Five false beliefs about Qasem Soleimani

BY : Hemn Seyedi

 Very few Iranian figures, both within and outside of Iran, have been able to achieve such a special position like Qasem Soleimani, the Head of Iran’s Quds Force. He has been a national hero in the eyes of many Iranians over the last few years. Inside Iran, he is mentioned in poems and lyrics, and also some books and movies are written and produced about him. From state media to semi-free media, he is admired and even his birthday was celebrated by a popular show on state TV. In the region and the world, he has an almost similar situation. Iran’s allies consider him a hero fighting ISIS; his rivals acknowledge his particular position, and his enemies call him the most powerful man in the Middle East, or their worst enemy.

But is it really so? There are five common and well-seated beliefs about him, from present to the past: 1 – He is successfully fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 2 – He is the single most powerful figure in the Middle East. 3 – He is implementing Iran’s supreme leader’s policies in the region. 4 – He is unlike other IRGC commanders, popular. 5 – He is a great and successful veteran of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s.

I argue that these are not correct but just a half-true story of Qasem Soleimani. In this piece I will try to show that he is just playing by Iranians’ interests in the region, he is to blame for the emergence of ISIS and has actually paved the way for great powers to return to the region, he is not a prominent politician but a stubborn fighter, and finally, his belief in the Shia Crescent and his performance during the Iran-Iraq war prove his inability to drive Iran’s regional policy. In the end, I will answer that if he is not an experienced militant and a thoughtful diplomat how possibly has he gained such a particular position both inside and outside of Iran, and why unlike the two previous historical u-turn cases in Iran’s grand policies – the acceptance of an end to the war with Iraq, and reconsidering Iran’s nuclear policies by Iranian leaders – this time, the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, has not revised his costly policies?

This article reviews some aspects of the character and performance of Qasem Soleimani, which is incompatible with mainstream media, and believes the face that has been made out of him is in line with the interests of a small minority in Iran and big powers, whose alignment with Iranian artificial nationalism has led to Qasem Soleiman’s public welcome which therefore, has left no space for critical review of his performance. Until this criticism begins, there is a little hope of changing the current situation in the Middle East.

This writing gradually flashes back to the past from the present. It begins with the latest episode of Qasem Soleimani’s character in the fight against ISIS, and claims that he was not the hero fighting ISIS, but he was the one whose defeats in front of ISIS forced him to resort to the United States and Russia in Iraq and Syria. Then, taking a step back, this writing addresses Soleimani’s role in the emergence of ISIS. Afterwards, it verifies the shaping of Soleimani’s belief in the Shia Crescent and its dangerous consequences in the previous years, and finally, his performance regarding the reform movement and the Iran-Iraq war will be taken into consideration. Eventually, this piece comes to the conclusion that this man is not even competent to be a military commander, let alone being the top person in the region’s political, diplomatic spheres, and a national hero.

From the present to the past

The hero fighting ISIS? 2014 till 2017.

Regardless of the fact that ISIS emerged in the two countries where Soleimani has the most influence, his military inefficiency and his successive defeats in fighting against ISIS re-opened the doors to the U.S and Russia to return to Syria and Iraq. Tikrit was the most important city that was retaken from ISIS. After two months of preparations and Soleimani claiming that the U.S had no right to participate in the liberation of Tikrit, he took the command of a large-scale operation which failed within a few weeks of launching, leaving heavy casualties behind. Therefore, for the second operation, he inevitably requested the U.S. to provide air support. Until that time the U.S. had not taken any action in the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, whereas, from since Soleimani’s request, the U.S. now has a major presence in all operations in Iraq. Taking this step, in fact all of Soleimani’s ten year endeavors to end the U.S presence in Iraq, collapsed due to Soleimani himself.

