Hosting Mughniyah in Tehran

Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman

It is difficult to see Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani as a promoter of peace. But that is precisely how he was defined recently by several analysts in important newspapers in the United States, Britain and other Western countries, because of his involvement in the negotiations to broker a cease-fire in the war in Iraq between the Shiite militias and the government.

The efforts by the Iranian general, the commander of the al-Quds brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, brought results. The cease-fire after a week of bloody battles at the end of March that was achieved between the government of Iraq headed by Premier Nouri al-Maliki and the "Mahdi Army," the Shiite militia under the leadership of the cleric Muqtada a-Sadr, has been attributed to him.

Suleimani's achievement bears witness to two important characteristics. The first is the deep involvement of Iran in Iraq, and its control, in effect, of the Mahdi Army and the other pro-Shiite militias operating in that country. The second is the prominent status that General Suleimani has at the Iranian intelligence-security establishment.

Very little is known in the West about Suleimani, in whom Israel has a particular interest since he is the coordinator of the Iranian strategy vis a vis Hezbullah. He was born on March 11, 1957, in the town of Qom, the important religious center of Iran and the launching pad for the leader of the Islamic revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Suleimani is a quintessential product of the revolution who spent most of his professional career in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards.

The Revolutionary Guards were founded in 1979 on orders from Khomeini to defend the revolution and to assist the clerics in imposing the laws of the theocracy that was established in Iran. One of the main reasons for setting up the Revolutionary Guards was the suspicions on the part of Khomeini and his aides about the Iranian army which they had cruelly "purged" from the top down of those who had been loyal to the regime of the Shah.

At a certain stage during the Iraqi-Iranian war, apparently at the beginning of the 1980s, the "al-Quds force" was set up in the framework of the revolutionary guards as an elite unit for special tasks behind enemy lines. From the moment of its inception, the force has been under the direct command of the Supreme Leader (today Ali Khameini) who is the head of state.

According to unconfirmed reports, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, served in al-Quds in the second half of the 1980s and reached the rank of Colonel, taking part in secret operations inside Iraq. According to a document of the Federation of American Scientists, the responsibility of al-Quds, which is considered a particularly secret and compartmentalized outfit, is to organize, to train and to equip Islamic movements that spread the revolutionary ideals.

A former United States army intelligence officer, David Dionisi, says that al-Quds is divided into eight geographic departments, with responsibility for the West; Iraq; Afghanistan (including India and Pakistan); Lebanon; Israel and the Palestinians; North Africa; Turkey; and the Arabian Peninsula. Because of the strict compartmentalization, it is not known what is the exact size of the force, but estimates range between 3,000 officers and soldiers to some 20,000.

The members of the force are well trained to carry out terrorist attacks and intelligence operations, and to organize clandestine cells, and they also have expert engineers for aerial and missile warfare. They carried out missions to assist the Kurds in Iraq who fought against the regime of Saddam Hussein, and to the Northern Alliance under the leadership of Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan which fought the Taliban (whom the Ayatollahs in Iran consider an enemy) as well as assistance to the Muslim fighters in Bosnia during the Balkan war.

In the past few years, most of the activities of the al-Quds fighters have been channeled to helping the Mahdi army in Iraq, the Hezbullah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Suleimani was appointed commander of the force some five years ago. The American administration views al-Quds and its commander as a central factor in igniting the struggle of the Shiites, and especially the Mahdi army in its struggle against the American troops in Iraq.

They are also accused of supplying special sophisticated explosives that are used by the Shiite militias against the American forces in Iraq. That is one of the reasons that Suleimani is on the black list that the American treasury published, which forbids American companies and citizens from holding commercial ties with him.

A ban on ties with him is also mentioned in the United Nations' Security Council Resolution 1747 of March 2007, which imposed sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend its nuclear activity and to stop enriching uranium.

According to intelligence sources in the West, Suleimani was the main person responsible for equipping Hezbullah with missiles and long-range rockets, and he served as the moving spirit in formulating the doctrine to be used in a future war against Israel.

During the Second Lebanon War, Israel destroyed these rockets and missiles in the first 34 minutes of the war, based on precise intelligence.

Against the background of the supply of rockets to Hezbullah, Suleimani visited Lebanon several times in the past few years for talks aimed at furthering the cooperation, and met with Hassan Nasrallah and senior commanders of Hezbullah. He created especially close ties with Imad Mughniyah, the supreme commander of the military arm of Hezbullah who was assassinated in Damascus in February, in an operation which foreign reports attribute to the Mossad.

The ties between the two turned into a personal friendship, and Mughniyah, according to American sources, used to sleep at Suleimani's house whenever he went to Tehran.

During the Second Lebanon War, the personal friendship did not prevent Suleimani from chiding Mughniyah over Hezbullah's failure to keep secret the location of the missiles that were supposed to serve as strategic weapons in case Iran would want to take revenge against Israel for attacking its nuclear facilities.

Like other senior commanders in the revolutionary guards and al-Quds, and in fact like most of the political and religious elite in Iran, Suleimani has difficulty distinguishing between his public calling and his private life. American sources say that he is considered a corrupt officer who has investments, property and businesses in Lebanon and the Gulf states that bring in heavy dividends every year.

If Israel decides in the not too distant future to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, there is no doubt that Iran will respond with all the means at its disposal. One of them is the operation of low-lying terror cells against Israeli targets in different parts of the world, and the use of Hezbullah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as whips and scourges to take revenge against Israel. The person who will be responsible for operating these forces will be General Qassem Suleimani.