourced missiles have been fired over the border into Saudi Arabia itself, including a Scud variant that narrowly missed Riyadh’s main airport in November 2017.131 The speed with which the Houthis have adopted these weapons, sophisticated far beyond any system the movement had hitherto fielded, indicates that training and support has been provided alongside the weapons themselves, presumably by some combination of IRGC and Hezbollah personnel.132
The Postponed Enemy: Al-Qa`ida, 2001–present
In May 2018, a few weeks before unleashing his all-caps broadside against Rouhani, President Trump took to the podium in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room to offer a more substantive critique of Iranian foreign policy. His remarks read, in part: “The Iranian regime … supports terrorist proxies and militias such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.”133 But does al-Qa`ida belong in the same category as Hezbollah? Is Qassem Soleimani pulling its strings the same way he commands Hezbollah fighters in Syria? Hardly.
There are significant impediments to any sustained relationship between Iran and al-Qa`ida. First, it bears repeating that al-Qa`ida is a Sunni militant group that exists, ultimately, to lay the groundwork for a Sunni Islamic state in which Shi`a Muslims would be, at best, second-class citizens. Al-Qa`ida members routinely slander Shi`a Muslims as “rejectionists” and “apostates.” Iran, by contrast, has set itself up as the defender and protector of Shi`a communities around the world. Second, Soleimani’s Shi`a militias are, today, fighting two of al-Qa`ida’s most significant aligned groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria and al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. In Syria, Soleimani’s own IRGC troops directly engaged HTS’ predecessor, al-Nusra, taking heavy casualties in the process.134 It is safe to assume that Iranian troops have not held back from fighting HTS itself since the reorganization that brought HTS into being.
Neither of these hurdles would make cooperation impossible for entities with a Machiavellian streak, but they would make a close long-term relationship difficult to sustain. And indeed, the relationship between Iran and al-Qa`ida, when it has existed at all, has been an extremely rocky one. The first documented contact took place in the early 1990s, during al-Qa`ida’s period of exile in Sudan. IRGC elements in Khartoum brokered an arrangement by which some al-Qa`ida operatives apparently traveled to Lebanon to receive training from Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah commander and close friend of Qassem Soleimani—expertise they later put to deadly use in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. But the arrangement proved short-lived; rank-and-file al-Qa`ida members simply could not overcome their revulsion toward their Shi`a trainers.135
After 9/11, al-Qa`ida members initially sought refuge in Pakistan, historically a haven for the group. But the regime of Pervez Musharraf, appalled by the carnage bin Ladin had inflicted, agreed to cooperate with the United States to hunt down jihadis in its territory. Pakistan was no longer safe. In response, many al-Qa`ida members, including some of the group’s most senior leaders, migrated to the one remaining country in the region that America could not reach—the Islamic Republic of Iran.136
Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, formerly al-Qa`ida’s leading cleric, headed the first wave to flee into Iran. In December 2001, al-Mauritani reportedly met Soleimani in person, only for the general to turn down his offer of cooperation against America.137 This, as we have seen, was the period during which Soleimani was sharing intelligence with the United States and contemplating an overhaul in relations with the “Great Satan;” and part of his motivation for doing so, according to one of the American diplomats involved, was the opportunity to destroy al-Qa`ida, as well as its Taliban hosts.138 Recall that the quid pro quo for Soleimani’s cooperation with the United States was information from U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of an al-Qa`ida fixer in Iran, who was swiftly arrested and handed over to the U.S.-backed authorities in Kabul.139
Over the next few years, al-Qa`ida members living in Iran faced successive waves of arrests, detentions, and deportations, during which they were frequently kept incommunicado.140 As one very senior al-Qa`ida leader put it, the unpredictability of these actions “confused us and foiled 75 percent of our plan.”141 Different groups of jihadis at different times went through periods of relative freedom, house arrest, or detention in prisons run by Soleimani’s Quds Force—facilities that ran the gamut from relatively comfortable to utterly squalid. According to one former detainee (Usama bin Ladin’s son Saad), harsher treatment sometimes involved untreated grave illness, beatings serious enough to require hospitalization, or even the deaths of women and children.142 The detainees often responded to privations imposed by their captors with riots and prison breaks.143
Nevertheless, Soleimani seems to have realized that having large numbers of jihadis under lock and key could be a strategic asset. Of the four al-Qa`ida members released during this early period, three held European passports; it is possible they were considered more likely to be able to wreak havoc against Iran’s adversaries in the West.144 By the same logic, around the fall of 2002, the Iranian authorities offered to send certain Saudi al-Qa`ida members for training with Hezbollah, on condition that they would use the training to mount attacks in Saudi Arabia; however, it seems that they all refused this offer.145 (Perhaps their ingrained enmity toward Shi`a Muslims was still too powerful.)
