Qasem Soleimani: Powerful figure who sought to reshape Middle East in Iran’s favour
New Delhi: When Qasem Soleimani was killed in a drone strike on Friday morning, those who knew West Asia immediately recognised the significance of the moment — and how it could unleash an escalatory spiral, even leading up to a possible war.
But for those who did not follow the region, the immediate question was: Soleimani, who?
In the answer to that question lies a tale of both Iran’s extended influence in the region and the web of intrigue, intelligence-based covert operations, shifting alliances, and the power of Tehran in shaping not just the Shia Crescent but developments across the region with global implications.
In a profile of Soleimani, written in 2013 in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins traces the evolution of the man who became among the most powerful, but rather invisible, figures in modern Iranian history. He writes that since Soleimani took command of the Quds Force in 1998, he “sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favour, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.”
Born in 1957 in a poor family in eastern Iran, Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guards during the 1979 Iranian revolution. He fought in the Iran-Iraq war through the 1980s. He eventually took over the Quds Force, making it, according to Filkins, “an organisation with extraordinary reach, with branches focussed on intelligence, finance, politics, sabotage, and special operations.”
But it was only after 2001 that Soleimani truly became a key figure. The US was furious after the 9/11 attacks and was making plans to attack Afghanistan. Tehran and the Taliban regime were at loggerheads. Filkins documents an unusual partnership in his profile -- where Soleimani’s men helped US officials with intelligence on Afghanistan, despite the bitter and acrimonious ties that existed between Tehran and Washington. But this changed soon after, when, according to Filkins, in 2002, US president George Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil”. Soleimani was angry, and his original instinct -- of suspicion towards the US -- only got reinforced.
But the cooperative element did not fade away entirely. After the US invaded Iraq in 2003 — Iraq was a Baathist regime even though its majority population was Shia, who had close links with Iran — Tehran sensed an opportunity to remake the Iraqi regime to better serve its interests. Soleimani was the main operative who led the charge in Iraq, both cooperating with the US but also encouraging Shiite militants who would then be able to expand Shia power, push back the US, and expand Iranian influence.
He continued to encourage Hezbollah in Lebanon. He was the architect of preserving Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, accompanied with a brutal crackdown on the resistance, elements of which were supported by the United States — in the process, he closely worked with Russia. He fought back against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), working with Iraqi forces.
If West Asia is today riven by the conflict between Iran and Shia polities on one side, and the US-Saudi Arabia and Israel with smaller Sunni states on the other, Soleiman had a key role to play in it. But at the same time, if Iran today is the geopolitical powerhouse that it is, Soleiman had a key role to play there. Washington focused on his adversarial activities. Tehran will remember his contribution to enhancing its power. And in that lie the seeds of a possible conflict over the man.