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Profile | The Canny General: Quds Force Commander Ghasem Soleimani

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

31 Dec 2011 23:17Comments
ghasem.jpgA long history of quiet influence and power.

[ profile ] "Why don't we kill them? We kill other people who are running terrorist organizations against the United States." This is what retired General John (Jack) Keane, former vice chief of staff of the United States Army, told Congress during his testimony to the Homeland Security Subcommittee on October 26. Who was he talking about?

Testifying to the same subcommittee on the same day, the neoconservative Marc Reuel Gerecht, a retired CIA agent who worked in the Middle East for years, made it clear who Keane had primarily in mind: "I don't think that you are going to really intimidate these people, get their attention, unless you shoot somebody. You should hold Qassem Suleimani responsible. Qassem Suleimani travels a lot. He's all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him."

Gerecht was talking about Major General Ghasem Soleimani, long-time commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite special forces division responsible for operations outside Iran's borders, considered by some to be among the finest of its kind in the world. The United States has known about Soleimani since at least the 1990s, and while U.S. troops were still in Iraq, they had to deal with the militias that had been armed and trained by the Quds Force.

In fact, the Shiites who came to power in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in March 2003 had been trained and equipped by the Quds Force for years. The Badr Division (also called the Ninth Badr Corps), the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which played a decisive role after the invasion, was founded in 1984 by Esmail Daghaayeghi, a Guard officer, following the Quds Force's establishment the previous year (see below). Daghaayeghi was killed during the Iran-Iraq War on January 18, 1987, during Operation Karbala 5 and posthumously given the rank of major general. During the war, the command centers of both forces were stationed in the Ramazan Garrison in the town of Marivan, Kurdistan, near the Iraqi border. After the war and through the 1990s, the Badr Division trained under the Quds Force.

The reaction in Iran to the statements by Keane and Gerecht was swift and furious. Hardline media outlets lionized Soleimani (see, for example, here, here, here, and here.) According to the hardline website Asr-e Iran, which is close to Tehran mayor and former Guard commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, "Those in Islamic Iran who know [Soleimani] talk about his shyness, humble behavior, and tranquility. And unlike what the Americans say, he is not mysterious." Mashregh News, the website linked with the Guards, published pictures of Soleimani during the war with Iraq that show him bidding farewell to soldiers headed for the front. Jahan News, the website published by Majles deputy and former Guard commander Ali Reza Zakani, stated, "We are all Ghasem Soleimani." Soleimani himself declared, "This is not a threat; it is helping [me] to realize an old, strong desire. In response to those who think that they can impose themselves on us through threats, I say, oh God, make martyrdom in your path at the hands of our enemies our fate."

Who is this Ghasem Soleimani who invokes such emotions in Tehran hardliners? As tensions between the West and Iran increase, the covert war that the United States and Israel are apparently waging on Iran is also heating up. Even before the U.S. forces left Iraq, Soleimani was considered by some as the most powerful figure in that country. With their departure, he becomes even more prominent in any possible confrontation between Iran and the United States and Israel, and in particular in any asymmetric warfare that the Quds Force may wage.

Early life

110684_407.jpgGhasem Soleimani -- usually referred to as Haj Ghasem Soleimani by the Iranian media -- was born on March 11, 1957, to a poor peasant family in the mountainous, sparsely populated village of Rabord near the town of Baft in the southeastern province of Kerman. (Some reports indicate that he was born in 1958.) After completing elementary school, together with his cousin Ahmad Soleimani he left his family and moved to Kerman, the provincial capital. His family was heavily in debt, and the young Soleimani tried to help out by working as a day laborer in the construction industry. After several years, he joined the Water Organization of Kerman as a simple technician.

After the uprising of June 5, 1963, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi outlawed all opposition political groups in Iran. In March 1975, the Shah banned all the political parties that were loyal to him and ordered the establishment of a single party, the Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party. The struggle against his regime grew even fiercer. Around this time, the teenaged Soleimani reportedly began his anti-Shah activities.

As the Shah had eliminated all the viable political groups, the clerics who opposed his regime grew in influence. One such cleric was Seyyed Reza Kaamyaab (1950-81) from Mashhad, who was well known in Kerman for his fiery speeches against the Shah. After the 1979 Revolution, Kaamyaab was elected to the first Majles representing Mashhad. He was assassinated by the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) in July 1981. Soleimani was a religious follower of Kaamyaab. But there is nothing that indicates in what way, or even if, Soleimani participated in the Revolution that toppled the Shah's regime in February 1979, although it is known that Ahmad Soleimani was an organizer of the first anti-Shah demonstrations in Kerman the previous spring.

Joining the Guards

On May 5, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the founding of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to prevent a military coup by the remnants of the Shah's army, elements of which had supported the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953. The Guards quickly set up provincial command centers around the country, including one in Kerman, which Soleimani joined as a "volunteer." He received only six weeks of training (the maximum in that era was two months), but proved to be a fast learner, which opened the path for his rise in the Guards' ranks.

One of the first crises that the Guards had to deal with was the uprising in the Kurdish region in western Iran just a few months after the Revolution. To put down the uprising, the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan dispatched the army and Guard forces. Similar to the Shah's regime, the Bazargan government sent troops from other regions of Iran, so the soldiers would not be bound to the local population. The government forces were led by Defense Minister Mostafa Chamran and Colonel Ali Seyyed Shirazi, who later rose to the rank of lieutenant general, the only one in Iran's military after the Revolution. (Chamran was killed in 1981 in the war with Iraq; Shirazi was assassinated by the MKO in 1999.) Soleimani was part of the force that was dispatched from Kerman to Mahabad in West Azerbaijan province, historically a stronghold of Kurdish dissidents. Little is known of Soleimani's role in the armed forces' brutal suppression of the uprising. Upon his return to Kerman, Soleimani was put in charge of the Guard base there.

Iran-Iraq War

On September 22, 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran with the hope of toppling the regime in Tehran. The Guards played a prominent role during the eight-year war that followed, in which young men such as Soleimani found the mission of their lives: defeating Iraq. He was instrumental in training and dispatching to the war front several Guard battalions from Kerman. He was eventually appointed to command the 41st Saarallah Division based in Kerman, which was sent to the front and played a key role in preventing Iraqi forces from overrunning the town of Susangerd in Khuzestan province. According to many accounts, Soleimani took part in practically all the important operations of the war mounted by Iran's military, both successful and unsuccessful. In October 1984, his cousin Ahmad Soleimani was killed in combat.

There are many tales attesting to Soleimani's bravery and tactical skills. My youngest brother, who fought at the front for 28 months -- two years of mandatory service plus four months as a volunteer -- told me that Soleimani was reputed to be one of the "bravest and shrewdest guys" at the front. He told me about Soleimani personally leading operations during which he willingly risked capture by Iraqi forces. Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute calls Soleimani "a war hero and genuine patriot who joined the [Guards] following the revolution, as Iran grappled with the likelihood of civil war and the challenges of Iraq's invasion." Various sources describe many of the operations that Soleimani led, or in which he and the 41st Saarallah Division played important roles (see, for example, here, here, and here).

Formation of the Quds Force

In the first half of the 1970s, border disputes led to considerable tension between Iran and Iraq. The Shah's regime armed and trained the Iraqi Kurdish forces led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani that were fighting against the central government in Baghdad. (After March 6, 1975, when the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement, Iran cut off aid to Barzani's forces.) Taking a page from the Shah, the Islamic Republic decided to do something very similar. Hence the Quds Force was formed in 1983 to arm and train Iraqi Kurdish forces to combat Hussein's army and to carry out intelligence operations in Iraq. In that era, the Quds Force's Ramazan Garrison headquarters was a command center for irregular warfare, behind-the-front operations, and intelligence collection. There has been some speculation that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was in Kurdistan at the time, played a role in the force's founding, but I could not verify this independently.

The Quds Force was originally affiliated with the Office of Liberation Movements, which was formed after the 1979 Revolution to assist Islamic revolutionary movements in other countries, but it soon became a branch of the Guards, within which it was called the 2nd Quds Corps for quite some time. While the war with Iraq raged, one of the force's primary missions was to collaborate with Kurdish fighters against Hussein's army. After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and initiated an extended clear occupation of the southern part of the country for a long time, the Quds Force is believed to have played an important role in arming and training those who wanted to resist the occupation. With the official founding of the Lebanese Hezbollah in February 1985, the Quds Force is thought to have trained and equipped its fighters. However, it must be emphasized that the exact nature of the working relationship between the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Quds Force remains shrouded in secrecy, with few hard facts available.

Also contemporaneous with the Iran-Iraq War, Soviet forces were fighting the Afghan Mujahedin, which were supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. An important figure among the Mujahedin was Ahmad Shah Masoud, an ally of Iran whose operations were aided by the Quds Force (see below).

Postwar era

120315_109.jpgThe war with Iraq finally ended in August 1988. The Guard commanders all became commissioned officers of Iran's military. Most of the top commanders were given the rank of brigadier general, like Soleimani, or lieutenant brigadier general. The war had left a lasting impression on the worldviews of men such as Soleimani and current Guard chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari (pictured seated with Soleimani). They have not forgotten that the West, and in particular the United States, as well as the Soviet Union, supported Iraq during the war. A network of these commanders, comprising some of the most hardline Guard officers, was created that now effectively runs Iran. I shall return to this point.

At the end of the war, the 41st Saarallah Division returned to Kerman. For many years afterward, one of the Quds Force's primary responsibilities was the fight against narcotic traffickers using Iran as a conduit for the transfer of drugs from Afghanistan to the rest of the word. The route runs from Afghanistan (as well as Pakistan) to southern Khorasan and Sistan and Baluchistan province and from there to Kerman province on its way to Europe, the Persian Gulf region, and other locations. It is estimated that, over the past two decades, at least 3,000 Iranian military and police personnel have been killed in the war on the traffickers. Soleimani, as commander of the 41st Saarallah Division, played a key role in the fighting in the early and mid-1990s and was praised by many officers, including then Guard chief Major General Mohsen Rezaei.

After Soviet forces withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan in 1989, the leftist Afghan regime hung on for a time. But when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the government of Mohammad Najibullah also crumpled. Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia all competed for influence in Afghanistan. Initially, Iran supported the Hazara Shia group Hezb-e Wahdat (Party of Unity), led by Abdul Ali Mazari. When factional fighting broke out, Ahmad Shah Masoud's forces defeated all of the other militias, except that of the Taliban, who hate Iran and Shiites. From then on, the Quds Force supported Shah Masoud. I shall come back to this shortly.

In the 1990s, the Quds Force was accused of involvement in important operations beyond Iran's borders. For example, much has been said about the force's possible role in the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and one Saudi, and injured 372. Though Iran was eventually absolved by Saudi Arabia of any involvement (see also this article by Gareth Porter), U.S. neoconservatives still insist that the Quds Force had a hand in the bombing.

The Quds Force was definitely involved in the war in the Balkans in the first half of the decade. With tacit U.S. approval, it supplied the Muslim combatants with arms to defend themselves against the Serbian forces. Several reports indicate that Soleimani was in command of Quds Force operations in Bosnia.

The Taliban, with Pakistani military backing and financial support from Saudi Arabia, overthrew the Afghan government and took power in Kabul on September 27, 1996. The United States initially considered the development a positive one for the Afghan people.

Glyn Davies, a State Department spokesman, expressed hope that the Taliban would "move quickly to restore order and security and to form a representative interim government that can begin the process of reconciliation nationwide," adding that the United States would send diplomats to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban to reestablish full diplomatic ties. From then on, a main task of the Quds Force was to supply and support the forces of Ahmad Shah Masoud who, together with Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former pro-Soviet fighter and leader of the Uzbek minority's Jonbesh-e Melli (National Movement), had formed the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, universally known as the Northern Alliance. The supply route went through Persian-speaking Tajikistan.

Domestic politics

During this entire period, while Soleimani did not speak -- and was hardly even seen -- in public, he was deeply involved in all the Quds Force's major operations outside Iran's borders. In early August 1998, Taliban forces attacked the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, killing thousands of civilians. They specifically targeted Iran's consulate in the city, where they murdered 11 Iranians, including eight diplomats and a journalist, Mahmoud Saremi, who was working for IRNA, Iran's state news agency. The other two dead Iranians were most likely intelligence officers. The two countries almost went to war, as Iran massed 200,000 troops on its Afghan border. But instead of attacking Afghanistan, the Quds Force continued to supply the Northern Alliance. In the fall of 2001, after the United States invaded Afghanistan, it was the Quds Force that supported and trained Northern Alliance fighters, even though Ahmad Shah Masoud had been assassinated on September 9, two days before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Mohammad Khatami had been elected president of the Islamic Republic by a landslide on May 23, 1997, and begun a cautious program of reform. That September 10, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei abruptly removed Rezaei from his position as Guard chief and appointed Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a hardliner, in his place. The move greatly displeased the senior Guard commanders and provided the network of wartime Guard commanders an opportunity to announce its existence. Thirty-three high-ranking Guard officers, including Soleimani, signed a letter that protested Rezaei's dismissal and implicitly blamed Khatami for it.