Al-Qa`ida detainees, particularly bin Ladin family members, could also be used as bargaining chips. In July 2004, Soleimani’s people attempted to make contact with Usama bin Ladin himself in order to request the al-Qa`ida leader’s intercession to curtail a vicious campaign against Shi`a holy sites in Iraq by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the implied quid pro quo being better treatment for detainees and possibly unspecified “material support.”146 Terrorism studies scholar Nelly Lahoud has raised the possibility that this request factored into bin Ladin’s decision to accept al-Zarqawi’s pledge of bay`a (allegiance) in the fall of 2004, and into subsequent (unsuccessful) attempts to shame al-Zarqawi into curbing his more murderous impulses.147
Bin Ladin was often preoccupied by the well-being of al-Qa`ida members in Iran, not least because some of them were members of his family—including, at one point, his favorite wife (Umm Hamza) and at least four of his sons, together with their own wives and children.148 In letters to lieutenants who remained at large, he agonized about the “horrors” and “tragedies” that had befallen the detainees, arguing that “we need to act quickly to save them.”149 Around the second half of 2009, he instructed his then-deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri (now al-Qa`ida’s overall leader), to pen an open letter “to the wise in the Iranian administration,” urging the release of all jihadi prisoners or, failing that, better treatment for the ones who remained. Bin Ladin’s writing prompt included the following:
“What is Iran’s interest in demonstrating its harsh hostility against the Sunni people by acting in an inhumane way? [Iraqi Shi`a cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr was forced to leave the battlefields against the Americans in Najaf and Karbala; he entered your homeland, but the brothers did not see him in prison with them. Similarly, if Hassan Nasrallah was forced to come to you, you would not put him in jail. So why all this resentment and ill will against the Sunni people?”150
Later, al-Qa`ida acquired bargaining chips of its own. In 2010, it exchanged a kidnapped Iranian diplomat for several bin Ladin family members, including one of bin Ladin’s favorite sons, Hamza, now an al-Qa`ida leader in his own right.151 Five years later, al-Qa`ida traded another Iranian diplomat for three of the most significant members of al-Qa`ida’s pre-9/11 governing council.152 One of the latter, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, would later be killed in Idlib province, Syria, where he was helping to direct the operations of the al-Qa`ida-aligned group there, then known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS).153
As this history suggests, the relationship between Iran and al-Qa`ida is one of precarious balance. On certain matters, their interests align; clearly, both seek to weaken the West and its allies in the Gulf. Beyond that, Iran’s priority is to prevent attacks on its soil and, if possible, against Shi`a Muslims elsewhere. By holding al-Qa`ida leaders, Iran gets what the scholar Assaf Moghadam calls an “insurance policy against al-Qa`ida attacks directed at it.”154 Al-Qa`ida, for its part, seeks to maintain the only feasible corridor between its heartland along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the battlefields of the Middle East—what bin Ladin himself, in a 2007 letter to a senior associate, called its “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.”155 (It should be noted that in the same letter bin Ladin also took care to remind his correspondent to be delicate with Iran because it still held al-Qa`ida members and their families as “hostages.”)
