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The Meaning Of Qassem Suleimani’s Death In The Middle East

  • Isaac Chotiner
  • Feb, 2020
  • 168
  • Persian Personage

Early on Friday, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force-an élite division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-was killed by a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport ordered by President Trump. Suleimani had been responsible for carrying out much of Iran’s military and diplomatic efforts over the past decade, from its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to its battles against isis in Iraq. His death is almost certain to escalate tension and conflict within Iraq, which has already been shaken by protests this week. It also raises questions about what Iranian policy will be in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere going forward.

On Thursday night, in the United States, soon after the news broke, I spoke by phone with Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior adviser to the State Department during the Obama Administration. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Suleimani’s role within Iran’s regime, the importance of his actions throughout the Middle East, and how Iran is likely to respond.

You have written that Suleimani had “cult status within IRGC and among Shia militias in the region.” Can you describe that status in more detail?

Suleimani has been working extensively with Shia militias, as well as other groups in the region, for over two decades. He was a personal friend of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan commander who fought against the Taliban. Suleimani had worked with the Northern Alliance, organizing them against the Taliban. As commander of the Quds Brigade, he was in charge of relations with Hezbollah. He was instrumental in setting up militias in Iraq after 2003 and brokered numerous political settlements that produced governments in Iraq. He was also important in organizing Shia militias that fought alongside the Assad regime in Syria, and he probably was the most significant figure in orchestrating the military campaign that saved the Assad regime during the Syrian uprising. It’s reported that it was only after he met with President Putin in the Kremlin that he convinced Putin to deploy the Russian military in Syria to help save Assad. And also smaller groups in Kuwait, in Bahrain, and elsewhere all came under his command.

If he had described himself, it would probably have been as the commander of Iran’s equivalent of centcom, the regional commander of all of Iran’s operations-security, intelligence, military-outside of the Iranian border. He was the longest-serving sitting commander of the Revolutionary Guard. Other commanders rotate out based on terms they have, but Suleimani had sat in this position as the commander of the Quds Brigade for a very long time, outside of the norm of the rotation of the commanders of the guards.

Throughout this he built personal relationships not only with militia leaders and militia commanders and people like Hassan Nasrallah but also with heads of state, like Assad, with Masoud Barzani, in Iraq, and with all of the Iraqi Prime Ministers. They all knew him personally, they all dealt with him personally, they all spent hours negotiating with him, and he also became the one commander in Iran that everyone in the West got to know after 2003. Americans or Europeans generally don’t know the names of I.R.G.C. commander leaders. But he developed an iconic name recognition in the West, sometimes of almost mythical proportions, as a version of a John le Carré character, the master Soviet spy. What was his name?


Right. [Suleimani] also became associated with Iran’s regional policies and regional power. And then, within Iran, he gradually developed a similar kind of recognition. The Iranians don’t necessarily know the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard.

Yeah, most Americans don’t know who the head of centcom is. It seems like his role was much larger than a centcom commander’s would be here.

Right, but this is also much more recent. Gradually, he became a household name in Iran. Even though security forces are unpopular, Suleimani personally had an enormous following, because the Iranians saw him as a heroic figure defending the country and someone who stood for patriotism and was pious. In the past two or three years, he was cultivating that image much more openly, taking selfies in Iraq with Shia militias during the fights against isis. In Iran, there was a gradual murmur that he might become the next President. One other thing I would add here that is actually quite critical is that, in many ways, that is how Iranians and many Shia Iraqis saw him. And, even though they might not like the Islamic Republic, they do credit him separately for being instrumental in preventing Iraq from completely falling to isis.

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