For years Qassem Suleimani has been Iran's secret covert-ops puppet master. Why has he suddenly stepped out of the shadows?
Qassem Suleimani, a silver-haired Iranian spymaster Washington has long disparaged as a terrorist, has spent decades staying out of public view as he quietly worked to funnel arms and money to Iranian proxies and allies across the Middle East. Now, he’s stepping into the limelight as the face of Tehran’s intensifying battle with the Islamic State.
In recent weeks, photos of Suleimani on a mountaintop alongside Yazidi elders who had faced extermination at the hands of the Islamic State and shaking hands with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on battlefields in Kurdistan have been widely shared on Twitter, Facebook, and Iranian state-run media. That means the once-elusive leader of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for high-profile missions outside of Iran, is enjoying a strange form of celebrity among those cheering Iran’s willingness to deploy small numbers of ground troops against the Islamic State, something Washington has steadfastly refused to do.
Suleimani’s emergence highlights the vastly different ways Washington and Tehran are trying to portray their roles in the fight against the Islamic State. While the United States downplays its involvement in strikes against the militants by hiding under the umbrella of a fragile coalition, the Iranian government is taking a totally different approach: boasting of its solo ventures into Iraq and trying to argue that Iran, not the United States, deserves credit for recent victories, no matter how temporary.
According to reports from the Guardian, soon after the first images of Suleimani appeared, Yadollah Javani, a senior advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Iranian state TV that "Baghdad was prevented from falling because of the presence and assistance of the Islamic Republic."
Iran’s Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh made similar assertions on state TV about the preservation of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which was nearly captured by ISIS militants last month.
For U.S. officials, Suleimani’s leadership role in the fight against the Islamic State is a double-edged sword. Senior American military and intelligence officials have long seen Suleimani as an unusually canny adversary who has managed to build and maintain a network of proxies ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon to an array of Shiite militias inside Iraq. With Washington seeking allies in the fight against the Islamic State, Suleimani has decades of experience cajoling others into fighting on his country’s behalf.
At the same time, U.S. officials believe that Suleimani was responsible, at least in part, for hundreds of American combat deaths in Iraq. Shiite militias used advanced weapons called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to destroy American armored vehicles and kill those inside. Those weapons were almost certainly made in Iran and then given, using networks Suleimani helped establish, to Shiite fighters. The militants also used Iranian-made rockets and mortars to batter the Green Zone in central Baghdad.
During the height of the anti-American violence there, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, sent a letter to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates describing Suleimani as a "truly evil figure," according to a later report in the New York Times.
Indeed, Suleimani’s support for Assad has prolonged the country’s brutal civil war and helped contribute to the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has used Iranian weaponry to kill hundreds of Israelis and repeatedly bring the region to the brink of wider conflagrations.
Operations to halt the advance of the Islamic State could have been an opportunity for collaboration between the United States and Iran, which have been unable to come to a diplomatic agreement in 35 years, if it weren’t for Iran’s fierce loyalty to Assad and its tense standoff with the West over its nuclear program. At last month’s U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Iran had the potential to help defeat ISIS, and that the West "should welcome their engagement."
But the same forces that are now fighting the Islamic State in Iraq were the ones to take down the American-funded Syrian rebels in strategically located al-Qusayr in 2013, a move that helped Assad maintain his seat at a time when Washington was desperate to overthrow him. Suleimani is also responsible for the organization of Hezbollah and other Shiite fighters who have battled alongside the Syrian military in efforts to protect Assad.
But even during those operations, Suleimani was kept out of sight and out of mention in Iranian media reports, making Tehran’s decision to dramatically publicize his activities in Iraq all the more surprising.
In the United States, the subject of Suleimani is one that is particularly sensitive. A former Iranian soldier who fought in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, Suleimani quickly rose through the ranks of Iran’s national military. He was named a Quds commander in 1998 and gained fame when he led Quds operatives on a special mission to southern Lebanon that helped end the Israeli occupation there.
Though the United States and Iran have refused to negotiate since 1979, Suleimani’s relationship with Washington was not always so cut-and-dry. Even as he operated out of the former American Embassy in Tehran, he was the organizer of secret meetings between Iranian and American diplomats in Geneva after 9/11 that were intended to help destroy their common enemy: the Taliban.
But in early 2002, George W. Bush named Iran a member of the "Axis of Evil" in the Middle East, in what Ryan Crocker, the former American ambassador to Iraq, called a decision that "changed history."
In interviews for a 2013 New Yorker profile of Suleimani, Crocker told reporter Dexter Filkins that prior to Bush’s assertion, Suleimani told a U.N. negotiator that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, "Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans."
"We were just that close," Crocker said. "One word in one speech changed history."
And the American relationship with Suleimani seemingly only went downhill from there.
In 2011, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle Eastern specialist at the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, testified before members of Congress that Suleimani should be found and assassinated for his attempt to blow up the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. — a plan that was foiled when the Mexican drug cartel operative he tried to hire ended up being an American government informant.
"Qassem Suleimani travels a lot," Gerecht said. "He’s all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him."
Washington hasn’t gone that far, but it has tried to hammer Suleimani before. In 2011, the U.S. Treasury named him to its sanctions list for his alleged involvement in the Saudi terror plot.
But his most recent visits to Iraq in the past month signal that at least in Iraq, Suleimani and the United States might finally have something they’re both fighting for: the elimination of the Islamic State.
On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state under presidents Nixon and Ford, said Iran is "a natural ally to the United States."
And James Baker, who served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, didn’t deny the possibility Iran and the United States were in fact negotiating secretly before Suleimani’s photo shoot began.
"I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Iran was not helping us quietly deal with some of this," he said.