January 3, 2020

KNOWING YOUR ALLIES:

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, September 23, 2013, The New Yorker)

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." But Iran's leaders did not want another bloodbath. Instead, they had to build the capacity to wage asymmetrical warfare--attacking stronger powers indirectly, outside of Iran. [...]

After taking command, Suleimani strengthened relationships in Lebanon, with Mughniyeh and with Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's chief. By then, the Israeli military had occupied southern Lebanon for sixteen years, and Hezbollah was eager to take control of the country, so Suleimani sent in Quds Force operatives to help. "They had a huge presence--training, advising, planning," Crocker said. In 2000, the Israelis withdrew, exhausted by relentless Hezbollah attacks. It was a signal victory for the Shiites, and, Crocker said, "another example of how countries like Syria and Iran can play a long game, knowing that we can't."

Since then, the regime has given aid to a variety of militant Islamist groups opposed to America's allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The help has gone not only to Shiites but also to Sunni groups like Hamas--helping to form an archipelago of alliances that stretches from Baghdad to Beirut. "No one in Tehran started out with a master plan to build the Axis of Resistance, but opportunities presented themselves," a Western diplomat in Baghdad told me. "In each case, Suleimani was smarter, faster, and better resourced than anyone else in the region. By grasping at opportunities as they came, he built the thing, slowly but surely."

In the chaotic days after the attacks of September 11th, Ryan Crocker, then a senior State Department official, flew discreetly to Geneva to meet a group of Iranian diplomats. "I'd fly out on a Friday and then back on Sunday, so nobody in the office knew where I'd been," Crocker told me. "We'd stay up all night in those meetings." It seemed clear to Crocker that the Iranians were answering to Suleimani, whom they referred to as "Haji Qassem," and that they were eager to help the United States destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban. Although the United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relations in 1980, after American diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage, Crocker wasn't surprised to find that Suleimani was flexible. "You don't live through eight years of brutal war without being pretty pragmatic," he said. Sometimes Suleimani passed messages to Crocker, but he avoided putting anything in writing. "Haji Qassem's way too smart for that," Crocker said. "He's not going to leave paper trails for the Americans."

Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October, 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. "If you guys don't stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!" he shouted. "When you're ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me." He stomped out of the room. "It was a great moment," Crocker said.

The coöperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. "Here's our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here's the logic." Stunned, Crocker asked, "Can I take notes?" The negotiator replied, "You can keep the map." The flow of information went both ways. On one occasion, Crocker said, he gave his counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained him and brought him to Afghanistan's new leaders, who, Crocker believes, turned him over to the U.S. The negotiator told Crocker, "Haji Qassem is very pleased with our coöperation."

The good will didn't last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil." Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. "You completely damaged me," Crocker recalled him saying. "Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised." The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, "Maybe it's time to rethink our relationship with the Americans." The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. "We were just that close," he said. "One word in one speech changed history."

W's biggest error.

Posted by at January 3, 2020 7:56 PM

  

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