The Sinister Genius of Qassem Soleimani
In 2003, in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Iranian regime was ridden with anxiety. President George W. Bush had included Iran in his post-9/11 “axis of evil” in a famous 2002 speech. I interviewed many Iranian officials at the time as a Tehran-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, and I vividly remember their fear that the US might turn next to Tehran.
In those anxious days, Gen. Qassem Soleimani —the powerful commander of Iran’s Quds Force, who was killed this week by a US airstrike in Baghdad—performed an act of unsettling geopolitical genius that still echoes today, wrote Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., in the World Street Journal.
After the US military campaign to topple the Taliban began, Iran detained hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan, including some members of Osama bin Laden’s family and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the future leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Many Iranians saw these extremists as a threat—Sunni zealots who hated overwhelmingly Shiite Iran. Yet Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s plans for regional dominance, realized that they could also be an asset.
In their book “The Exile,” investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy describe the journey of many al-Qaeda members who spent months and even years as “guests” of Iran. Soleimani broke bread with bin Laden’s sons, who affectionately called him Hajji Qassem, Ms. Scott-Clark and Mr. Levy write. He appointed two senior Quds Force officers to “provide the guests with whatever they needed,” including refrigerators, widescreen TVs and an “unlimited budget” to furnish a religious library. Saif al-Adel, a notorious al-Qaeda explosives expert, had access to a sports complex in a posh Tehran neighborhood, where he swam laps alongside Western diplomats.
If the US-led Iraq war was intended, in part, to cow Iran by establishing a strong US military presence in Iraq and to create a flourishing Shiite democracy to undermine the legitimacy of Iran next door, Iran would do everything it could to ensure that America’s experiment turned into a smoldering failure. Before the war began in March 2003, Soleimani’s Quds Force freed many of the extremists that Iran had been holding captive, unleashing them against the US.
That August, Zarqawi and his forces conducted three deadly bombings in Iraq—against UN headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and a major Shiite shrine in Najaf, a southern Iraqi city holy to Shiites. These blows devastated the US-led war from the beginning. By targeting Shiite shrines and civilians, killing thousands of Iran’s fellow Shiites, Zarqawi helped to radicalize Iraq’s Shiite majority and pushed them closer to Iran—and to Soleimani, who could offer them protection. Just months after the US invasion, the debate in Washington had shifted sharply: Instead of asking how a triumphant US could help Iraq to shape Iran, the question became how an embattled US could stop Iran from shaping Iraq.
Under Soleimani’s command, Iran became the only country in the region capable of harnessing both Shiite extremism and, at times, Sunni radicalism too. Soleimani conceived of using Sunni extremists to fight the US in much the same way that the US used them to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Iran’s Shiite theocracy has managed, at times, to cooperate tactically with deadly Sunni extremist groups—including the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—against their common foes, the US and Israel, even as Iran has been fighting on the front lines against the Sunni fanatics of ISIS.
During the Obama administration, Gen. Stanley McChrystal criticized Tehran for providing weapons and training inside Iran to Taliban insurgents targeting US troops. In 2018, Israel’s top general, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said that Iran had increased its funding in the Gaza Strip for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to $100 million a year.
Perhaps no American military commander knew Soleimani better than former Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded US troops in Iraq at the height of the war’s fury, much of which was inflicted by Soleimani. Petraeus considered Soleimani “a combination of CIA director, JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] commander and regional envoy.” Soleimani “has the blood of well over 600 US and coalition soldiers on his hands, and the blood of countless others as well, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan—in each of which he supported, funded, trained, equipped and often directed powerful Shiite militias,” Petraeus told me last week.
This highlights another of Soleimani’s hugely important legacies. He also cultivated a 50,000-strong Shiite foreign legion—based on the model of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that is Iran’s proxy in Lebanon—to fill power vacuums in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen and to threaten the Gulf countries.
With Soleimani leading the charge, these Shiite militias helped to preserve the rule of Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar Assad, who remains Iran’s key Arab ally. At a time of great economic hardship in Iran, Tehran provided billions of dollars to arm, train and pay tens of thousands of Arab, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militants—a force that helped Assad to crush the Syrian opposition that rose up to defy his rule.
These “achievements” made the soft-spoken, diminutive Soleimani a commanding figure in Tehran. An Iranian adage holds that if you look closely at the manicured hands of the country’s ruling clerics—especially the hard-liners romanticizing martyrdom and calling for the destruction of Israel and the West—you will see that most of them have never known manual labor, let alone war. Not Soleimani. He didn’t need to breathe rhetorical fire; his entire career had been drenched in blood, and everyone knew it.
One senior Iraqi official who used to meet frequently with Soleimani likened the general to a mob boss whose conspicuous civility was punctuated with subtle yet clear demands and threats. “Remember that radical group who we helped you eradicate?” the Iraqi official said with a smile, mimicking Soleimani. “It would be a real shame if they came back.”
Iranian officials now say that their revenge for Soleimani’s killing will be to drive the US from Iraq. But Iraqi leaders may not prove to be grateful. A former US military intelligence officer who served in Iraq told me, “No one in Iraq will say it publicly, at least not yet, but most Iraqi politicians hated Soleimani. They resented his heavy-handedness, his instructions of what to do and what not to do. They feared his constantly implied threat that he’d have them fired or even assassinated if they didn’t toe the line.”
The US officer added, “How many times did he fly into Baghdad or Najaf or Sulaymaniyah to tell Iraqis they weren’t allowed to do what’s in their national interest, or weren’t allowed to be prime minister or interior minister, or arm one faction of Iraqis against another faction of Iraqis? They’re all saying privately: good riddance.”
Wall Street Journal