Iran’s Top Agent in the Middle East Isn’t All He’s Cracked Up to Be
Ghassem Soleymani relies too much on irregular fighters, gets a lot of people killed
In the minds of Iran’s hardline religious clerics, dancing is taboo. Iranian leaders choose the country’s military commanders based solely on the candidates’ faith in clerics’ orders and their ability to carry out holy assignments without question.
But apparently breaking a siege on a small city in southern Kurdistan, Iraq, was too exciting for Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleymani to remember his restrictive moral code.
In a video published by Shia militant groups after they broke Islamic State’s siege on the city of Amerli, the 57-year-old Soleymani—one of the most trusted individuals in Iran’s neo-conservative and neo-religious circles—can be seen dancing with the Shia fighters, celebrating their victory.
Soleymani is the illusive commander-in-chief of the Islamic Republic Guard Corps Qods Force, the expeditionary wing of the IRGC, responsible for exporting Iran’s revolution across the globe.
Search for the major general’s name and you will find descriptions that seem a lot like Batman. Soleymani is arguably the most powerful man in the Middle East.
But in real life Soleymani is very different than his public profiles attest. His war record is … spotty. Some writers end up bolstering his image because they don’t really know him. Others find it comforting to blame the failures of the Iran-Iraq war on a wise enemy rather than any Iranian general’s screw-ups.
IRGC commanders aren’t always chosen for their competence. A prime example is Soleymani’s predecessor Gen. Ahmad Vahidi.
Vahidi is a prime suspect in the 1994 terror attack on a Jewish center in Argentina. Today he’s mostly known for one of the most humiliating gaffes in Iran’s recent military history. Vahidi, also the minister of defense to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was the mastermind of the Qaher-313 project—a fake stealth fighter.
Before the revolution in 1979, Soleymani was a seasonal stone mason in the city of Kerman in central Iran. A short while after the revolution and before the war with Iraq broke out, Soleymani joined volunteer fighters heading to northwest Iran to fight Kurdish rebels.
In July 1979, Soleymani headed back to Kerman. Having proven his loyalty in Kurdistan, Soleymani formed a local branch of the newborn IRGC with some other young fighters in Kerman. When the war with Iraq began in 1980, Soleymani again joined volunteers in defending the city of Sousangerd.
Almost a year later, Soleymani formed a brigade-size force in Kerman from local volunteers, calling it the 48th Divison, a.k.a. Thar Allah. This was the first important step in Soleymani’s military career. He’d become a high-ranking commander, but his experience was that of a militiaman.
At the beginning of the war with Iraq, Iran was short on manpower and would send volunteers to the front without even the most basic training. Numerous memoirs from war volunteers reveal that some couldn’t even differentiate between aerial bombardment and artillery strikes.
Fervent and loyal, young IRGC commanders dominated the front lines during the war. This was partly because the regime couldn’t trust the army, which still maintained tied to the former regime and the West.
To compensate for their fighters’ inexperience and lack of training, IRGC commanders revived the human-wave assaults that got so many men killed during World War I. One of these human waves was Soleymani’s ticket to the top circles of power—and defined his preference for deploying irregular fighters in his role as head of the Qods Force.
In the winter of 1985, the Iraqis defeated a huge Iranian human-wave attack on Basra. To ease political pressure and boost the troops’ waning moral, the IRGC planned another attack for 15 days later, giving it the code name Operation Karbala-5.
Many veteran commanders protested, describing the plan as suicide. Some refused to send in their units. Soleymani stepped up, volunteering his 48th Division to lead the assault.
By the time the Karbala-5 ended in shambles, 100,000 Iranians had died in both operations. The attacks achieved practically nothing. But because the Iranians managed to capture an outlying Iraqi defensive line, IRGC commanders labelled it a victory.
After the war, Soleymani headed back to his hometown of Kerman, remaining the commander of the 48th Division. In Kerman, Soleymani’s main duty was to block narcotic smuggling from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Iran.
Rumors began to spread that Soleymani’s allies were diverting some captured drugs to Europe, although today there’s no evidence to back the claims.
By 1995, Iran worried about the possibility of Taliban infiltration. In 1998, Taliban fighters decapitated nine Iranian diplomats in the Iranian consulate in Mazar Sharif. The IRGC wanted eyes and ears inside Afghanistan and full control of the smuggling gangs.
Soleymani was familiar with the terrain and the local tribes. Iran’s leaders elevated Soleymani to head of the Qods Force. His mission was to contain the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
As the Taliban rampaged through Afghanistan, Iran had several friends inside, notable among them Ahmad Shah Mahsoud and Bourhan Aldin Rabbani. Each commanded a brigade-size force.
Soleymani failed to significantly empower friendly forces or weaken the Taliban, but he was able to connect with Al Qaeda and influence the Taliban through Osama Bin Laden himself.
One of Bin Laden’s early wives and several of his children resided in Iran for several years, and Iran had been known to provide support for Al Qaeda branches in Africa and to provide safe passage for jihadists from traveling from Afghanistan to Iraq.
Lately Islamic State spokesman Abu Adnan has also accused Al Qaeda of protecting Iranians. In a video released on May 12, 2014, Abu Adnan said top Al Qaeda leaders had ordered Islamic State not to attack Iran, as that could put Al Qaeda supply lines in jeopardy.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq put Soleymani in the perfect position to score a big victory against the Great Satan. Iran had vast influence inside Iraq in 2003, thanks in part to Iran’s cooperation with some Iraqi factions during the 1980s war.
At least two brigades of Iraqi Shias had fought for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq’s Kurds had helped Iranians deploy two battalions 60 miles behind Iraqi front lines near the city of Kirkuk to stage a massive sabotage operation.