 It was the same in the case of Syria. Iran’s primary aids not only didn’t improve the fight against jihadist groups, but only in one case, forced Assad to set free 2,000 rebels for the release of 48 members of the Iran Quds Force. This was actually in ISIS’ favor and a great help to the opposition front. Afterwards, it led to two strategic mistakes being made by Soleimani: first he called Hezbollah to send 2,000 fighters, affirming the seriousness of a real Shia-Sunni conflict in Syria; and second, he asked Russia to interfere in Syria after he was defeated consecutively in front of Syrian opposition groups. This act firstly turned Russia into the main power of the Syrian War, and second enabled Russia to reach the country’s air bases and ports of warm waters which might lead to a permanent presence in Syria, thirdly, unlike Iran, Russia has not limited its relationship only to Assad, but established relations with both the opposition groups and the Kurds, and at the same time, began bargaining with Trump and Erdogan – none of whom are in the interests of Iran. In fact, the publication of photos showing Soleimani walking in Aleppo was only a maneuver to compensate for Iran’s failure regarding the loss of its top position in Syria and delivering it to Russia.

The rise of ISIS under the ‘Middle East’s single most powerful operative,’ 2011 to 2014

From early 2011, on one side Iraq needed help in the aftermath of the U.S.’ withdrawal, and on the other side, Syria was gradually facing Arab Spring unrest. Qasem Soleimani, who at the time considered himself the strongest figure in the Middle East, appeared with an iron fist on both fronts. Maliki’s government in Iraq was forced to adopt a policy of Sunni repression, and Assad, to answer civil protests with helicopters and tanks. In those very days, Qasem Soleimani’s name went onto the black list of the U.S and Europe for bringing suppressive methods used on the streets of Tehran to the streets of Damascus and Hama. Even four years earlier, in 2007, his name was on the list of U.N. Security Council sanctions. But none of this could prevent him from suppressing Sunni dissidents from 2011, three years before the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, where civil dissent was also being suppressed, gradually the foundation of an armed opposition was formed. Repression of the moderate opposition by Soleimani alongside NATO’s ‘unhappy end intervention’ in Libya provided the conditions for reinforcing the jihadists after many years of decline which finally led to the rise of Islamic State. That is why ISIS now has a strong Libyan base. The NATO operation in Libya encouraged the suppressed opposition in Syria to increase their armed struggle in the hope of obtaining the same NATO operation in Syria, something that never occurred but led to Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Indeed the current catastrophic situation in Syria was started by Soleimani’s wrongdoings, and other events like western inaction and regional Sunni powers’ involvement, all played complementary roles.

Interestingly, not long ago both Soleimani and Khamenei had stated that if Iran was not present in Syria they would have had to fight the Islamic State in Iran (as if the history of Iran’s presence in Syria began in the summer of 2014 and the emergence of ISIS, not many years before!).

Qasem Soleimani and his Shia Crescent, 2009 to 2011

The term “Shia Crescent” which was for the first time used in 2004 to describe Iran’s foreign policy, was not only repeatedly denied by Iranian officials, but even until 2011 was not taken seriously in the region as Iran’s policies did not pursue along the Shia Crescent line. Even Iran’s aid to Hezbollah was mostly interpreted as strengthening the resistance against Israel, not as helping a Shia ally. There are many counter examples to this case before 2011. For instance, Iran’s aid to Hamas as a Sunni Islamist group, or welcoming the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, having strong relations with Turkey at that time, and even assisting Iraqi Sunnis during the years of U.S intervention in Iraq, are all cases that didn’t allow the term “Shia Crescent” to be attached to Iran’s regional policies. However, just as Soleimani achieved the rank of major general – January 24, 2011, the exact day of victory in the Arab Spring in Egypt – the implementation of the Shia Crescent was started by him. Not only did he actually seek the implementation of Shia Crescent policies in Iraq and Syria, but unlike Iran’s supreme leader he approved the existence of such a policy, plus adding oil economics and tourism to the other dimensions of the Shia Crescent policy.

During his three successive speeches – that amazingly were censored by Persian media both at home and abroad – Soleimani claimed that the Shia Crescent thesis was not merely a constructivist interpretation of Iran policy or just an ideological belief, but it is Iran realpolitik and has a strong economic foundation. He explained that 80% of the Muslim world’s oil is located in Shia areas. This meant that he was considering Saudi Arabia’s oil as Shia oil as well! It should not be surprising then that such a view encouraged Saudi Arabia to change its former conservative policies towards adopting aggressive policies, including more intervention in the region and also increasing its oil exports and decreasing its prices.

