He is well-known as the Middle East’s deadliest and Iran’s most dangerous man. He prioritizes offensive tactics and operations over defensive ones, and rejoices in taking overconfident selfies with his troops and proxies in battlefields in many countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
When it comes to authority, he is Iran’s second man after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Being a staunchly loyal confidante to Khamenei, Qassem Soleimani has great influence over foreign policy.
By exploiting Iran’s 1979 revolution, and by proving his loyalty and determination to advance its revolutionary principles by any means — including brute force or war — Soleimani rose from being a construction worker in Kerman to his current position in a short period of time. For nearly two decades, he has been the head of Iran’s Quds Force.
He was previously sanctioned by the US, Switzerland and the UN Security Council via Resolution 1747. The US formerly designated the Quds Force a supporter of terrorism. He was also on America’s Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.
Despite all this, and although his actions qualify him to be among the world’s top global terrorists, Soleimani is operating freely, violating sanctions and traveling. More importantly, he is more powerful than ever.
Soleimani was not boasting when he wrote in a message to US Gen. David Petraeus: “You should know that I… control policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. The ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.”
The Quds Force is a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is the most important military and revolutionary organization, and is officially tasked with exporting Iran’s ideological, religious and revolutionary principles beyond the country’s borders.
Soleimani is in charge of extraterritorial operations, including organizing, supporting, training, arming and financing predominantly Shiite militia groups; launching wars directly or indirectly via these proxies; fomenting unrest in other nations to advance Iran’s ideological and hegemonic interests; attacking and invading cities and countries; and assassinating foreign political figures and powerful Iranian dissidents worldwide.
Under his leadership, the Quds Force has been accused of failed plans to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in the US, and to assassinate then-Saudi Ambassador to the US Adel Al-Jubeir. An investigation revealed that the Quds Force was also behind the assassination of Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
It was also implicated in the 9/11 attacks. US Federal Judge George Daniels issued an order stating that Iran, its Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda were jointly responsible for the terrorist attacks.
The Quds Force fomented unrest in Iraq, providing deadly, sophisticated bombs such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that killed many civilians and non-civilians, including Iraqis and Americans.
Soleimani rules over roughly 20,000 Quds Force members. However, it can also use forces from the IRGC and Basij in case of emergencies. In addition, Soleimani technically commands fighters from militias that Iran supports and helped create. He also hires fighters from many countries, including Afghanistan, to fight as proxies.
The difference between Soleimani and Bin Laden is that Soleimani operates under the ‘legitimacy’ of a state and government institution. As a result, no matter how much his actions might be more widespread and harmful, he gets away with it.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
So in actuality, Soleimani commands at least 150,000 militants, many designated as terrorists and belonging to designated terrorist groups. This is why Iran has been repeatedly ranked as the top state sponsor of terrorism by the US State Department.
Based on my research, there are more than 250 terrorist groups worldwide, with different religious and sociopolitical backgrounds. Roughly 25 percent of them are funded, trained or supported by only one entity, the Quds Force.
The Quds Force has made alliances with non-Shiite terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Its links to Al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks are overwhelming. Iran provided “safe harbor for some Al-Qaeda leaders,” said a European intelligence analyst. “The (Quds) Force’s senior leaders have longstanding ties to Al-Qaeda, and since the fall of Afghanistan, have provided some Al-Qaeda leaders with travel documents and safe haven.”
This explains why terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda have never attacked Iran. Christopher Harmer, a former aviator in the US Navy in the Gulf, told the New York Times that Soleimani is “a more stately version of Osama Bin Laden.”
The difference between Soleimani and people such as Bin Laden or Daesh’s Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is that Soleimani operates under the “legitimacy” of a state and government institution. As a result, no matter how much his actions might be more widespread and harmful, he gets away with it.
In almost every country and conflict in the region, Soleimani appears to play a destabilizing role in order to advance Tehran’s hegemonic and ideological interests, and to tip the regional balance of power in its favor.
He and the Quds Force have infiltrated top security, political, intelligence and military infrastructures in several nations, including Syria and Iraq. He chooses which foreign leaders and politicians to rule, and he has operatives and agents worldwide.
The Quds Force has also given birth to many designated terrorist groups, including Asaib Al-Haq and Kataib Al-Imam Ali (KIA), which use horrific tactics similar to Daesh. KIA is known for showing videos of beheadings and burning bodies, and Asaib Al-Haq reportedly receives some $2 million a month from Iran.
Many people see the blood of innocents — including Syrian, Yemeni, Lebanese, Bahraini and Iraqi children and women — on Soleimani’s hands. He is responsible for deaths in many countries in the region and beyond.
He has declared that the unrest and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa “provide our (Iran’s) revolution with the greatest opportunities… Today, Iran’s victory or defeat no longer takes place in Mehran and Khorramshahr. Our boundaries have expanded, and we must witness victory in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. This is the fruit of the Islamic revolution.”
Meticulous, nuanced examination of Soleimani’s background and activities reveal that he is an overconfident, brazen, brutal general who prioritizes offensive military operations and deployment of hard power over defensives tactics.
He is not a common general who solely focuses on military strategies. He is also an ideologue and revolutionary general who frequently expresses support for, and loyalty to, Iran’s revolutionary Shiite values and the supreme leader.
Spreading ideology via hard power
While some Iranian politicians believe their country should wield power via its ideology, Soleimani thinks it should spread its ideology via hard power. His strategies and military tactics include influencing the sociopolitical and socioeconomic processes of Arab countries via the Quds Force by supporting and assisting in establishing militias in several countries.
Soleimani does not just seek to take military control or increase Tehran’s influence in Arab countries. His other fundamental objective is to spread the revolutionary ideologies of Iran and the supreme leader via military interventions, scuttling US and Israeli policies in the region, and damaging the national security of other regional powers. From his perspective, this ideological objective can be best achieved by making alliances and strengthening militia or terrorist groups across the region.
The international community should hold Soleimani and the Quds Force accountable. Countries, including the US, should take unilateral action against both. Charges of crimes against humanity should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC). UN Security Council sanctions should be pursued.
The nuclear deal has provided financial, strategic and geopolitical opportunities for Soleimani. Attempts should be made to block those opportunities. Countering Soleimani and the Quds Force via robust methods, such as political pressure and financial sanctions, can be a very powerful tool to curtail Iran’s regional meddling.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.