03 November 2020

Combating Terrorism Center: “Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s Unique Regional Strategy”

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 Tajikistan32. 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 Iran33.

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 stronghold85. 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.

Ali Soufan

The year had barely begun as its first major international event was already underway: the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani at the order of the US President. I remember hearing the news in the morning with a similar sense of dread that I felt in 2016 at the news that Donald Trump had won the US Presidential Election. In the immediate aftermath Iran threatened severe retaliations, Americans were debating the rationale behind the attack, skeptical of the ‘imminent’ threat invoked by Trump, and everyone expected a military escalation in the Middle East.

Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force
A former C.I.A. officer calls Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the most powerful operative in the Middle East today. Illustration by Krzysztof Domaradzki

But then Trump, in his usual manner when dealing with serious confrontation, has backed down and moved on, probably content with the shock value of the strike, the Iranians accidentally shot down a civilian passenger jet and took a step back from overt hostilities after public opinion turned against the government – and soon the world faced a much bigger crisis than this regional conflict. Nevertheless, in the whirlwind of 2020 news one can find signs of the consequences of this hasty attack: closer ties with China – a strategic partnership that increases China’s global influence to the detriment of the West – and renewed Iranian efforts to reduce US influence in Iraq.

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.

Reliable as expected, my Twitter feed at the time delivered a couple of insightful articles on this enigmatic figure inside the Iranian leadership. Relatively unknown outside his country, Qassem Soleimani was a major hidden force in Middle East conflicts. It was fascinating to discover his role in the events of the past decades, from forging an uneasy cooperation with the United States against the Taliban to his deep strategic involvement in the Syrian war.

The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil”. Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. You completely damaged me, Crocker recalled him saying. Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised. The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans. The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. We were just that close, he said. One word in one speech changed history.

Dexter Filkins

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