Moreover, giving false statistics, Soleimani added Shia tourism to the economic equations. During the three speeches mentioned, he claimed that each Iraqi visitor spends between $3,000-5,000 in Iran – an average of $4,000! Whereas simple research by this author among Iranian and Iraqi friends indicates that this has been exaggerated up to 10-fold. First, the majority of Iraqi visitors to Iran are from poor and middle classes. Second, they generally visit Iran in large groups to minimize personal expenses. Third, Iran provides visitors with a lot of facilities including free accommodation. Fourth, visitors have no shopping plans when they go to Iran, since Iraq has not put any tariffs on Iranian exports so Iraqi people don’t get encouraged to purchase in Iran. Each Iraqi person who visits Iran for a few days spends almost $400 or 1.5 million Toman, which overall reaches about 10 million for each family of seven, not 100 million (equal to 28000 dollars) as Soleimani has claimed. Soleimani also has not implied anything around Iranian visitors’ expenses to Iraq.

The purpose of reviewing this statistic is not just to reveal Qasem Soleimani’s lies or hypocrisy – those who called him “Sardar e Aref, Gnostic General” – but is to emphasize the seriousness of the Shia crescent for a person who is the key decision maker in Iran’s political and military programs in the region and does not care about its dangerous consequences and attempt to separate Shia regions from Saudi Arabia.

Qasem Soleimani and the Reformist Movement, 1999 to 2009

In the 1997 presidential elections, the Iranian people for the first time under the Islamic regime, got the chance to bring a person to the presidency with an unprecedented record of twenty million votes, who was different from other senior Iranian officials in the previous 18 years. Mohammad Khatami, with considerable support from students and elites, and with the votes of all social classes came to power.  Two years later, in the summer of 1999, senior IRGC commanders including Qasem Soleimani threatened a coup against his government. While, students of Tehran University were protesting the raiding of their dormitories at midnight – something that had led to the killing and wounding of a number of their fellow students – an open letter was published addressing Khatami with the concept of “we can’t be patient anymore.” Among the first few to sign up were the names of Qasem Soleimani and Mohammad Ali Jafari the leader of the IRGC. Then practically hours after the issuance of the letter, they began a bloody crackdown on the students. The day after, Khatami in a speech in the city of Hamadan asked the students to return to their dormitories and promised to follow up their demands. Students returned to their dorms, but none of their demands were followed up by the president, but with this the corps commanders, including Soleimani, realized their own strength and Khatami’s weakness, and therefore they continued conspiring against his government until the last days of his presidency, until eventually the reform project was totally paralyzed and led to the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami said later, that during his presidency a crisis was created against him at an average of every nine days. IRGC officials were behind most of the conspiracies.

Exactly ten years later in the summer of 2009 when Iranians, after tolerating four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, did not accept the election results and were demonstrating along with protest leaders, once more Soleimani and his fellows repressed them. When Qasem Soleimani’s name entered the European Union’s sanctions list in 2011, it was stipulated that he actually transferred the suppressive practices of the Tehran streets to the streets of Damascus and Hama. Yes, Qasem Soleimani’s relationship with the popular reformist movement – the people’s only chance for applying their will after the revolution – was in this way, the suppression of both student movement and ten years later, the green movement.

The stubborn fighter of the war and the silent soldier post-war, 1979 to 1999

Qasem Soleimani, who had no background of political activities in the years before the Iranian Revolution, and used to spend most of his time in the Zurkhaneh (Iranian traditional gym) in the city of Kerman, immediately after the revolution joined the IRGC and a few months later, in the summer of 1979 headed to Kurdistan to suppress the Kurdish ethnic movement. In fact, the city of Mahabad was his platform in the IRGC. After the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 he was sent to the front lines. As in several television programs, books and other writings, he has been strangely described as a courageous and fearless hero, while nobody has so far mentioned how headstrong and crazy he was and how corrupted he acted at the front. A few years ago, in a report citing documents of ‘the Center for War Studies’ affiliated to the IRGC, it turned out that during the war he was reprimanded by IRGC officials several times. The most prominent of which was due to revealing the plan for an operation to attack the al-Faw Port during which due to the apathy of Qasem Soleimani, resulted in the death of many and he was reprimanded.

