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The Iranian Regime’s Mr. Fix It

Is there anything Gen. Qassem Suleimani can’t do?

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By LEE SMITH
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Qassem Suleimani is apparently the most interesting man in the world. To judge by the profiles in major Western media outlets—including the New Yorker, BBC, and the Guardian—the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external operations unit, the Quds Force, is the most feared and ruthless military strategist since Rommel. He’s also a fixer, a cleaner, like a figure out of a Quentin Tarantino film. Just last week, Suleimani was on call to help out a troubled client in Baghdad. After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Mosul, Suleimani landed with a cadre of Iranian advisers to lend a steady hand and reinforcements to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.


Qassem Suleimani


Some call Suleimani the Iranian proconsul in Iraq, but these days, Hajj Qassem, as he is known to friends and admirers, is everywhere around the Middle East. As he reportedly texted the American commander of coalition forces in Iraq in 2007: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” And now there’s Syria, too, where Suleimani is gathering fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, as well as Iranian troops from the IRGC and Basij to build a Shiite International to defend another Iranian ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Some say Hajj Qassem is Iran’s real powerbroker, and Hassan Rouhani is just the happy, so-called moderate, face of the clerical regime. Indeed, there are rumors floating around Shiite circles in Beirut that Suleimani recently attempted a coup against Rouhani, blocked at the last moment by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Maybe Suleimani really did try to topple Rouhani—it’s no secret he favored a rival, Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a fellow IRGC field commander from the war with Iraq whose son is believed to be married to Suleimani’s daughter. However, it’s just as likely that the rumors are the latest installment in an Iranian public relations blitz intended to brand Suleimani as the Middle East’s indispensable man. The campaign is directed at the Obama White House: If you want anything done in the Middle East, you’ll have to go through Iran and you’ll have to deal with Qassem Suleimani. If Rouhani and Javad Zarif are the regime’s moderates, Suleimani is its pit bull at the gate.

Suleimani is a serious person. “He’s considered a hero in Iran,” says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “He defended Iran in the face of Iraqi invasion in the 1980s, fought the drug cartels close to the Afghan border in the 1990s, and is now defending the Shia against Sunni terrorists like ISIS.”

According to Alfoneh, Suleimani is one of the instruments the Islamic Republic has used to foment a permanent state of crisis in Iraq, making Iraqis, especially the Shiites, dependent on his good will. It seems the White House is equally eager to stay on his good side, says Alfoneh. “I’m sure Suleimani enjoys the fact that the United States government, which has formally designated him a terrorist, now depends on his help to restore security in Iraq and save Baghdad from ISIS.”

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has swallowed the bait from Tehran. Last week the White House indicated that it wanted Iraq’s political parties to form a new government—a positive step insofar as Maliki is one of the key sources of Iraq’s problems, and his failures paved the way for the ISIS blitzkrieg through Mosul. However, the administration also let on that it would be working with the regional power that controls Maliki. “We are interested in communicating with Iran,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. So that “the Iranians know what we’re thinking, that we know what they’re thinking, and there is a sharing of information so people aren’t making mistakes.”

The White House believes it has no choice but to coordinate with Iran since there’s no getting around Tehran’s power on the ground. The administration has reportedly pursued the same policy in Lebanon: through the Lebanese Armed Forces, it has shared intelligence on Sunni extremists with Hezbollah, Tehran’s division in the eastern Mediterranean. Because Obama will not devote sufficient assets to stopping Sunni jihadists fighting from Beirut to Baghdad, the administration believes it has little choice but to work with the only actor with men on the ground that shares an interest in stopping groups like ISIS. Who else but Qassem Suleimani? According to his PR offensive, he sees everything and knows everything. Hajj Qassem is everywhere.

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