The vehemence with which the American administration has denied reports that sanctions affecting Iran's Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani have been lifted have to some extent calmed the anger of opponents of the Iranian nuclear deal. However, the denials will apparently not prevent the continuing cooperation between the Obama administration and the commander of the powerful, elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
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This is because Soleimani is overseeing much of his country's war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Lebanon, and is commanding the Shiite militias who have chalked up most of the victories in Iraq. So long as Americas declared objective is to wage war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and not against Syrian President Bashar Assad – Soleimani is an American ally, and not for the first time.
Soleimani, 58, is not a clergyman or an intellectual. He began his path to his present position as a poor boy who went to work to help his father pay a $100 debt to the government of the shah of Iran. At 22 he joined the revolutionary forces that fought against Iraq from 1980 to 1988. His strategic thinking, charisma and leadership ability led to his appointment as head the Quds Force, which operates outside Iran to establish its presence and influence in the Middle East and beyond.
Soleimani despises the American government and indeed was the one who coordinated most of the attacks against the U.S. forces after they invaded Iraq in 2003. But he was also involved with the U.S. in choosing the head of Iraqs provisional government that same year. Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador in Iraq, told The New Yorker in an interview that the names of the candidates for interim prime minister were presented in a way that would assure Soleimanis consent. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, senior Iranian representatives, acting at Soleimanis behest, gave American representatives with whom they met in Switzerland a map of Taliban bases to be targeted.
At Americas request, Soleimani also instructed the al-Mahdi forces led by separatist Shiite leader Muqtada a-Sadr to stop attacking American targets in Baghdad, and indirectly coordinated the establishment of Nouri al-Malikis government in 2010.
Moreover, Soleimani also used to send text messages to American commanders in Iraq. In one such message that he sent in 2008 to Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus, Soleimani wrote, for example, I Qassem Soleimani, manage Iranian policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. The Iranian ambassador in Iraq is a member of the Quds forces, and whoever replaces him will also be a Quds Force man.
Soleimani, the father of three sons and two daughters, is linked to numerous terror attacks, among them that on the Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and also in Europe, against opponents of the Iranian regime. He also helped coordinate Hezbollah actions against Israel. American intelligence officials, however, do not believe he knew about the 2012 Hezbollah attack on an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria.
Having a terrorist background is not always sufficient grounds for cutting off ties with someone. There were at least two opportunities for U.S. forces to assassinate Soleimani but they refrained from doing so, primarily for domestic political reasons but also to maintain the covert cooperation with Iran in its battle with Iraq.
Soleimani, whose associates and subordinates tend to refer to him as Haj Qassem, is a national Iranian hero. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even called him the living martyr of the revolution. Nevertheless, over the past year there has been criticism of his handling of the campaign in Iraq, of ISIS success in seizing the city of Ramadi, and of the brutal behavior of the Shiite militias that murdered and tortured Sunni activists indiscriminately, thus threatening the Iraqi governments ability to enlist the Sunni tribes in the battle against ISIS. Following this criticism, it seems as if Solomeinis authority in Iraq has been somewhat restricted.
Nor did the Iranian general succeed in persuading the Kurds to allow the transfer of forces and weapons through the Kurdish district to help the Syrian military, despite the close relationship he developed with the Kurdish administration.
Solomeini has also been criticized for the way he has been handling the campaign in Syria, after the Syrian military suffered consecutive defeats in recent weeks. His efforts to establish a line of defense against the rebel militias in the Golan Heights with Hezbollahs help did not go well. Furthermore, in the Qalamoun mountains he has yet to achieve the victory he was expecting.
Several times Soleimani has accused Assad of faulty management of the war, and he claims that Syrian army commanders arent prepared to heed his advice. If I had one division of Iranian Basij forces, I could conquer Syria, he said in one of his public statements.
With sanctions or without them, the general will continue to be a key player in the war against ISIS. To this end he has been Washingtons secret partner in Iraq and Syria. The question is whether he will decide to go into politics, or whether hell be satisfied with being named overall commander of the Revolutionary Guards.