One cannot appreciate how bad things could get between Iran and Israel without studying the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today—Qassem Soleimani.
What I Learned This Week
Soleimani is the head of the Quds force, the foreign expeditionary army of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Trump may gamble on Tehran caving in, but Soleimani will never buckle to ultimatums. A man of iron will, he is emblematic of 2,500 years of Persia’s ambitions.
A few years ago, most Iranians would not have recognized Soleimani on the street. Today, he is subject of documentaries, news reports and even pop songs. A 2015 music video made by Shia militia fighters features soldiers spray-painting a cut-out portrait of the general and saluting in front of it while stirring music plays. Soleimani made headlines this week for having allegedly received tens of millions of dollars from the Qataris as part of a deal to release 25 members of its ruling family from Iraqi kidnappers last year.
A recent article in the Times (London) revealed a few key insights into the man and the soldier that captured our attention.
Soleimani has a unique relationship with the Supreme Leader of Iran. He both prays alongside him and seeks direct guidance on where the country’s military campaigns should be heading. “The ayatollah has always given one answer: to build an unstoppable momentum across the region, uniting Shia Muslims behind the liberation of Palestine.”
The depth of Soleimani’s commitment to this cause was cemented by the defining trauma of his life, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Soleimani was a junior commander in the war, an epic battle in which three-quarters of a million Iranians died, many gassed by Saddam Hussein’s chemical-warfare units. As the Times reports: “The Iranians were poorly commanded and thousands of young conscripts were sent in waves across Iraqi lines to their deaths. Soleimani was reportedly immensely distressed, begging the survivors for forgiveness for not being martyred himself, and vowed to wage the war of the future differently: mobile, with intelligence, subterfuge, and the support of irregular units.”
A 2013 New Yorker profile of Soleimani collaborates how deeply these events impacted him. (The article employs the alternative spelling, Suleimani.)
In March, 2009, on the eve of the Iranian New Year, Suleimani led a group of Iran-Iraq War veterans to the Paa-Alam Heights, a barren, rocky promontory on the Iraqi border. In 1986, Paa-Alam was the scene of one of the terrible battles over the Faw Peninsula, where tens of thousands of men died while hardly advancing a step. A video recording from the visit shows Suleimani standing on a mountaintop, recounting the battle to his old comrades. In a gentle voice, he speaks over a soundtrack of music and prayers.
“This is the Dasht-e-Abbas Road,” Suleimani says, pointing into the valley below. “This area stood between us and the enemy.” Later, Suleimani and the group stand on the banks of a creek, where he reads aloud the names of fallen Iranian soldiers, his voice trembling with emotion. During a break, he speaks with an interviewer, and describes the fighting in near-mystical terms. “The battlefield is mankind’s lost paradise—the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest,” he says. “One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise—the battlefield.
The war playing out in Syria is Soleimani’s chance to redeem himself by realizing the clerical regime’s mission of destroying Israel. As the Times writes:
Iran’s strategic aim in Syria, in other words, has not just been to build a land corridor linking Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus and on to Beirut, it is to use its conquests as a launching pad for war. That conflict will pit a relatively young theocracy with ambitions shaped by the 2,500-year-old imperial Persian dreams of Cyrus the Great against a 70-year-old Israeli state that also derives its authority from ancient times. Not something that can be smoothed over by digital-era diplomacy or a conventional non-aggression pact.
Since 2000, Soleimani has turned the Quds force into a sophisticated hybrid army, complete with a network of insurgents, sophisticated intelligence-gathering skills, cyber warfare abilities, and ample financial backing.
He has orchestrated three wars over the last even years in Syria: 1) securing Al Qusayr, a Sunni-dominated town in western Syria, and establishing a direct corridor with Iran; 2) coordinating with the Russians while overseeing the Gran Leader’s agenda of organizing Shia militias within Syria, training foreign recruits in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and passing arms to Hezbollah; and 3) building bases for the Revolutionary Guards since the end of the Russian bombardment of Aleppo. This third phase of Soleimani’s war in Syria has crossed a clear red line with Israel. The motivation is clear—Iran is preparing to step in when the Americans vacate.
Since 2011, roughly 150 Russian weapons have been tested in Syria. As the Times suggests: “It is a conflict that has transformed the nature of modern warfare and which will reshape the Middle East.” None of this is likely to have been lost on Soleimani—a sharp student of military technologies and strategies. He wreaked havoc with U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004 with his armor-penetrating roadside bombs.
Soleimani is arguably more experienced and possesses a more attuned intuition that his counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli was a good soldier in the special forces, leading a commando mission into Syria in 1973. But, as the Times suggests, Netanyahu’s skills have “been to identify and loudly denounce external enemies.” By contrast, Soleimani has had a decade to hone his strategic skills on the ground in Syria, including organizing and deploying millions of Iranian proxies. Indeed, Hezbollah and the Iranian-financed Hamas units could give Iran a decisive edge against Israel.
The Portuguese scholar of geopolitics, Bruno Macaes, recalls how a Chinese general celebrated the Russian armed interference in Ukraine in 2014. “Ukraine was buying China ten extra years to prepare for its global confrontation with the United States,” Macaes notes. By making itself the top enemy, Russia bought Beijing valuable breathing space. In a similar way, Assad has delayed a direct reckoning between Israel and Iran. Soleimani, for his part, has taken full advantage of the distraction. Netanyahu, arguably less so.
As we detail in section 9, the brewing conflict possesses all the necessary ingredients for war—including insecurity and a deep power struggle against the backdrop of an unbalanced, multipolar world.