Qassem Suleimani is apparently the most interesting man in the world. To judge by the profiles in major Western media outlets—including the New Yorker, BBC, and the Guardian —the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external operations unit, the Quds Force, is the most feared and ruthless military strategist since Rommel. He’s also a fixer, a cleaner, like a figure out of a Quentin Tarantino film. Just last week, Suleimani was on call to help out a troubled client in Baghdad. After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Mosul, Suleimani landed with a cadre of Iranian advisers to lend a steady hand and reinforcements to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Some call Suleimani the Iranian proconsul in Iraq, but these days, Hajj Qassem, as he is known to friends and admirers, is everywhere around the Middle East. As he reportedly texted the American commander of coalition forces in Iraq in 2007: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” And now there’s Syria, too, where Suleimani is gathering fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, as well as Iranian troops from the IRGC and Basij to build a Shiite International to defend another Iranian ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Some say Hajj Qassem is Iran’s real powerbroker, and Hassan Rouhani is just the happy, so-called moderate, face of the clerical regime. Indeed, there are rumors floating around Shiite circles in Beirut that Suleimani recently attempted a coup against Rouhani, blocked at the last moment by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Maybe Suleimani really did try to topple Rouhani—it’s no secret he favored a rival, Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a fellow IRGC field commander from the war with Iraq whose son is believed to be married to Suleimani’s daughter. However, it’s just as likely that the rumors are the latest installment in an Iranian public relations blitz intended to brand Suleimani as the Middle East’s indispensable man. The campaign is directed at the Obama White House: If you want anything done in the Middle East, you’ll have to go through Iran and you’ll have to deal with Qassem Suleimani. If Rouhani and Javad Zarif are the regime’s moderates, Suleimani is its pit bull at the gate.
Suleimani is a serious person. “He’s considered a hero in Iran,” says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “He defended Iran in the face of Iraqi invasion in the 1980s, fought the drug cartels close to the Afghan border in the 1990s, and is now defending the Shia against Sunni terrorists like ISIS.”
According to Alfoneh, Suleimani is one of the instruments the Islamic Republic has used to foment a permanent state of crisis in Iraq, making Iraqis, especially the Shiites, dependent on his good will. It seems the White House is equally eager to stay on his good side, says Alfoneh. “I’m sure Suleimani enjoys the fact that the United States government, which has formally designated him a terrorist, now depends on his help to restore security in Iraq and save Baghdad from ISIS.”
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has swallowed the bait from Tehran. Last week the White House indicated that it wanted Iraq’s political parties to form a new government—a positive step insofar as Maliki is one of the key sources of Iraq’s problems, and his failures paved the way for the ISIS blitzkrieg through Mosul. However, the administration also let on that it would be working with the regional power that controls Maliki. “We are interested in communicating with Iran,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. So that “the Iranians know what we’re thinking, that we know what they’re thinking, and there is a sharing of information so people aren’t making mistakes.”
The White House believes it has no choice but to coordinate with Iran since there’s no getting around Tehran’s power on the ground. The administration has reportedly pursued the same policy in Lebanon: through the Lebanese Armed Forces, it has shared intelligence on Sunni extremists with Hezbollah, Tehran’s division in the eastern Mediterranean. Because Obama will not devote sufficient assets to stopping Sunni jihadists fighting from Beirut to Baghdad, the administration believes it has little choice but to work with the only actor with men on the ground that shares an interest in stopping groups like ISIS. Who else but Qassem Suleimani? According to his PR offensive, he sees everything and knows everything. Hajj Qassem is everywhere.
The reality is that Suleimani isn’t nearly as all-powerful as his press. The United States won the surge when it got Iraq’s Sunni tribes to fight al Qaeda. Suleimani’s anti-Sunni policies in Iraq, by contrast, have pushed the Sunni tribes into alliance with ISIS, along with holdovers from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. And in losing the tribes, which control the Syria-Iraq border, Suleimani is also losing supply and communications lines. After three years, hundreds of millions of dollars, Russian weapons, and Moscow’s political cover, he still can’t put down the Sunni rebellion in Syria. The fall of Mosul is evidence that Suleimani’s Shiite International is spread increasingly thin.
For the last 35 years, Iran’s ability to project power has been dependent on the willingness of Arab Shiites, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to fight and die for Iran’s Islamic Revolution. But the Shiites are a regional minority, outnumbered by the Sunnis by something like five to one. Yet they are now fighting in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
When Hezbollah entered the Syrian conflict in force in 2013, it called on the Lebanese Armed Forces to protect its rear and put down various Sunni organizations in Lebanon. After ISIS marched on Mosul, Suleimani recalled the Iraqi Shiite militias he’d dispatched to Syria, like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, with the result that Hezbollah had to make up for the lost manpower and commit more men to Syria. Only a few days after Mosul, Hezbollah reportedly saw 29 fighters killed in action in Syria.
The various military triumphs in Syria that Iran, Hezbollah, and other allied forces have celebrated over the last few years may now be subject to reversal. In any case, with the likelihood of further conflict in Iraq, a conflict that will not be resolved even if Maliki is ousted, Suleimani’s campaign will be stretched all around the region.
It’s rumored that American forces had Suleimani in the crosshairs at least once during the U.S.-led coalition occupation of Iraq and chose not to kill him. It’s irrelevant now. The concern is that if the White House coordinates with Iran, it will make the myth of Suleimani seem even more formidable than before—Hajj Qassem will have the Americans behind him.