To keep this lifeline open, al-Qa`ida is willing to forgo opportunities to attack Iran; on the flip side of the coin, if Iran chose to shut it down, the chances are high that it would find itself a target. Hence the uneasy truce under which Iran turns a blind eye to al-Qa`ida’s operation of what the U.S. State Department calls “a core facilitation pipeline through Iranian territory.”156
Far from a “proxy” relationship, this could perhaps better be characterized as an arrangement of mutual blackmail. Clearly, there is very little trust involved: when the Iranians released bin Ladin’s favorite wife, in 2010, bin Ladin counseled her on the steps he felt were needed to ensure that no GPS tracking device could have been placed in her belongings or even injected into her body by her jailors.157 Al-Qa`ida has trained couriers carrying sensitive information through Iran to commit suicide rather than be captured.158
Years after Iran became al-Qa`ida’s “artery for funds, personnel, and communication,” there was still no love lost between the jihadis and the Islamic Republic. Soon after his release by Iran in fall 2010, Abu Anas al-Libi—an alleged plotter in the 1998 embassy attacks, who later died awaiting trial in New York—wrote a private letter to bin Ladin in which he vented his anger at Tehran, calling Iranians “enemies of God” and “people whose mannerisms resemble those of the Jews” and praying that “may God seek revenge on them” and “their evil leader Khamenei … I ask God to humiliate them and aid us in seeking revenge against them.” He added what for a committed jihadi may be the ultimate insult: “Israel … was probably more worthy than they were.”159
It is not surprising, therefore, that no convincing evidence has ever been adduced showing cooperation between Iran and al-Qa`ida on specific operations or attacks. A senior jihadi who was once detained in Iran wrote that both the United States and the Islamic Republic are enemies of al-Qa`ida; the difference being that, whereas the United States is the “current enemy,” Iran is merely the “postponed enemy.”160 In the meantime, Iran and al-Qa`ida find themselves in what former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has aptly called a “shotgun marriage.”161 The divorce, if and when it comes, will be messy.
Shunning the Limelight, Or Courting It? Soleimani’s Public Image, 2015-present
Even as his portfolio has sprawled well beyond the strictly military into the realms of intelligence and diplomacy, Soleimani has insisted on playing the world-weary warrior, a role that fits him to a T. Most of his public appearances take place at events honoring Iranian war dead, of whom he speaks in reverent tones.162 “When the war ends,” he has said, “the honest mujahid clasps his hands sorrowfully. We lost, and the martyrs won.”163 As his power grows, he has continued to maintain this unassuming public persona—except, perhaps, when roused by social media needling from the president of the United States.
Yet this pious image has not stopped Soleimani from becoming a cult figure in his own country, as omnipresent on Iranian state television as he is in the Twitter feeds of his Shi`a militias. According to one report, there exist at least 10 Instagram accounts dedicated to burnishing his brand.164
The Instagram account identified by the Middle East Media Research Institute as belonging to Soleimani himself—under the handle “sardar_haj_ghasemsoleimani”—is slick and garish and includes messages in English as well as Farsi. One recent post shows a composite image of Soleimani apparently calling in a missile strike on the south front of the White House, accompanied by the slogan “We will crush the USA under our feet” in English. The same account made an internet meme out of pictures and quotes from Soleimani’s July 2018 speech denouncing President Trump.165
Nor is Soleimani’s fame limited to personal or official channels. His portrait is revered everywhere from political rallies to bodybuilding contests.166 In 2016, one of Iran’s most respected movie directors, Ebrahim Hatamikia, made a film, Bodyguard, whose lead character is a dead ringer for Soleimani. When the film won awards, Hatamikia dedicated the gongs to the Shadow Commander, proclaiming himself “the earth beneath Soleimani’s feet.”167
Soleimani’s runaway popularity naturally raises the question of whether he might seek political office—perhaps even the presidency itself. On the one hand, since his appointment as Quds Force chief, Soleimani has not been afraid to involve himself in politics at crunch moments. In 1999, he was among the most prominent signatories of an open letter more or less explicitly threatening a coup against the reformist government of Mohammed Khatami should it fail to crack down on student protests.168
Toward more conservative politicians, Soleimani has been conspicuously better disposed. After the 2009 election, which Khatami’s hardline successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is widely believed to have stolen through a combination of intimidation and ballot-stuffing, Soleimani publicly went to bat for Ahmadinejad.169 As the architect of Iranian battlefield victories in Syria and Iraq, moreover, his credentials among hardliners are all but impeccable.