This grave mistake of his was severely slated by Khatam al-Anbiya officials and he was heavily criticized. His conflict with other officials and his disobeying of superiors’ orders as well as arbitrary measures lasted throughout the years leading up to the end of the war. By reference to such documents, it turns out that in the last years of war he had a fight with both Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who was the political leader of warfare and Mohsen Rezaei, the head of the IRGC. That was why there was a silence regarding Qasem Soleimani after the war. In fact, during all the years of Rafsanjani’s presidency and Rezaei remaining in the same position in the ten years after the war, Soleimani was hated and isolated. It was only after the decline of Rafsanjani’s power as well as the end of Rezae’s command of the IRGC – after the security problems that came to his son – little by little Soleimani found a way of getting close to Khamenei, and also through adopting positions against Khatami, he strengthened his position in the IRGC.

Among the many memories in which Qasem Soleimani has always been mentioned as a war hero, one of them relates to a speech of him during which he talks about the Karbala Operations Five that resulted in the most number of casualties from the entire eight-year war operations of Iran. In this speech, Soleimani claims that in the operation the Iranian front was by all counts in a weaker and unequal situation including in regards to manpower, but that eventually they launched an operation successfully. Iran never had less manpower than Iraq, and in fact in this operation Iran’s superiority in terms of manpower was several times more than Iraq and was termed by some the “Human Wave Operation.” It is not known why Sardar e Aref calls this a successful operation, perhaps in the sense that among the 30,000 Iranian casualties, 350 of whom were top commanders of the IRGC and the operation created stronger links between the rest of the commanders and the army.

From the present to an unknown future

Intensified military stubbornness in the field of diplomacy

Assuming that all the stories that have been told about Qasem Soleimani’s courage is true; a brief look at his military record shows that even in his military decisions he cannot be trusted, let alone in macro politics and regional diplomacy. Namely his military operations must be supervised by a second military commander to control his possible risky actions and dangerous initiatives. However, we have witnessed in the last few years that Khamenei has given him a free hand in both political and military fields and therefore the Middle East is burning in the fire of his sectarianism, plus Saudi reactions. Any other politician in his position would revise his policies, at least in Syria, because Iran’s interests in Syria were not merely supplied by Assad. There were two outstanding vital issues related to Iran in Syria – having a secure channel with Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as the possibility of links to Hamas in Palestine. These two crucial points of Iran’s policy were legitimatized and fully respected by all groups and political factions in Syria. Not only the Islamist groups but even the liberals and the Syrian nationalists had no problems with it, as Syria was actually occupied by Israel and this country was considered a constant threat to them. Following the wars of 2006 and 2008, Hezbollah also had gained popularity in the Arab and Sunni world.

Nevertheless, the continuity of Soleimani’s repressive policies and his stubborn insistence to ‘keep Assad at any cost,’ has incredibly cost the lives of half a million people, helped the emergence of ISIS, imposed at least 36 billion dollars over Iran’s crisis-hit economy and the most important thing, it has inflamed the anger of the Arab world against Iranians, which will come to an end, but it could take years or even decades. Indeed, saving Assad, for Soleimani, was a matter of pride and he did not care if it helped fuel huge Shia-Sunni conflicts. He proudly said many times that we do not leave our friends alone, unlike the U.S.! He was right. For U.S. diplomacy cannot be reduced to personal relations. Obama preferred Mubarak to Morsi and also Morsi to Sisi, but when keeping Mubarak became too costly he tried to pursue U.S. interests by establishing a strong relation with Morsi. The same was repeated regarding Sisi taking power.

In addition, Iran lost its only strategic ally in the Sunni world. Hamas, which before the repression of the Syrian people, was in the Iranian bloc, but afterwards was forced to distance itself from Iran and in this way Iran’s only link with the Sunni world was interrupted. And Hezbollah, which had gained their trust by paying high costs, once more turned into an anti-Sunni force. All this happened by trusting a stubborn fighter who was not able to think of a Plan B and did not take other views into account.

