July 14, 2015

BRIGHT-EYED BOY:

The Shadow Commander : Qassem Suleimani is the Iranian operative who has been reshaping the Middle East. Now he's directing Assad's war in Syria. (DEXTER FILKINS, 9/30/13, The New Yorker)

Kneeling in the second row on the mosque's carpeted floor was Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force's leader: a small man of fifty-six, with silver hair, a close-cropped beard, and a look of intense self-containment. It was Suleimani who had sent Shateri, an old and trusted friend, to his death. As Revolutionary Guard commanders, he and Shateri belonged to a small fraternity formed during the Sacred Defense, the name given to the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and left as many as a million people dead. It was a catastrophic fight, but for Iran it was the beginning of a three-decade project to build a Shiite sphere of influence, stretching across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Along with its allies in Syria and Lebanon, Iran forms an Axis of Resistance, arrayed against the region's dominant Sunni powers and the West. In Syria, the project hung in the balance, and Suleimani was mounting a desperate fight, even if the price of victory was a sectarian conflict that engulfed the region for years.

Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he 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. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. "Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today," John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, "and no one's ever heard of him."

When Suleimani appears in public--often to speak at veterans' events or to meet with Khamenei--he carries himself inconspicuously and rarely raises his voice, exhibiting a trait that Arabs call khilib, or understated charisma. "He is so short, but he has this presence," a former senior Iraqi official told me. "There will be ten people in a room, and when Suleimani walks in he doesn't come and sit with you. He sits over there on the other side of room, by himself, in a very quiet way. Doesn't speak, doesn't comment, just sits and listens. And so of course everyone is thinking only about him."

At the funeral, Suleimani was dressed in a black jacket and a black shirt with no tie, in the Iranian style; his long, angular face and his arched eyebrows were twisted with pain. The Quds Force had never lost such a high-ranking officer abroad. The day before the funeral, Suleimani had travelled to Shateri's home to offer condolences to his family. He has a fierce attachment to martyred soldiers, and often visits their families; in a recent interview with Iranian media, he said, "When I see the children of the martyrs, I want to smell their scent, and I lose myself." As the funeral continued, he and the other mourners bent forward to pray, pressing their foreheads to the carpet. "One of the rarest people, who brought the revolution and the whole world to you, is gone," Alireza Panahian, the imam, told the mourners. Suleimani cradled his head in his palm and began to weep. [...]

Despite all of Suleimani's rough work, his image among Iran's faithful is that of an irreproachable war hero--a decorated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, in which he became a division commander while still in his twenties. In public, he is almost theatrically modest. During a recent appearance, he described himself as "the smallest soldier," and, according to the Iranian press, rebuffed members of the audience who tried to kiss his hand. His power comes mostly from his close relationship with Khamenei, who provides the guiding vision for Iranian society. The Supreme Leader, who usually reserves his highest praise for fallen soldiers, has referred to Suleimani as "a living martyr of the revolution." Suleimani is a hard-line supporter of Iran's authoritarian system. In July, 1999, at the height of student protests, he signed, with other Revolutionary Guard commanders, a letter warning the reformist President Mohammad Khatami that if he didn't put down the revolt the military would--perhaps deposing Khatami in the process. "Our patience has run out," the generals wrote. The police crushed the demonstrators, as they did again, a decade later.

Iran's government is intensely fractious, and there are many figures around Khamenei who help shape foreign policy, including Revolutionary Guard commanders, senior clerics, and Foreign Ministry officials. But Suleimani has been given a remarkably free hand in implementing Khamenei's vision. "He has ties to every corner of the system," Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, told me. "He is what I call politically clever. He has a relationship with everyone." Officials describe him as a believer in Islam and in the revolution; while many senior figures in the Revolutionary Guard have grown wealthy through the Guard's control over key Iranian industries, Suleimani has been endowed with a personal fortune by the Supreme Leader. "He's well taken care of," Maguire said.

Suleimani lives in Tehran, and appears to lead the home life of a bureaucrat in middle age. "He gets up at four every morning, and he's in bed by nine-thirty every night," the Iraqi politician, who has known him for many years, told me, shaking his head in disbelief. Suleimani has a bad prostate and recurring back pain. He's "respectful of his wife," the Middle Eastern security official told me, sometimes taking her along on trips. He has three sons and two daughters, and is evidently a strict but loving father. He is said to be especially worried about his daughter Nargis, who lives in Malaysia. "She is deviating from the ways of Islam," the Middle Eastern official said.

Maguire told me, "Suleimani is a far more polished guy than most. He can move in political circles, but he's also got the substance to be intimidating." Although he is widely read, his aesthetic tastes appear to be strictly traditional. "I don't think he'd listen to classical music," the Middle Eastern official told me. "The European thing--I don't think that's his vibe, basically." Suleimani has little formal education, but, the former senior Iraqi official told me, "he is a very shrewd, frighteningly intelligent strategist." His tools include payoffs for politicians across the Middle East, intimidation when it is needed, and murder as a last resort. Over the years, the Quds Force has built an international network of assets, some of them drawn from the Iranian diaspora, who can be called on to support missions. "They're everywhere," a second Middle Eastern security official said. In 2010, according to Western officials, the Quds Force and Hezbollah launched a new campaign against American and Israeli targets--in apparent retaliation for the covert effort to slow down the Iranian nuclear program, which has included cyber attacks and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Since then, Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi--at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone. The most notorious was a scheme, in 2011, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the United States as he sat down to eat at a restaurant a few miles from the White House. The cartel member approached by Suleimani's agent turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (The Quds Force appears to be more effective close to home, and a number of the remote plans have gone awry.) Still, after the plot collapsed, two former American officials told a congressional committee that Suleimani should be assassinated. "Suleimani travels a lot," one said. "He is all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him." In Iran, more than two hundred dignitaries signed an outraged letter in his defense; a social-media campaign proclaimed, "We are all Qassem Suleimani."

Several Middle Eastern officials, some of whom I have known for a decade, stopped talking the moment I brought up Suleimani. "We don't want to have any part of this," a Kurdish official in Iraq said. Among spies in the West, he appears to exist in a special category, an enemy both hated and admired: a Middle Eastern equivalent of Karla, the elusive Soviet master spy in John le Carré's novels. When I called Dagan, the former Mossad chief, and mentioned Suleimani's name, there was a long pause on the line. "Ah," he said, in a tone of weary irony, "a very good friend."

In March, 2009, on the eve of the Iranian New Year, Suleimani led a group of Iran-Iraq War veterans to the Paa-Alam Heights, a barren, rocky promontory on the Iraqi border. In 1986, Paa-Alam was the scene of one of the terrible battles over the Faw Peninsula, where tens of thousands of men died while hardly advancing a step. A video recording from the visit shows Suleimani standing on a mountaintop, recounting the battle to his old comrades. In a gentle voice, he speaks over a soundtrack of music and prayers.

"This is the Dasht-e-Abbas Road," Suleimani says, pointing into the valley below. "This area stood between us and the enemy." Later, Suleimani and the group stand on the banks of a creek, where he reads aloud the names of fallen Iranian soldiers, his voice trembling with emotion. During a break, he speaks with an interviewer, and describes the fighting in near-mystical terms. "The battlefield is mankind's lost paradise--the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest," he says. "One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise--the battlefield."

Suleimani was born in Rabor, an impoverished mountain village in eastern Iran. When he was a boy, his father, like many other farmers, took out an agricultural loan from the government of the Shah. He owed nine hundred toman--about a hundred dollars at the time--and couldn't pay it back. In a brief memoir, Suleimani wrote of leaving home with a young relative named Ahmad Suleimani, who was in a similar situation. "At night, we couldn't fall asleep with the sadness of thinking that government agents were coming to arrest our fathers," he wrote. Together, they travelled to Kerman, the nearest city, to try to clear their family's debt. The place was unwelcoming. "We were only thirteen, and our bodies were so tiny, wherever we went, they wouldn't hire us," he wrote. "Until one day, when we were hired as laborers at a school construction site on Khajoo Street, which was where the city ended. They paid us two toman per day." After eight months, they had saved enough money to bring home, but the winter snow was too deep. They were told to seek out a local driver named Pahlavan--"Champion"--who was a "strong man who could lift up a cow or a donkey with his teeth." During the drive, whenever the car got stuck, "he would lift up the Jeep and put it aside!" In Suleimani's telling, Pahlavan is an ardent detractor of the Shah. He says of the two boys, "This is the time for them to rest and play, not work as a laborer in a strange city. I spit on the life they have made for us!" They arrived home, Suleimani writes, "just as the lights were coming on in the village homes. When the news travelled in our village, there was pandemonium."

As a young man, Suleimani gave few signs of greater ambition. According to Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, he had only a high-school education, and worked for Kerman's municipal water department. But it was a revolutionary time, and the country's gathering unrest was making itself felt. Away from work, Suleimani spent hours lifting weights in local gyms, which, like many in the Middle East, offered physical training and inspiration for the warrior spirit. During Ramadan, he attended sermons by a travelling preacher named Hojjat Kamyab--a protégé of Khamenei's--and it was there that he became inspired by the possibility of Islamic revolution.