Add to that the opportunities thrown up by the current chaos in Iranian politics. In recent months, the rial has all but collapsed; by September 2018, according to Reuters, the black market demanded 128,000 rials to the U.S. dollar, an all-time high.170 The financial crisis has created misery for millions of Iranians, with spiraling prices for food, pharmaceuticals, and other necessities, in the face of which Supreme Leader Khamenei has taken the rare step of publicly pinning the crisis on the Rouhani administration.171 On August 26, 2018, the economy minister was impeached, and two days later, President Rouhani himself was summoned before parliament to answer pointed questions about the economic situation—only the second time in history that Iran’s legislature has used this power. “Certainly, we made mistakes,” Rouhani admitted when he addressed the session.172
In the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accords and the ongoing regional tussle with Saudi Arabia, Iranian citizens are becoming increasingly nationalistic.173 Having rejected the hardline approach to nuclear negotiations pressed by Ahmadinejad, the Iranian public now appears equally ready to jettison the conciliatory “heroic flexibility” of Rouhani, who cultivated an image as the “diplomat sheikh.”
An historic realignment of Iranian politics may therefore be in the cards, and there is strong evidence that Iranians are increasingly willing to consider a third path: a military president.174 If so, Soleimani would be the natural front-runner. A recent University of Maryland poll found that almost 65 percent of Iranians hold a “very favorable” view of the general, giving him a commanding 28-point lead over his nearest rival, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.175
However, Soleimani himself shows little outward interest in a political career. He does not appear to have sought to capitalize on Rouhani’s troubles; indeed, the speech he gave in Hamdan in July 2018 was, in part, a staunch defense of his president. In previous election years, Soleimani has repeatedly denied having designs on the presidency. Responding to calls for him to run in last year’s election, he said he “will keep serving the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation as a soldier until the last day of his life.”176
There is, of course, a strong sense in which it doesn’t matter whether Soleimani seeks political office or not. He is already one of the most popular and powerful figures in Iran, without the need to delve into the cutthroat world of Iranian politics. Rouhani’s fate, and that of Ahmadinejad before him (also brought low by an economic crisis), would seem to confirm that the presidency can be a poisoned chalice, especially in hard times. So why choose to drink from it? The more likely future seems to be one that continues the current trajectory, in which Soleimani continues to grow his military and diplomatic empire in the shadows.
In his July 2018 Hamdan speech calling out President Trump, Soleimani boasted of his country’s prowess in asymmetric warfare. Following a similar vein, both Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, and Soleimani’s (nominal) boss, IRGC commander-in-chief Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, have recently trumpeted the advent of what they call “international basij.” Basij, which translates as “mobilization,” was a term used to refer to citizen militias raised in support of the Islamic Revolution.177 These are no idle claims. Soleimani—who himself reportedly holds a black belt in karate—practices a brand of martial art, tempting bigger opponents to make moves that count against them. In Iraq, the U.S. invasion of 2003 created a power vacuum that Iranian proxies were more than happy to fill, eventually obliging the U.S. military to leave the country entirely; later, with the rise of the Islamic State, the United States was forced to choose what may fairly be called the lesser of two evils, giving rise to the bizarre and unsettling spectacle of U.S. jets in effect providing air cover for Soleimani’s militants as they battled the Islamic State.178 Today, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion-dollar air campaign, designed to destroy Iran’s proxies there, has instead arguably become their most effective recruiting sergeant.
Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” has been built on the efforts of proxies controlled by Soleimani in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen—and on the marriage between state and militant power that Iran has been able to broker in each of those countries. The success of this model will have repercussions across the Middle East for years, if not decades to come. CTC
Ali Soufan is the chief executive officer of the Soufan Group. As an FBI special agent, he served on the frontline against al-Qa`ida and became known as a top counterterrorism operative and interrogator. His most recent book, Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, was published earlier this year. Follow @Ali_H_Soufan