Muhammad Osama Asghar is currently pursuing a Masters's degree in Geographical Information Systems and Remote Sensing from NUST, Islamabad. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Geophysics from Bahria University, Islamabad.
The Death of a Soldier
General Qasem Soleimani, the Shadow Commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike on 3rd January 2020. Soleimani, regarded as one of the most powerful men not only in Iran but in the entire Middle East, was an influential and charismatic individual. Raised in the outskirts of Kerman and influenced by martial arts, how Soleimani managed to rise above the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. (IRGC) is an interesting account.
Arash Azizi narrates the life of General Qasem Soleimani in his book “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran’s Global Ambitions”. Azizi sheds some light on the early life of Soleimani, how he struggled in his early days, how he became an adherent of Imam Khomeini in an Iran that was ruled by the Shah, a Western ally, and how he rose to the rank of General in the IRGC.
Azizi further describes how Iran emerged as a major player in Middle Eastern politics after the Persian Gulf War. Tehran’s ambitions regarding nuclear technology and its rivalry with Saudi Arabia led to some complicated decisions that were made by the Islamic clergy in Iran. Azizi states that these tough decisions were executed with absolute precision by Soleimani.
This book was published in 2020 and it is a brilliant piece of writing for students who thrive to understand the puppet-masters behind proxy conflicts in the Middle East. The book also ponders upon the Iranian foreign policy regarding the United States and Israel while simultaneously narrating the internal political struggle between the ruling elites in Tehran.
Azizi writes that an ominous hashtag started trending on Twitter globally on the evening of 2 January 2020 in New York and already the morning after in the Middle East. “The new decade,” he says, “was off to a stormy start.” The cause for this hashtag was a drone strike in the capital city of Iraq, Baghdad, that had taken the lives of ten people. The target for this drone attack was not an ordinary man, no. It was the most powerful man in the Middle East, Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani.
His body was identified by a severed arm that had his signature amulet ring on it. The news of his assassination shook the foundations of Iran’s ruling entity as he was considered to be the second most influential man in Iran after the Supreme Leader. A close friend of Imam Khamenei, Soleimani had safeguarded Iran’s interests abroad via IRGC’s external operations wing, Quds Force, for decades—and now he was no more.
A Boy on the Periphery
In the Shadow Commander, Arash Azizi states that Soleimani was born amid the Cold War when Presidents and Prime Ministers were being ousted or assassinated. Qasem opened his eyes on 11th March 1957 in a small pastoral land of Qanat Molk. Qanat Molk, a few hours of drive from Kerman city, is home to Bedouin tribes that had settled there a long time ago. Qanat Molk’s population was only a few dozen families that all shared a common surname, Soleimani (as in the descendants of Prophet Solomon).
Cold War and Iran
Azizi further describes Iran’s internal struggles in the light of the Cold War. He says that it was a dark time for politicians, the West-leaning leaders were being targeted by the KGB, while the East-leaning politicians were being targeted by the CIA. In 1952, Tehran had appointed Dr. Mossadegh as a democratically-elected Prime Minister. Mossadegh, though not an adherent of Communism, was portrayed to be by the British Intelligence agencies.
Spooked by the analysis and assessment reports of the MI6, the CIA launched a covert operation to overthrow Mossadegh in 1953 and appointed Raza Shah Pahlavi as the new ruler of Iran. This ousting of the Prime Minister left a dent in the Iranian population as the Shah’s adherence to Western culture and violent suppression of opposition via his secret police service, SAVAK, tormented the Persian culture and people, respectively. This oppression of people by the Shah pushed them towards the charismatic personality of Imam Khomeini.
Young Man in the City
Azizi writes that during the time of Shah, Japanese films were very popular among the Iranian youth. Young Soleimani found himself interested in karate via these films as he settled in the city of Kerman to find work at construction sites to pay off his father’s agriculture debts. Later, he would end up working as a contractor for a water organization.
Qasem joined a nearby gym and learned various techniques of karate and martial arts while developing a devotion towards Islam. He started visiting the mosque daily and frequently attended the sermons of Hojjat Kamyab, who was the protégé of Imam Khomeini.
War Makes a Man
In 1979, when the call for a revolution was given by Imam Khomeini, Soleimani answered that call and joined the newly-formed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. He rose through the ranks with exceptional speed, considering he had no prior military experience. Iran was just reforming itself when Saddam Hussain launched a military offensive in 1980, marking the start of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War.
This war gave Soleimani a chance to prove his worth as he was given command of a company comprised of Kermanis whom he had chosen and trained himself. He was quickly recognized by his superiors and deemed as a brave officer for his successful operations despite sustaining heavy injuries in various battles.
Soleimani’s engagement in operations deep within Iraqi territories led him to establish connections between various rebel groups like the Shia Badr Organization in Iraq and Kurdish militias. Using these two organizations, Soleimani launched a series of irregular warfare operations against Saddam Hussain that shifted the equilibrium of the war in the favour of Iran.
Moreover, Azizi has written about the times when Soleimani was deployed in the southern province of Iran, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, his main challenge was opium trafficking across the borders. Soleimani successfully and singlehandedly took down various drug cartels residing in the Baluchistan region of Iran. He frequently paid visits to Afghanistan and crossed borders undetected. This would later earn him the title of “The Shadow Commander”.
The Quds Force
Soleimani, now decorated as a brilliant and courageous officer, was appointed to IRGC’s external operations wing, the Quds Force. Quds Force is associated with guarding and promoting Iranian interests abroad. Soleimani’s ability to cross borders, establish contacts, and negotiate ceasefires paved the way for his rise within the Quds Force.
Arash Azizi describes the connections between various military organizations operating in the Middle East that worked closely with Qasem Soleimani from Syria to Yemen and from Yemen to Afghanistan. In Iraq, Soleimani kept his contacts with Badr Organization, Kurdish militias, and the Mehdi Army, while in Lebanon he worked closely with Hezbollah and supported Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine, arming them with rockets and finances.
In Yemen, Soleimani played a pivotal role in erecting the armed resistance known as the Houthis, a Shia organization that is fighting the GCC-appointed leadership in Sanaa. Moreover, Arash Azizi says that he worked with Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad to suppress the rebellious element. In Afghanistan, he struggled to safeguard the interests of the Shia Hazara population amid the Taliban surge.
The Shadow Commander
Soleimani created various politico-military bevies all across the Middle East to promote Iranian interests and ideologies. He supported the aggressive diplomacy of Iran amid the nuclear talks with military coercion on the ground. In 2007 and 2008, Soleimani spoke with General David Petraeus via Iraqi conduit and gave him a message that still reverberates in the Middle East.
“General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qasem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran concerning Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member as well.”
Soleimani later became a target for Israel and the US when he decided to reveal his face and go public. Before that, he was only known as The Shadow Commander but now, he became a target for different intelligence agencies from MOSSAD to MI6 to the CIA.
Soleimani, in his concluding years, increased his social activities and even decided to run for President in 2021. However, he was taken out on the 3rd of January, 2020 in a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport. The funeral was one of the largest seen in Iran where the Supreme Leader vowed to avenge his fallen soldier.
Azizi has not only narrated the biography of General Soleimani but also poked through the revolutionary history of Iran while describing the foreign policy, interests, objectives, and internal power struggle that still affects Tehran. Overall, this book provides an insight into the origins of proxy conflict in the Middle East, the details of the militias and their affiliations, while simultaneously unravelling the foreign policy contours of Iran. This book is a great read for students who are interested in Middle Eastern conflicts, history, International Relations, and geopolitics.
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