These deep relations with Iraqi armed groups provided Iran a chance to attack U.S.-led coalition forces and force them to give up Iraq. But Soleymani largely squandered this opportunity.
Soleymani never supplied Iraqi armed groups with sophisticated weaponry—namely anti-aircraft and anti-tank guided missiles and long-range rockets. The current war in Syria testifies to what insurgents can achieve with that kind of hardware.
Instead, Soleymani insisted on continuing the practice he had learned from the Iran-Iraq war. He counted on training irregular fighters to make up for a lack of firepower.
This strategy proved to be problematic for Tehran later when some of the fighters Soleymani had trained turned against the government in Baghdad that Iran had approved—namely the Jaysh Al Mahdi militia.
Soleymani wasn’t well-known in the Shia world until the 33-day war between Israel and the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah ended in August 2006. Hezbollah claimed victory and, in Iran, Soleymani got the credit for arming Hezbollah and training its militants.
But we learned later that most of Hezbollah’s weapons weren’t even from Iran. In his study of the rocket war between Israel and Hezbollah, Uzi Robin indicates that most of Hezbollah’s rockets were Chinese designs manufactured in Syria. Hezbollah’s main anti-tank weapon, the AT-14 Kornet, wasn’t a fixture in Iran’s own arsenal until at least five years after the war.
One of the biggest mysteries about Soleymani has been exactly how much authority he actually possesses. Is he simply a foot soldier for Iran’s supreme leader—carrying out his orders to the letter? Or does he have the freedom to make tactical and operational decisions all on his own? In other words, how much of his screw-ups are his own fault?
There are indications Soleymani enjoys considerable leeway—including leeway to make mistakes.
When the Syrian regime gassed rebels and civilians last year, the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s orders were clear. Iran should prevent the United States from punitively attacking Syria—and do it without firing a single shot.
But under Soleymani, the IRGC defied the order. On Sept. 1, 2013, unidentified Iraqi militants raided the headquarters of MKO, an armed group in Iraq that Tehran believed was a close ally of the United States—a dubious assumption.
The leftist MKO opposes Iran’s influence in Iraq.
The attackers executed at least 52 high-ranking MKO members. Three of the group’s top commanders disappeared, their whereabouts a mystery to this day.
Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy chief of the IRGC, openly praised the attack, claiming its sheer terror effect would somehow deter a U.S. attack on Syria. In that regard, Soleymani got lucky. He disobeyed Khamenei’s direct order—and got away with it, owing to his reputation in Iran and the IRGC’s support.
But the MKO raid speaks to Soleymani’s autonomy. Iran’s most powerful agent pretty much does what he wants. And what he wants is to deploy irregular fighters to attack Iran’s enemies.
Relying on irregular fighters proved a disaster for Iran in the 1980s. And it didn’t work in Iraq when Islamic State militants invaded on June 5 this year.
Soleymani hurried into Iraq to help organize Shia fighters. Hadi Al Ameri, a commander of the Iraqi Badr brigades—which had fought for Iran in the 1980s—posted a picture of himself and Soleymani on his Facebook page on June 8. “I fear no more, now that the general is here,” Al Ameri’s caption read.
A small number of Soleymani’s Shia fighters helped defend the city of Samarrah on June 9, holding out long enough for air support to arrive and break the Islamic State assault.
But the Sunni militants succeeded in capturing Mosul. Soleymani called in one of his top lieutenants, a Hezbollah commander named Haj Ebrahim Al Haj, a.k.a. Haj Salman.
Haj Salman was greatly responsible for starting the 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah back in 2006. He had planned and led the raid that captured three Israeli soldiers near the village of Eita Al Sha’b. Haj Salman and his fighters held Eita Al Sha’b against the subsequent Israeli attack.
When Hezbollah entered Syria to fight on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad in early 2013, Al Haj commanded the main contingent. He led his fighters in breaking the siege of Aleppo. He employed leapfrog tactics to capture rebel positions in the Qalamun Mountains.
Haj Salman hurried to Tal Afar. He was inspecting the front lines in late June when artillery exploded nearby. Haj Salman died instantly. And a short time later, Tal Afar fell to Islamic State.
Soleymani’s actions in Tal Afar reveal a lot about his methodology and his control over his allies. Soleymani could have deployed Iranian airborne special forces or systematically involved the Iranian air force to support Iraqi units on the ground.
Instead, he bet on the same irregular fighters he’s always bet on—and they failed him. Worse, by shifting forces from Syria to Iraq, Soleymani weakened the Syrian front and allowed militant forces in that country to make huge advances. The militants came dangerously close to capturing Hama air base, the regime’s main hub in northern Syria for receiving Iranian aid.
To compensate, Soleymani deployed Afghan fighters and members of the elite IRGC 8th Armored Division around Hama. One 8th Division colonel and at least 10 Afghan fighters died.
Soleymani’s disastrous decisionmaking has had enormous strategic implications for Iran. Iran’s failures in Iraq have resulted in a power vacuum—one that America is busily filling with money, advisers, and air power.
Which is not to say Tehran is prepared to fire Soleymani. Iran can’t afford to show weakness or express any doubt about its irregular forces, which enjoy the strong support of popular clerics.
But Tehran could tie Soleymani’s hands and begin to move away from the irregular strategy, instead relying more on overt military force to achieve its regional goals.
The latest developments in Iraq—including the deployment of Iranian army tanks into Iraqi Kurdistan to help fight Islamic State—indicate this might already be happening. Soleymani was never the military genius that many believe he is. And now his charade might finally be ending.