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 facade 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 LeCarre'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, 1953-2002 (16)
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...