He died as a "martyr": Master of Iran’s intrigue killed by U.S. drones
The commander helped direct wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and he became the face of Iran’s efforts to build a regional bloc of Shiite power. He changed the shape of the Syrian civil war and tightened Iran’s grip on Iraq. He was behind hundreds of American deaths in Iraq and waves of militia attacks against Israel. And for two decades, his every move lit up the communications networks — and fed the obsessions — of intelligence operatives across the Middle East.
On Friday, January 3rd, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful and shadowy 62-year-old spymaster at the head of Iran’s security machinery, was killed by an American drone strike near the Baghdad airport.
Just as his accomplishments shaped the creation of a Shiite axis of influence across the Middle East, with Iran at the center, his death is now likely to prove central to a new chapter of geopolitical tension across the region.
General Suleimani was at the vanguard of Iran’s revolutionary generation, joining the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in his early 20s after the 1979 uprising that enshrined the country’s Shiite theocracy.
He rose quickly during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. And since 1998, he was the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ influential Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, melding intelligence work with a military strategy of nurturing proxy forces across the world.
In the West, he was seen as a clandestine force behind an Iranian campaign of international terrorism. He and other Iranian officials were designated as terrorists by the United States and Israel in 2011, accused of a plot to kill the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, one of Iran’s chief enemies in the region, in Washington.
Last year, in April, the entire Quds Force was listed as a foreign terrorism group by the Trump administration.
But in Iran, many saw him as a larger-than-life hero, particularly within security circles. Anecdotes about his asceticism and quiet charisma joined to create an image of a warrior-philosopher who became the backbone of a nation’s defense against a host of enemies.
He was close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who issued a statement calling for three days of public mourning and “forceful revenge,” in a declaration that amounted to a threat of retaliation against the United States.
“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” he said.
The first years of General Suleimani’s tenure in the late 1990s were devoted to directing the militant group Hezbollah’s effort against the Israeli military occupation of south Lebanon. General Suleimani, along with Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mugniyah, drove a sophisticated campaign of guerrilla warfare, combining ambushes, roadside bombs, suicide bombers, targeted killings of senior Israeli officers and attacks on Israeli defense posts.
At the end, the price for Israel was too high, and in May 2000 it withdrew from Lebanon, marking a major victory for General Suleimani, his Quds Force and Hezbollah.
The Arab Spring in the Middle East, and later the fight against the Islamic State, turned General Suleimani from a shadow figure into a major player in the geopolitics of the region, said Tamir Pardo, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
“Suleimani’s professional life can be divided into two periods,” he said. “Until the Arab Spring, he is commander of a force that has branches in various parts of the world, active mainly in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, but at the end of the day is a secret operational organization whose main purpose is terrorism.”
“From the shock that befell the Middle East following the rise of ISIS, he is changing course,” Mr. Pardo continued. “He becomes a kingpin regional player, knowing with great talent how to exploit the secret infrastructure he has established for so many years, to achieve noncovert objectives — to fight, to win, to establish presence.”
In recent years, the man whose face had rarely been seen became the face of Iran’s foreign operations.
In Syria, he oversaw a massive operation to shore up the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose own troops had been depleted by widespread defections and fierce fighting with rebels seeking to topple the government since 2011. His command of Arabic helped put local commanders at ease as he welded them into a support network for Mr. al-Assad.
Over a number of years, Iranian operatives guided by General Suleimani recruited militia fighters from countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, who were airlifted to Syria to back up Mr. Assad’s forces in key battles.
Many of these militia fighters received training at military bases in Iran or on the ground in Syria by operatives from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an organization General Suleimani had helped develop over the years.
When Iranian and Iranian-backed forces became major combatants against ISIS after the group took over roughly a third of Iraq in 2014, pictures of General Suleimani, often photographed on the battlefield in fatigues, began being widely shared on social media.
The publicity spawned rumors that General Suleimani was trying to widen his fame for a possible run for Iran’s presidency; he denied them, saying he always saw himself as just a soldier.
That conflict, from 2014 through 2017, was a rare instance of Iran and the United States nominally fighting on the same side. On a number of occasions, Americans were hitting Islamic State targets from the air while General Suleimani was directing ground forces against the militants.
It was unclear what direct role General Suleimani played in Yemen. But Iran’s patronage of the country’s Houthi rebels, which intensified when Saudi Arabia intervened against them in Yemen’s war in 2015, had all the hallmarks of the Suleimani playbook: above all, to support local militants as a way of expanding Iranian influence and punishing Saudi Arabia, the region’s Sunni power.
Iran had long offered similar support to the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, creating decades of new security headaches for Israel. And with the support of the Quds Force, Hamas was able to take over the Gaza Strip, capable of firing rockets that can reach into most of Israeli territory.
Previous American administrations had resisted striking General Suleimani directly, either because of operational concerns or out of fear that killing him could destabilize the region further and lead to all-out war between the United States and Iran.
At least once, though, Israeli officials ran the possibility of attacking him up their command structure. That was in February 2008, while Israeli and American intelligence operatives were tracking Mr. Mugniyah, the Hezbollah commander, in the hopes of killing him, according to senior American and Israeli intelligence officials. Operatives spotted the Hezbollah commander talking with another man, who they quickly determined was Mr. Suleimani.
Excited by the possibility of killing two archenemies at once, the Israelis phoned senior government officials. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied the request, as he had promised the Americans that only Mr. Mugniyah would be targeted in the operation.
Perhaps more than any other individual, General Suleimani was the foil for American plans in Iraq, which like Iran is predominantly Shiite.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Iranian militiamen and their Iraqi allies fought a clandestine war against American troops, launching rockets at bases and attacking convoys. The militias also played a large part in inflaming sectarian tensions that led to Iraq’s sectarian civil war in 2006 and 2007 between Shiites and Sunnis, leading President George W. Bush to order a troop surge there.
General Suleimani and other leaders of his generation were shaped by the brutal war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, a conflict so cruel, with trench warfare and chemical weapons, that some compared it to the devastation of World War I. Nearly a million people died on both sides, and General Suleimani spent much of that war on the front lines.
But on Friday, there was only praise and grief. Iranian officials across the political spectrum issued statements of condolences and condemned the United States.
The powerful Revolutionary Guards, of which the Quds Force is a component, said plans were underway for a huge public funeral.
“He was so big that he achieved his dream of being martyred by America,” wrote a reformist politician and former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi.
General Suleimani had received the country’s highest military honor, the Order of Zolfaghar, established in 1856 under the Qajar dynasty. He became the only military commander to receive the honor in the Islamic Republic.
Ayatollah Khamenei pinned the medal on General Suleimani’s chest last February, and in remarks that now seem prophetic, said: “The Islamic Republic needs him for many more years. But I hope that in the end, he dies as a martyr.”
General Suleimani, right, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at a religious ceremony in Tehran in 2015
Noch vor Kurzem hat er Donald Trump noch unverhohlen gedroht: Seine Al-Kuds-Brigaden und er selbst „sind dein Gegner, und wir gehen nachts nicht schlafen, ohne an dich zu denken. Wir sind immer in deiner Nähe, an Plätzen, an denen du uns nicht einmal erahnst“, sagte Ghassem Soleimani über den von ihm als „Nachtklubbesitzer“ und „Zocker“ verspotteten US-Präsidenten.
Nun hat der mächtigste Mann der Welt dem mächtigsten Milizenführer der Welt laut Angaben des Pentagons mit einem gezielten Drohnenangriff unweit des Flughafens in Iraks Hauptstadt Bagdad töten lassen. