Who boosted Qassem Soleimani’s image and spread Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East?


By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai

Who was it that helped the Iranian General, head of the al-Quds brigade, Qassem Soleimani, to expand his influence and the circle of his allies in the Middle East? How did his name become so well-known and his reputation blown up out of all proportion?

Behind Soleimani’s success we find, firstly, the US establishment, and secondly, Europe and Saudi Arabia. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq offered Iran the head of its fiercest enemy, Saddam Hussein, on a platter, creating the space for Iran to re-establish its links with Mesopotamia. Moreover, the war in Syria brought the relationship between Tehran and Damascus to new heights when President Assad asked for the support of the Islamic Republic to prevent the regime-change promoted, financed and advocated by the US and Europe (with the full support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey). Then the clash in Gaza washed away the differences between the Axis of the Resistance and Hamas, once again improving Soleimani’s position. And last but not least, the Saudi war in the Yemen pushed the Houthis into the arms of the only country that supported them, and provided them with the tools to withstand almost four years of genocidal warfare: Iran. What more could Soleimani ask for? Is he, indeed, the strongest man in Iran, as believed in the west?

Contrary to what some experts seem to believe, Soleimani is not the most powerful General in Iran. Soleimani’s direct superior officer is Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Soleimani is part of the IRGC and doesn’t have forces under his command in Iran. He implements policy as dictated to him and is a part of his country’s security apparatus, with a team of assistants helping him deal with the allies of Iran, mainly non-state actors.

There are many military personalities and other security bodies more important than Soleimani in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nevertheless, because he is the head of the al-Quds brigade, in charge of financing, training and organising allies outside Iran, Soleimani has achieved renown. Many years after the US invasion of Iraq, few people, even among Iran’s allies, had met Soleimani or heard his name. But Iraqis find it difficult to be discreet and they have therefore spread abroad his name, movement and encounters. In fact, the wider relationship with various Iraqi groups started after the battle of Najaf in 2004.

It is only in the last decade that Iran began sending overt messages to the US establishment, bringing Soleimani to media attention. The general posed for pictures everywhere to say “Iran is here”. In the Lebanon, when Soleimani visits a public figure, a team of bodyguards is spread throughout the area and on the tops of buildings. This is not the case in Iraq or Syria, where access to the Iranian general is less complicated.

The West loves to have a name, a photo and a targeted person to attribute everything to. It is a question of labelling rather than knowledge. This is what the West did with Imad Mughnniyah in the 80’s, attributing to him, and him alone, responsibility for tasks which even Superman could not have carried out alone. Imad became famous after his visit to France to negotiate the fate of some French hostages held in captivity in Lebanon.

Where has Soleimani succeeded, and where has he failed?

The Iranian General’s objective is to look at the state of the “Axis of the Resistance” and to fortify this axis (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen). However, Soleimani is part of an organization within the ranks of the Iranian IRGC, and doesn’t have his own project or plans. His fame is due to various factors, but above all to the US establishment’s failed policy in the Middle East- and the considerable ability of Iran to ride the US horse and benefit from its mistakes.

In the Lebanon, the Shia adopted the Palestinian cause in the 70s and fought against the Israeli invasion in 1982 before Soleimani came to power. There were many Iranian groups operating in Lebanon, leading various different compartmentalised factions. It was not until 1992, when Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah took the leadership, that Hezbollah become united. The Iranian Foreign Ministry, the Iranian Ittilaat Ministry, the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the Iranian National Security organization were all involved in supporting Iran’s allies (the oppressed are always willing to go along with the “Islamic Revolution!”). The Hezbollah project was a success in Iran’s eyes. The Shia of Lebanon have become the best fighters in the Middle East and they have received all their training from Iran. However, they have also gathered tremendous experience from the various Israeli bodies (Shayetet 13, OZ brigade, SayeretvMatikal 269, Mossad…) who have operated in Lebanon against it- and also from their seven years spent in Syria, plus a few years in Iraq. The Lebanese Hezbollah of today is generally considered to be Iran’s chef-oeuvre.

In Mesopotamia, Soleimani thought he could create a Hezbollah-Lebanon look-alike when Moqtada al-Sadr stood against the US occupation of his country. He was wrong because he failed to take personal pride into account. Although Moqtada agreed to form Asaeb Ahl al-Haq and sent its officers to be trained in Iran and Lebanon, Moqtada himself rejected all dictates from Soleimani.

The Iranian general had one possibility: to form several groups willing to split from Moqtada and continue down the path of resistance against US occupation forces. Moqtada was slowing down, particularly following the arrest of his Lieutenant Kais al-khaz’ali, unwilling to continue the armed struggle against the Americans. Soleimani received with open arms Sheikh Akram al-Ka’bi, Khaz’ali’s assistant, to continue the attacks against US forces and later to form an independent group called Harakat al-Nujaba’.

In 2011, the power of Iran was fading in Iraq. Iraqi politicians were busy struggling for power in Baghdad and the population was rebellious, lacking basic needs and infrastructure. The Iraqis kept the umbilical cord with Tehran to form the next government since Iraqis were incapable of agreeing without outside mediation. Tehran wanted an open border with Iraq during the US sanctions and Mesopotamia offered this to Persia… until the day when ISIS (the “Islamic State” group) occupied Mosul.

The US watched ISIS growing and considered it a “US strategic asset”, allowing it to prosper in Iraq and expand toward Syria. They remained watchful for the first few months. The Iraqi Army was afraid and on the run: an ideal scenario enabling the US to divide Iraq (Kurdistan in the north, Sunnistan in the Middle and Shiistan in the south).

Iran moved quickly and sent its trainers, weapons and ammunitions to the central government in Baghdad and to Erbil (Kurdistan). The Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki contacted Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and asked him to send his most experienced trainers. Nasrallah, not only a believer in Welayat al-Fakih but also in Sayyed Ali Khamenei as his Marja’ al-Taqleed, sought a religious blessing for his decision to send fighters to Iraq (and Syria) not from Soleimani, but from a religious authority. Indeed, according to Islam, the responsibility of the death or wounding of a Muslim Hezbollah member should fall on a high religious authority (regardless of his nationality) rather than on an Iranian military commander.

The Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for Jihad (Jihad Kifa’ei) and gave birth to Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilisation force. He did this on his own, unconnected to Iran, since he has the religious power to pronounce such a verdict and it was be up to the population – or his followers – to abide by the call or not. This Hashd force was made up mainly of volunteers and group members with some fighting experience. Iran came forward to equip and train them, along with Hezbollah. This was Sayyed Ali Khamenei’s decision not Soleimani.

ISIS was stopped at the gates of Baghdad and Karbala (linked to Anbar province, an ISIS stronghold). Only then did the US establishment decide to intervene. The US goal of dividing Mesopotamia served Iran’s interests, because the rise of ISIS gave Iran the opportunity to finally train many Iraqi Hezbollah-like groups and to become more heavily involved in Iraq.

Tehran accumulates its successes on the coattails of the failed US policy in the Middle East, registering one victory after another. Meanwhile, the US complains about Iranian interference in the Levant and Mesopotamia and calls for its withdrawal. The success of Iran is the success of a country, a system, and a policy rather than the success of one single man.

In Iraq, Soleimani was treated badly, undermined and somewhat humiliated throughout the term in office of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi. The premier did not hesitate to criticise Soleimani openly, via the media, accusing him of falsely claiming victories against ISIS, and rejecting the claim that the Iranian General orchestrated the successful return of Kirkuk to the control of the central government in Baghdad.

The rift between the two men started since 2014 when Soleimani worked hard – but failed – to bring to the prime ministership another candidate. It was the Grand Ayatollah Sistani who spoiled Soleimani’s plans and insisted on presenting his two favourite candidates Nuri al-Maliki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari for the position. Sayyed Sistani has always been against the interference of Iran (and Hezbollah) in Iraq: although he has met Soleimani and Hezbollah’s representative, he has never joined his authority to that of Iran, in Iraq.

Another event (among many others) that I have been a participant observer of was when Soleimani asked his main ally in Iraq, Hadi al-Ameri (leader of BADR group who fought during the Iran-Iraq war among the IRGC ranks, a Farsi speaker, respected by all the Iranian political and military leadership) to join the Prime Minister Haidar Abadi in a coalition for the election of a new parliament (a President and a Prime Minister). Al-Ameri, including all of the al-Fateh coalition (which holds only Iran’s closest allies), rejected Soleimani’s request, and this despite his anger and threats.

It was only when Prime Minister Abadi foolishly volunteered to abide by the US unilateral sanctions on Iran that Tehran regained momentum in the country and won the support of most groups, both Shia and non-Shia. That was the end of Abadi’s career and a boon to Soleimani who, like a phoenix, benefitted from Iraq’s firm stand. In fact, the Iraqi people and politicians stood with Iran against the US sanctions and not with Soleimani. Iraqis have suffered cruel US sanctions (food for oil) where hundreds of thousands died, and they refuse to see their neighbour, Iran, go through the same hardships now that Mesopotamia is no longer under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein nor under US hegemony.

In Syria, Iran rushed in to stop the regime change. Sayyed Nasrallah, again, visited Iran to seek Sayed Ali Khamenei’s religious consent. Hezbollah and Iran fought side by side. Iran allocated a huge budget for Hezbollah to operate in Syria. Also, Iran has invested tens of billions in Syria to pay the army and various institutions’ salaries and to supply oil to the Syrian government, supplying both weapons and men. That was not one man’s decision but the Islamic Republic standing with its Syrian ally. Iran with its allies triumphed, and the regime-change plotters failed. Now the US and Israel are calling for the immediate withdrawal of the Iranian forces from Syria, attempting to dictate conditions even though it is they who have failed and thus created this opportunity for Iran to move into the Levant as it has done today.

It would therefore be wrong to believe that one man, Soleimani, is behind the success of the “Axis of the Resistance” in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine. The West has made Soleimani famous and the Iranian leadership has played the game, putting Soleimani as a front figure facing the US secretary of State Pompeo and even President Donald Trump. It is an astute and subtle Persian message, a way of saying to the world’s most powerful President and to his Secretary of State “this is your level: a military commander within the IRGC corps! You are just not up to being talked to by our leaders.” Indeed, when Trump rescinded the US nuclear deal with Iran and other countries, the IRGC told President Hassan Rohini at that time: “Don’t answer that man (Donald Trump). He is not at your level- he’s a nightclub guy, with no moral standards whatsoever. Let us deal with him!”

Proofread by:  Maurice Brasher and C.B.

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