[I]n early 2008,...the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, handed a cell phone with a text message to General David Petraeus, who had taken over the year before as the commander of American forces. “Dear General Petraeus,” the text read, “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 is [an Iranian] Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.” After...five American soldiers were killed in Karbala, Suleimani sent a message to the American Ambassador. “I swear on the grave of Khomeini I haven’t authorized a bullet against the U.S.,” Suleimani said. None of the Americans believed him.
He successfully helped push the United States out of Iraq through military technology and coordination as well as political manipulation. He has largely turned Iraq into an Iranian vassal state. He's directing the war in Syria against the rebels, and he works tirelessly to extend Iranian influence, including through its allies in Syria and Lebanon, against the region’s dominant Sunni powers and the West.
He is Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, (also spelled in the West sometimes as Ghasem Soleimani) and he's the subject of an excellent, riveting article by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker.
NPR summarized the article thus:
For the past 15 years, Suleimani has been the chief of the Quds Force, a small but powerful branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. He's not a familiar name to Americans, but one former CIA officer described him to Filkins as "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today."
Filkins writes that Suleimani "has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism."
Two particularly sobering segments of the article look at the disastrous results of President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech as it relates to Suleimani and Suleimani's significant successes in Iraq against U.S. interests. Both of these realities are largely unknown to a U.S. public that has mostly turned its back on news about Iraq and the consequences of the U.S.'s pre-emptive and regime-changing 2003 invasion of that country.
In the weeks after September 11, when the U.S. was preparing to attack the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Iran was cooperative.
The coöperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed [then senior State Department official Ryan] Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.” The flow of information went both ways. On one occasion, Crocker said, he gave his counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained him and brought him to Afghanistan’s new leaders, who, Crocker believes, turned him over to the U.S. The negotiator told Crocker, “Haji Qassem [Suleimani] is very pleased with our coöperation.”
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.”
In 2004, [Iran's] Quds Force[, which Suleimani commands,] began flooding Iraq with lethal roadside bombs that the Americans referred to as E.F.P.s, for “explosively formed projectiles.” The E.F.P.s, which fire a molten copper slug able to penetrate armor, began to wreak havoc on American troops, accounting for nearly twenty per cent of combat deaths. E.F.P.s could be made only by skilled technicians, and they were often triggered by sophisticated motion sensors. “There was zero question where they were coming from,” General Stanley McChrystal, who at the time was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command, told me. “We knew where all the factories were in Iran. The E.F.P.s killed hundreds of Americans.”
Suleimani's influence in Iraq is profound.
On December 22, 2010, James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador to Iraq, and General Lloyd Austin, the top American commander there, issued a note of congratulations to the Iraqi people on the formation of a new government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
What Jeffrey and Austin didn’t say was that the crucial deal that brought the Iraqi government together was made not by them but by Suleimani.
Suleimani [had] imposed [two conditions] on the Iraqis. The first was that Jalal Talabani, a longtime friend of the Iranian regime, become President. The second was that Maliki and his coalition partners insist that all American troops leave the country. “Suleimani said: no Americans,” the former Iraqi leader told me. “A ten-year relationship [between Iraq and the U.S.], down the drain.”
[T]he Americans knew that Suleimani had pushed them out of the country but were too embarrassed to admit it in public. “We were laughing at the Americans,” the former Iraqi leader told me, growing angry as he recalled the situation. “Fuck it! Fuck it!” he said. “Suleimani completely outmaneuvered them, and in public they were congratulating themselves for putting the government together.”
Ayad Allawi, a pro-American secular politician...said he suspected that the Americans...wanted to stay in Iraq...but only if the effort involved was minimal. "[The Americans] handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.”
Also see Muhammad Sahimi's article "The Canny General: Quds Force Commander Ghasem Soleimani" on PBS's Frontline website.
Top illustration by IKrzysztof Domaradzki.