Rahim Safavi subsequently appointed Soleimani as the commander of the Quds Force and Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as his deputy. Soleimani's predecessor was Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi (born Ahmad Shah Cheraghi), the current minister of defense. Interestingly, although Soleimani had signed the protest letter, it is known that he had opposed some of Rezaei's decisions during the war against Iraq. This might indicate that the letter was more an expression of the Guard commanders' unhappiness with the election of Khatami than of firm support for Rezaei. Another interesting point is that even though Soleimani and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, commander-in-chief of the armed forces during most of the war, are both from Kerman, the two men never developed a close relationship.

The July 1999 uprising at the dormitories of the University of Tehran shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic. The uprising began when the popular Islamic leftist daily Salaam was banned after it published a series of reports on conservatives' attempts to restrict the press. The students who protested the ban were attacked by the Basij militia and plainclothes agents, which ignited several days of fierce demonstrations around the country. The Guard network responded. Twenty-four top commanders -- including Soleimani and then Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari, chief of the Guards' ground forces -- wrote a letter to Khatami threatening that if he did not end the pursuit of his reformist policies, they would be forced to take strong action:

Your Excellency, Mr. Khatami, look at the international media and radio broadcasts. Does the sound of their merriment not reach your ear? Dear Mr. President, if you do not make a revolutionary decision today, and fail to fulfill your Islamic and national duty, tomorrow will be too late and the damage will be more irreversible than can be imagined.... With all due respect, we inform you that our patience is at an end, and we do not think it is possible to tolerate any more if this is not addressed.

Although in another letter to Khatami, a large number of regular army officers and former Guard commanders expressed their firm support for him, the threatening letter from the network of top Guard commanders had a much greater impact. It also marked the first occasion in which Soleimani took a public position regarding a national issue. But that remains an exception. Soleimani has conducted himself almost invariably as a professional soldier who does not interfere in politics nor take public positions regarding issues of state.

Aftermath of U.S. invasion of Iraq

The U.S. and British invasion of Iraq in March 2003 greatly worried the Iranian leadership. There was every sign that the United States intended to establish large, permanent military bases in Iraq. The leadership thus decided to make sure that it was positioned to wield influence over various Iraqi Shia groups, which were already Iran's allies, as well as some Sunni nationalist groups opposed to the invasion and occupation. Thousands of Iranian intelligence agents and Quds Force personnel penetrated Iraq, establishing links with various groups and reportedly distributing vast sums of money.

As resistance to the occupation intensified, the U.S. military began to accuse Iran and the Quds Force specifically of intervening in Iraq and bearing responsibility for some American casualties. In an interview with CBS in February 2006, General John Abizaid, then commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, said, "At the same time that the government of Iran is talking about stabilizing Iraq, these Revolutionary Guard Qods Force people are supporting the Shia death squads of some of the various splinter [groups]." "So, aren't we already at a war with Iran through its proxies in Iraq?" he was asked. Abizaid responded, "No. We're not at war with Iran through its proxies. We are in a period of making it clear to the Iranians that they need to move to help stabilize Iraq and not destabilize it."

On January 11, 2007, five Iranian diplomats, reportedly members of the Quds Force, were arrested by U.S. troops when they raided the Iranian Liaison Office in Arbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan (the office was reportedly in the process of becoming Iran's consulate). The five men -- Naser Bagheri, Mousa Chegini, Abbas Hatami Kakavand, Hamid Askari Shokouh, and Majid Ghaemi -- were held for more than two years. It is widely believed that the Americans mistakenly thought that Jafari, the Guard chief, was at the office and that the raid was staged to capture him.

Abizaid's claims were followed by the Bush administration's accusations in early 2007 that Iran was helping Shia militias murder American soldiers in Iraq. On February 11, U.S. military officials in Baghdad presented rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, and components for explosives that they said were like those responsible for the deaths of 170 American servicemen over the previous three years; they claimed that such weapons were made available to the insurgents with the approval of Iran's highest authorities. The charges were met with great skepticism, not because they were implausible, but because there was simply no evidence linking the weapons to Iran or the Quds Force.

In March 2007, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 1747, which prohibited arms sales to and from Iran because of concerns over its nuclear program. The edict also imposed sanctions against several Guard commanders, including Soleimani. In October that year, the United States imposed additional sanctions on him, accusing him of supporting terrorism and nuclear proliferation activities. To date, however, there is still no evidence linking the Quds Force to Iran's nuclear program that has been made public.

In early 2008, the Mahdi Army of the Iraqi Shia firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr began fighting the forces of the U.S.-backed government. When the situation seemed to be slipping out of control, representatives of the two sides met in Qom with Soleimani and, after intense negotiations, agreed to a ceasefire. This was yet another manifestation of his influence and power.

During the same period, another episode took place that became famous. In the midst of a battle that pitted Iraqi and U.S. army forces against the Mahdi Army, General David Petraeus, then the commander of the American contingent in Iraq, was handed a phone displaying a text message from Soleimani:

General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And, indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad [Hassan Kazemi Qomi] is a Quds Force member. The individual who's going to replace him [Hassan Danaeifar] is a Quds Force member.

Soleimani was implying that, as far as the Middle East was concerned, he was the one with whom Petraeus had to deal. The American general, of course, did not need a reminder. This past July, the Guardian quoted Iraq's former national security minister, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, as saying of Soleimani, "He is the most powerful man in Iraq without question. Nothing gets done without him." A senior U.S. official told the Guardian, "He dictates terms then makes things happen and the Iraqis are left managing a situation that they had no input into."

In June, after antigovernment demonstrations in Syria turned bloody, the European Union imposed sanctions on Soleimani. The Syrian opposition has alleged that the Islamic Republic, and in particular the Quds Force, has been helping the Syrian government to crackdown on the demonstrators.

And in October, the United States alleged that the Quds Force was behind a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington and carry out other terrorist operations. Regardless of the accuracy of the allegations, they brought to the fore the key role that Soleimani plays in Iranian operations abroad.


11120_581.jpgOn January 24, 2011, Khamenei promoted Soleimani to major general. There are currently only 12 other major generals in Iran's armed forces: Guard chief Jafari; Rahim Safavi, now the Supreme Leader's senior military adviser; Rezaei, now secretary-general of the Expediency Discernment Council; Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hassan Firoozabadi, who is close to Khamenei; his top deputy, Gholam Ali Rashid, who is very popular within the military for his achievements during the war with Iraq, particularly the liberation of the Persian Gulf port of Khorramshahr; Mostafa Izadi, deputy armed forces chief of staff, who is highly respected and the only military man who openly supported the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri; Hassani Saadi, deputy armed forces chief of staff for military coordination, who is considered an apolitical soldier; Mohammad Bagheri, Firoozabadi's deputy for operations and intelligence; Ataollah Salehi, commander of Iran's regular armed forces (not including the Guards), who is the only current general to have received his military training prior to the Revolution; Ali Shahbazi, the first chief of the regular armed forces after Khamenei's 1989 appointment as Supreme Leader, and his successor, Mohammad Salimi, both now military advisers to Khamenei; and former Navy commander Ali Shamkhani.

Leave aside Rezaei and Shamkhani, who no longer have active military roles (and are no longer close to Khamenei), and the three who serve as the Supreme Leader's advisers, and Soleimani is effectively one of just eight men now serving at the highest rank in Iran's military structure.

Presidential prospects

Speculation is rife in Tehran as to who will be the military's candidate in the next presidential election, set for June 2013. Many believe it will be Tehran Mayor Ghalibaf, the former commander of the Guard air force who also ran in 2005, or Saeed Jalili, secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, who is close to the military hardliners. But according to a source with contacts in high places in Tehran, Soleimani may be Khamenei's candidate. The Supreme Leader has publicly praised him, which is extremely rare. There is little information, however, on how close the two men are.

Last spring, in a rare speech to the Majles deputies, Soleimani said, "What has happened in Egypt, and is happening in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, and will undoubtedly also happen in other Arab nations, are Islamic movements that are influenced by [Iran's] Islamic Revolution. The definitive and true model in the Islamic Revolution that has influenced what is happening is the Sacred Defense [the Iran-Iraq War]." The claim, of course, is false. But it does provide a window on the current thinking of Soleimani, who almost never appears in public outside of commemorations for fallen heroes of the war.

What sort of role will General Ghasem Soleimani play in Iran's future? Only time will tell. But there is no question that, though he has preferred to stay in the shadows, he has long been one of the most powerful figures in the land.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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