In 1979, when Suleimani was twenty-two, the Shah fell to a popular uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the name of Islam. Swept up in the fervor, Suleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard, a force established by Iran's new clerical leadership to prevent the military from mounting a coup. Though he received little training--perhaps only a forty-five-day course--he advanced rapidly. As a young guardsman, Suleimani was dispatched to northwestern Iran, where he helped crush an uprising by ethnic Kurds.

When the revolution was eighteen months old, Saddam Hussein sent the Iraqi Army sweeping across the border, hoping to take advantage of the internal chaos. Instead, the invasion solidified Khomeini's leadership and unified the country in resistance, starting a brutal, entrenched war. Suleimani was sent to the front with a simple task, to supply water to the soldiers there, and he never left. "I entered the war on a fifteen-day mission, and ended up staying until the end," he has said. A photograph from that time shows the young Suleimani dressed in green fatigues, with no insignia of rank, his black eyes focussed on a far horizon. "We were all young and wanted to serve the revolution," he told an interviewer in 2005.

Suleimani earned a reputation for bravery and élan, especially as a result of reconnaissance missions he undertook behind Iraqi lines. He returned from several missions bearing a goat, which his soldiers slaughtered and grilled. "Even the Iraqis, our enemy, admired him for this," a former Revolutionary Guard officer who defected to the United States told me. On Iraqi radio, Suleimani became known as "the goat thief." In recognition of his effectiveness, Alfoneh said, he was put in charge of a brigade from Kerman, with men from the gyms where he lifted weights.

The Iranian Army was badly overmatched, and its commanders resorted to crude and costly tactics. In "human wave" assaults, they sent thousands of young men directly into the Iraqi lines, often to clear minefields, and soldiers died at a precipitous rate. Suleimani seemed distressed by the loss of life. Before sending his men into battle, he would embrace each one and bid him goodbye; in speeches, he praised martyred soldiers and begged their forgiveness for not being martyred himself. When Suleimani's superiors announced plans to attack the Faw Peninsula, he dismissed them as wasteful and foolhardy. The former Revolutionary Guard officer recalled seeing Suleimani in 1985, after a battle in which his brigade had suffered many dead and wounded. He was sitting alone in a corner of a tent. "He was very silent, thinking about the people he'd lost," the officer said.

Ahmad, the young relative who travelled with Suleimani to Kerman, was killed in 1984. On at least one occasion, Suleimani himself was wounded. Still, he didn't lose enthusiasm for his work. In the nineteen-eighties, Reuel Marc Gerecht was a young C.I.A. officer posted to Istanbul, where he recruited from the thousands of Iranian soldiers who went there to recuperate. "You'd get a whole variety of guardsmen," Gerecht, who has written extensively on Iran, told me. "You'd get clerics, you'd get people who came to breathe and whore and drink." Gerecht divided the veterans into two groups. "There were the broken and the burned out, the hollow-eyed--the guys who had been destroyed," he said. "And then there were the bright-eyed guys who just couldn't wait to get back to the front. I'd put Suleimani in the latter category."

Ryan Crocker, the American Ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, got a similar feeling. During the Iraq War, Crocker sometimes dealt with Suleimani indirectly, through Iraqi leaders who shuttled in and out of Tehran. Once, he asked one of the Iraqis if Suleimani was especially religious. The answer was "Not really," Crocker told me. "He attends mosque periodically. Religion doesn't drive him. Nationalism drives him, and the love of the fight."

Iran's leaders took two lessons from the Iran-Iraq War. The first was that Iran was surrounded by enemies, near and far. To the regime, the invasion was not so much an Iraqi plot as a Western one. American officials were aware of Saddam's preparations to invade Iran in 1980, and they later provided him with targeting information used in chemical-weapons attacks; the weapons themselves were built with the help of Western European firms. The memory of these attacks is an especially bitter one. "Do you know how many people are still suffering from the effects of chemical weapons?" Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. "Thousands of former soldiers. They believe these were Western weapons given to Saddam." In 1987, during a battle with the Iraqi Army, a division under Suleimani's command was attacked by artillery shells containing chemical weapons. More than a hundred of his men suffered the effects.

The other lesson drawn from the Iran-Iraq War was the futility of fighting a head-to-head confrontation. In 1982, after the Iranians expelled the Iraqi forces, Khomeini ordered his men to keep going, to "liberate" Iraq and push on to Jerusalem. Six years and hundreds of thousands of lives later, he agreed to a ceasefire. According to Alfoneh, many of the generals of Suleimani's generation believe they could have succeeded had the clerics not flinched. "Many of them feel like they were stabbed in the back," he said. "They have nurtured this myth for nearly thirty years."

Pure nationalism we know how to work with.
Posted by at July 14, 2015 5:41 PM
  

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