Iran’s Deadly Puppet Master

Gen. Stanley McChrystal explains exactly why Qassem Suleimani is so dangerous.

Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy
Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy
Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy

The decision not to act is often the hardest one to make—and it isn’t always right. In 2007, I watched a string of vehicles pass from Iran into northern Iraq. I had been serving as the head of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for four years, working to stem the terrorism that had devastated the region, and I had become accustomed to making tough choices. But on that January night, the choice was particularly tricky: whether or not to attack a convoy that included Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force—an organization roughly analogous to a combination of the CIA and JSOC in the United States.

There was good reason to eliminate Suleimani. At the time, Iranian-made roadside bombs built and deployed at his command were claiming the lives of U.S. troops across Iraq. But to avoid a firefight, and the contentious politics that would follow, I decided that we should monitor the caravan, not strike immediately. By the time the convoy had reached Erbil, Suleimani had slipped away into the darkness.

These days, he still operates outside the spotlight. Suleimani has grown from a military commander into a ghostly puppet master, relying on quiet cleverness and grit to bolster Iran’s international influence. Suleimani has grown from a military commander into a ghostly puppet master. His brilliance, effectiveness, and commitment to his country have been revered by his allies and denounced by his critics in equal measure. What all seem to agree on, however, is that the humble leader’s steady hand has helped guide Iranian foreign policy for decades—and there is no denying his successes on the battlefield. Suleimani is arguably the most powerful and unconstrained actor in the Middle East today. U.S. defense officials have reported that Suleimani is running the Syrian civil war (via Iran’s local proxies) all on his own.

The prominence the soft-spoken Suleimani has achieved is especially striking given his origins. Born into poverty in the mountains of eastern Iran, he displayed remarkable tenacity at an early age. When his father was unable to pay a debt, the 13-year-old Suleimani worked to pay it off himself. He spent his free time lifting weights and attending sermons given by a protégé of Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was enamored with the Iranian revolution as a young man. In 1979, at only 22, Suleimani began his ascent through the Iranian military, reportedly receiving just six weeks of tactical training before seeing combat for the first time in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province. But he is truly a child of the Iran-Iraq War, which began the next year.  He emerged from the bloody conflict a hero for the missions he led across Iraq’s border—but more important, he emerged as a confident, proven leader.

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Suleimani is no longer simply a soldier; he is a calculating and practical strategist. Most ruthlessly and at the cost of all else, he has forged lasting relationships to bolster Iran’s position in the region. No other individual has had comparable success in aligning and empowering Shiite allies in the Levant. His staunch defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has effectively halted any progress by the Islamic State and other rebel groups, all but ensuring that Assad remains in power and stays solidly allied to Iran. Perhaps most notably, under Suleimani’s leadership, the Quds Force has vastly expanded its capabilities. His shrewd pragmatism has transformed the unit into a major influencer in intelligence, financial, and political spheres beyond Iran’s borders.

It would be unwise, however, to study Suleimani’s success without situating him in a broader geopolitical context. He is a uniquely Iranian leader, a clear product of the country’s outlook following the 1979 revolution. His expansive assessment of Iranian interests and rights matches those common among Iranian elites. Iran’s resistance toward the United States’ involvement in the Middle East is a direct result of U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq War, during which Suleimani’s worldview developed. Above all else, Suleimani is driven by the fervent nationalism that is the lifeblood of Iran’s citizens and leadership.

Suleimani’s accomplishments are, in large part, due to his country’s long-term approach toward foreign policy. While the United States tends to be spasmodic in its responses to international affairs, Iran is stunningly consistent in its objectives and actions. The Quds Force commander’s extended tenure in his role—he assumed control of the unit in 1998—is another important factor. A byproduct of Iran’s complicated political environment, Suleimani enjoys freedom of action over an extended time horizon that is the envy of many U.S. military and intelligence professionals. Because a leader’s power ultimately lies in the eyes of others and is increased by the perceived likelihood of future power, Suleimani has been able to act with greater credibility than if he were viewed as a temporary player.

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In that sense, then, Suleimani’s success is driven by both his talent and the continuity of his time in positions of power. Such a leader simply could not exist in the United States today. Americans do not allow commanders, military or otherwise, to remain in the highest-level positions for decades. There are reasons for this—both political and experiential. Not since J. Edgar Hoover has the federal government allowed a longtime public servant to amass such levels of shadowy influence.

Despite my initial jealousy of Suleimani’s freedom to get things done quickly, I believe such restraint is a strength of the U.S. political system. A zealous and action-oriented mindset, if unchecked, can be used as a force for good—but if harnessed to the wrong interests or values, the consequences can be dire. Suleimani is singularly dangerous. He is also singularly positioned to shape the future of the Middle East.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Stanley McChrystal is a retired four-star U.S. Army general and an advisor to Rhombus Power. He led Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008 and U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He is the author of My Share of the Task and a co-author of Team of Teams, Leaders, and Risk: A User’s Guide. Twitter: @StanMcChrystal

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