Paul Iddon, journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan
The late Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has done more than any one man to actively implement Iran’s foreign policy objectives across the Middle East and beyond over the past 20 years, affecting the lives of millions in the process.
Iranian scholar Arash Azizi has written the first in-depth biography of Soleimani, aptly entitled The Shadow Commander, which seeks to chronicle the general’s eventful life and provide its reader with a better understanding of this central figure in Iran’s modern history.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani in a drone strike on 3 January 2020 arguably constituted the single riskiest move he made throughout his entire presidency. At the beginning of his book, Azizi aptly sums up its immense historical significance by noting: “Not since 1943, when the Americans shot down the plane carrying Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy, had the United States killed such a high-ranking military official.”
Soleimani attained a degree of power in the Iranian regime’s power structure second only to its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who deeply trusted him to implement that regime’s foreign policy objectives. Azizi’s book sets out to explain how he came to amass so much power and influence.
Soleimani had very humble beginnings. Born in 1957 in a small, rather insignificant village in Iran’s Kerman province, he showed few early signs that he would become such a significant figure in Iran’s history. Moving to the provincial capital at age 18, he worked at a water organization and spent his spare time learning and perfecting his karate skills.
In his teens, Soleimani wasn’t particularly religious and spent much more time in the gym than at the mosque. Politics also never seemed to interest him all that much at the time. The tumultuous 1978-9 revolution that swept over Iran and dethroned its last Shah would gradually change all of that.
When Soleimani initially sought to join the emerging Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC), he was rejected by the young recruiter who, upon seeing the young Qassem’s dress sense and curly hair, recalled, with retrospective irony, how he “didn’t think we should accept this kind of person into the IRGC!” Later, Soleimani was finally allowed to join the Islamist paramilitary, which soon eclipsed the regular army and became the most powerful armed force in Iran.
The Iran-Iraq War
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 was undoubtedly the defining event that determined Soleimani’s destiny. As Azizi notes, “Were it not for Saddam’s attack on Iran and the mass mobilization that came with it, the likes of Soleimani might have continued their lives on the margins.”
Soleimani’s humble background and physical strength attained through his constant karate practice enabled him to rise through the ranks of the IRGC early in the war, which became known to the Iranian regime as “The Sacred Defence”. “Many of the revolution’s supporters were armchair revolutionaries, scrawny young men or clerics who had spent a lifetime preaching,” Azizi points out. “Now that they were building a military force, they would benefit from more athletic men.”
Soleimani yearned to be on the frontlines and in the centre of the action whenever remotely possible, a tendency that he would repeatedly replicate long after the war which arguably led to his eventual death, even when he suffered significant injuries in battle. Thanks to his determination, discipline, and notable leadership skills he was given command of entire battalions by the time he was 25.
During that bloody war, Soleimani also developed and honed his rhetorical skills, invariably invoking God and “the religious folkloric tradition that every Shi’a boy or girl would instantly recognize,” that he later used to inspire and motivate the many militiamen he would command in future battlefields across the Middle East. “From then on, to the very end of his life, he excelled at mixing this rhetoric with his military elan and comradely treatment of soldiers to build a brand that was both at home in the IRGC and unique in its own way,” Azizi writes.
Iran ended up in a costly and unwinnable stalemate with Iraq after it went on the offensive after pushing all Iraqi forces from its border in 1982. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops, and the Iraqi Kurds, coupled with numerous failed Iranian offensives into Iraqi territory sapped Iranian morale. Soleimani was no exception, Azizi quotes him declaring Iran had no plan for the war or even a plan for the subsequent six months. “Like wandering and lost people, we keep moving from this place to that,” he lamented. Khomeini ultimately accepted the ceasefire that ended that war in 1988 with no discernible gain for Iran and died a year later.
Iran entered the 1990s looking inward, focusing on post-war reconstruction and improving the economy. For Soleimani, however, this decade would not see a respite from war. He began combating powerful drug smuggling gangs in Iran’s southeast. He dealt major blows to these gangs through sheer military strength and the shrewd enlistment of locals in relevant areas, who Soleimani understood how to gain the trust of thanks to his own rural and tribal upbringing.
While other veterans of the Iran-Iraq War had trouble readjusting to their new lives in peacetime “Soleimani simply avoided making such an adjustment by engaging in a war in the eastern borderlands that was sometimes as ferocious as the one he had fought in the west of the country.”
During the same period, Soleimani often made daring trips to Afghanistan as the Taliban were taking over the country to reassure Iran’s allies, such as the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, that they had Tehran’s support.
Later, after Khamenei promoted him to commander of the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force in 1998, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s campaign against the Taliban when Tehran and the United States briefly cooperated in Afghanistan against the Taliban shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Regional Expansion after the Invasion of Iraq
After Saddam Hussein was finally deposed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Soleimani set to work cementing Iran’s influence in the New Iraq. During the 2000s, the shadow commander expanded Iran’s influence across the region. In his infamous communique to U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq, he declared, “I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” As Azizi illustrates, this was no bluff nor exaggeration. “The foreign ministries had now moved aside and given all these portfolios to him.” Furthermore, “The ambassadors to these countries were all Quds Force members who answered first” to Soleimani.
The commander was constantly on the move managing Iran’s numerous regional interests. The book recalls how stories circulated about him “having breakfast in Beirut, lunch in Damascus, and dinner in Baghdad,” all in pursuit of his tireless effort to build “a transnational army.” Iran outright controlled or at least heavily influenced various Islamist groups across the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Soleimani also strove to reassure Iran’s various allies and proxies in their times of need. In 2006, for example, he went to Beirut during the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah to calm the latter’s fearful leader Hassan Nasrallah. Soleimani did succeed in improving Nasrallah’s morale. However, his experiences in Beirut, which consisted of evading Israeli drones and airstrikes, left him pessimistic. When he debriefed Khamenei about the war, the shadow commander seemingly foreshadowed his own demise. He recalled foreseeing “no horizon for victory” against Israel. “This was a different war,” he said. “It was a war of technology and precision.”
Moving into Syria
In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad cracked down violently on protests, sparking a lengthy and violent civil war that would eventually lead to the rise of notorious groups like the Islamic State (IS). In 2012, Soleimani went to Damascus, met Assad, and laid out the president’s two options. He could flee to Iran, in which case he would be welcome to stay, or remain in Damascus and fight, in which cause he would have to follow Soleimani’s lead. The Syrian ruler chose the latter. “In the years to come, Assad remained intimidated by the Iranian general,” Azizi writes.
Soleimani subsequently oversaw efforts to entrench Iran’s military presence in the region, recruiting several Afghan and Pakistani Shia to fight for Assad. In July 2015, he went to the Kremlin to discuss the prospect of Russian military intervention in Syria with President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s intervention, that began mere months later, undoubtedly proved decisive for ensuring the Assad regime’s survival.
Exploiting the Rise of the Islamic State
When IS captured Iraq’s second city Mosul and infamously rampaged across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 Iran intervened there, too. Soleimani once again took a hands-on approach, organizing Shi’a militias and sending arms to the besieged Iraqi Kurds. He helicoptered into the besieged Iraqi Shi’a Turkmen city of Amerli to help organize Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga to repel IS.
During this period, the shadow commander would pose for photographs on many battlefields across Iraq and Syria becoming somewhat of a celebrity in both Iran and the West. He walked the streets of Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit shortly after the IRGC-controlled militias displaced IS in 2015.
Azizi recalls an interesting moment from the frontlines in Syria. While overseeing an offensive against anti-Assad rebels in the city of Hama, Soleimani accurately predicted their movements by recalling his own tactics 35 years earlier in the Iran-Iraq War. “They like to come from the side where they can see Hama with their own eyes,” he said. “Just like we once approached Khorramshahr from a side where we could see its walls and palms.”
The Pride and the Fall
Later in his life, and at the peak of his power, Azizi observed, Soleimani becoming more arrogant in foreign and domestic feuds. Arguably his ever-growing feeling of invincibility ultimately cost him his life. After a Kataib Hezbollah rocket attack killed a U.S. civilian contractor in Kirkuk in late December 2019, the U.S. launched a series of airstrikes killing several members of the group in both Iraq and Syria.
“One would now expect Soleimani to back off,” Azizi writes. “But he had no such intentions. On his direct order, Kataib Hezbollah supporters marched on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, putting it under effective siege. The shadow commander had played his hand badly.”
Spooked by the political price of a repeat of the 1979-81 Embassy siege in Tehran, Trump shortly after that gave the order to kill Soleimani, who was blown up at Baghdad Airport in the 3 January 2020 drone strike. Azizi favourably quotes former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker who pointed out that, “The shadow commander came out of the shadows.” As Azizi goes on to add, “He did not live long beyond that world of shadows.”
The Shadow Commander is really half a biography of Soleimani and half a general history of the events that first shaped his life and the events that his life would go on to shape considerably. This approach provides his reader with a good life and times style treatment of the general’s life and puts many of his life events into their broader historical context.
One comes away with only a few minor quibbles with this book. For example, more than once Azizi points out that Iran had long maintained closer relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Iraqi Kurdistan than with that region’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). However, he doesn’t mention the fateful role Soleimani played in threatening the PUK leadership following Iraqi Kurdistan’s September 2017 independence referendum, which led to the PUK’s chaotic withdrawal of its Peshmerga forces from the disputed oil-rich region of Kirkuk the following month. That incident aptly demonstrated the enormous power Soleimani had over internal Iraqi and Kurdish affairs.
More recently, Soleimani was known to have orchestrated the crackdown by Iranian-backed militiamen against popular and peaceful protests in Iraq in late 2019, something which the book should have dealt with, at least in passing.
The book also has very few footnotes, albeit the ones that it does have primarily refer to interviews and original work that Azizi did for this project.
Still, The Shadow Commander is, overall, a very decent and worthwhile account of this consequential figure’s highly consequential life.
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