Why Iran’s supreme leader does not change his mind?

In the past, Iran’s grand policies were revised twice, though previously it seemed impossible to make any change to them. Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, had promised to continue the war against Iraq until “Removing seduction in the world” and Khamenei in his turn, defended Iran’s nuclear policies and even stated that the sanctions were actually beneficial to Iran’s economy. But finally both of them revised their policies. Khomeini agreed to a ceasefire in 1988 and Khamenei finally accepted the launching of negotiations with the Five plus One in order to gain a nuclear deal. The question is why this has not happened in regards to Iranian regional policies in spite of its massive costs?

 In the two previous cases, pressure on people in the country caused public discontent – this discontent was not reflected in domestic media but it was discussed in outside media especially those media that had Persian services, and the dangerous dimensions of this discontent was discussed by economists and political analysts. The echoing of these sounds had an effect inside Iran, and other than the public some military and civic high authorities also criticized the policies. Just as was the case of the Iraq war, were some of the political characters and war commanders criticized the war’s perpetuation in its last year, and later in regards to the nuclear policies some figures including Ali Akbar Welayati the senior advisor to Khamenei, and Rohani the potential candidate for presidency, joined the criticism which made Khamenei change his mind eventually.

Whereas, this process was not followed relating the Iranian regional policies and even the few dissenting voices from inside were censored. More importantly, the free media didn’t only critically fail to analyze these policies, but along with Iranian state media started to create a hero out of Qasem Soleimani. Naming him “Sardar e Aref” eventually closed all the doors to criticism. Instead by blowing the wind in a superficial nationalism, they made it feel the need to make an invincible champion. So, from movie stars, authors and directors, to the so-called opposition figures, all began sanctifying Qasem Soleimani.  This wave gradually turned into a severe one that when one person inside Iran dared to criticize Soleimani, saying he was responsible for the creation of ISIS, all the media, among them televisions from abroad, censored him. Dr Mehdi Khazali was the name of that individual.

  Next catastrophes in the absence of critical views

Apart from unhealthy and an incongruous form of nationalism that has tried to compensate for the recent decade’s humiliation by tying Karbala to Pasargad, there could be some global hands behind this face-making. In other words, the mainstream media also put an effort in inducting Qasem Soleimani as a hero in the minds of the Iranian people, since nobody has been able to provoke the region in the interest of world powers as much as Soleimani. Naturally, the powers who seek their interests in selling expensive weapons and buying cheap oil will admire him!

Thanks to Soleimani’s policies the table of the world’s military budget changed after seven decades. In the years of 2014 and 2015 the military budget of Saudi Arabia became the world’s third-largest overtaking Russia. In turn Iran has also increased its military budget by 86% in the last four years with a potential 128% increase in the next year under its ‘moderate’ president. That means a bigger share of their lesser oil incomes must be spent on military expenditure. Perhaps that is why Theresa May called Iran a serious threat to the region’s countries and promised that Britain will be with the Gulf States against the threats of Iran. In one report published by the Economist Britain has a grand strategy to go back to the Gulf and make its monarchies the third largest economic partner after the U.S. and the EU.

All these positions from world powers are understandable, but the Iranian people defending a person who has put their lives, properties, oil, wealth and the future of their children at risk is hardly understandable. The destructive role of false nationalism as well as the role of elites whose outlooks stem from their dependency to power, can close the doors of criticism, mislead and blind the minds of people, bring holiness to the murderers and the ignorant. One of them is Mohammad Quchani, the editor of Farsi Mehrnameh magazine with strong ties to Iran’s secret intelligence officials. He was the first person who compared Soleimani to Napoleon Bonaparte two years ago, and more recently has emphasized on the necessity of return to Shia Safavism as Iran’s grand policy. But no one dares to challenge this dangerous view within Iran.

Independent analysts must begin a serious and creative criticism of Qasem Soleimani and an analysis of nationalist dimensions, if they do not, the Iranian community and the entire Middle East will continue in the same route of regression.

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