Who is General Qassim Suleimani?
General Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran's elite, paramilitary Quds Force, is one of the most powerful players in the Middle East today, responsible, in part, for Tehran's regional ascendency in recent decades. And yet, the tactful military man remains relatively unknown in the West.
Who is General Qassim Suleimani? The 62-year-old father of five is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980's. Unlike other Iranian leaders, Suleimani didn't have a religious education and isn't known to have participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that installed Iran's current Shiite theocracy. Suleimani started out as a young construction worker and later a water technician, but after showing his knack for military strategy on the battlefront was named head of the Quds Force in 1998, rising through the ranks to become one of the country's most prominent military figures. He's also one of the people closest to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
What is Iran's Quds Force? It's an elite paramilitary and spy unit that operates outside Iran to extend the country's political influence across the Middle East. The Quds Force is the de facto "external affairs" branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) – a military force established during the revolution that controls much of Iran's economy and plays a major role overseeing Tehran's foreign policy. In commanding these special forces, Suleimani is the vanguard of Iran's alliance with armed groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and a coalition of militia in Iraq.
What does Suleimani want? His ultimate goal is the creation of a land corridor – from Tehran to Lebanon, and the Mediterranean shores through Iraq and Syria – to facilitate arms transfers to Shiite allies as a bulwark against rival Sunni factions. Destroying its foe, Israel, is also central to achieving this "corridor," also known as the Shiite Crescent.
Under Suleimani's direction, Iran has bolstered the militant and political group Hezbollah as a means of perpetrating attacks against Israel and US military targets, and has maintained a network of cells across Europe. Through military interventions in places like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Iran has helped boost Hezbollah's regional power: it now boasts seasoned militia fighters and an arsenal of over 100,000 missiles and rockets.
After shoring up the Assad regime in Syria, Suleimani used Quds Force bases in that war-torn country to crack down on dissent and rebel groups, consolidating Tehran's military footprint in that strategic territory.
In Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 paved the way for Suleimani to foster ties with both the Shia-led Iraqi government and Iraq's Shia militia groups, previous long-time rivals. While Western governments were slow to respond as ISIS swept through northern Iraq, Suleimani was quick to prop up militias that helped to defeat the terror group and then turned those battlefield victories into political power: a coalition of these groups led by a local warlord controls the second largest bloc in Iraq's parliament.
Looking ahead: General Qassim Suleimani has also become a central player in Iran's domestic politics, polled last year as the country's most favorable public figure. And there have been rumours about whether he wants to be president of Iran. But in the short term, he has more urgent challenges in Iraq and Lebanon to worry about.