The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, which was responsible for Wednesday night’s missile launches at Israel, is commanded by Qassem Soleimani, one of the most prominent and influential military figures in Iran today. He is involved in Iranian military activity in many countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus states, and is considered one of the people closest to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
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The 61-year-old father of five doesn’t give many interviews to the Iranian media; he leaves that to the politicians, for whom he doesn’t have much respect for. He isn’t a religious scholar and didn’t receive a religious education.
Rather, he started working at a young age, as an ordinary construction worker, to pay off a $100 debt to the shah’s government and help support his impoverished family. Later, he worked as a municipal water technician in Kerman. He isn’t even known to have participated in the demonstrations that toppled the shah in 1979.
But after the Islamic Revolution, he joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – a military force separate from the army – and fought in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.
Thanks to his strategic thinking, charisma and command abilities, he was named head of the Quds Force in 1998. The Quds Force operates outside Iran to extend the country’s influence and spread the Islamic Revolution.
Despite having had only six weeks of military training, today Soleimani is considered the most influential person in the Revolutionary Guards – even more so than its commander Mohammad Ali Jafari.
The Quds Force was founded during the Iran-Iraq War as an elite unit. Its goal was to help the Kurds in their fight against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and, even more, to spread the principles of the Islamic revolution at a time when it wasn’t clear the army would remain loyal to the Iranian regime. Later, it began training forces outside Iran, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and carrying out attacks against regime opponents worldwide.
Soleimani has been linked with several attacks and attempted attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide, including the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the attack on an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012, and sending the Karine A arms ship to the Palestinians in 2002. (It was intercepted by Israel before reaching its destination.) The latest was the failed attack on Israel Defense Forces targets along the northern border Wednesday night, which provoked an IDF response that did significant damage to the military infrastructure Soleimani has built in Syria over the last year.
His enormous influence has even led to limited cooperation with the Americans. In spite of his involvement in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his unconcealed loathing for the U.S., Soleimani cooperated with the Americans to elect Iraq’s interim prime minister in 2010. At the U.S.'s request, Soleimani also ordered the Mahdi Army, led by the separatist Iraqi Shi’ite Muqtada al-Sadr, to stop attacking American targets in Baghdad. And when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Iranian officials – on Soleimani’s orders – gave American representatives a map of Taliban bases to target in Afghanistan.
On at least two occasions, American forces could have killed Soleimani but refrained, due mainly to considerations of local politics and Washington’s desire to preserve the undercover cooperation with Tehran in the war against ISIS in Iraq.
Soleimani is an Iranian national hero. Khamenei even called him a “living martyr of the revolution.”
Nevertheless, in 2015, Soleimani came under criticism for his management of the war against ISIS in Iraq, which resulted in his authority being curtailed. He also failed to persuade Iraqi Kurds to let him move weapons and troops through their autonomous zone in order to assist the Syrian Army in Syria’s civil war, despite his close ties with the Kurdish government.
Soleimani has also been criticized for his management of the war in Syria. He in turn has repeatedly accused Syrian President Bashar Assad of mismanaging the war and complained that Syrian Army officers don’t listen to his advice. “If I had one division of Iranian Basij, I would conquer Syria,” he once said, referring to an Iranian paramilitary force subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards.
Despite Israel’s unusually massive strike on Syria Wednesday night, which severely damaged Iranian capabilities in that country, even the IDF doubts that this will alter the Quds Force’s plans to entrench itself in Syria as deeply as possible – even at the price of an armed conflict with Israel.
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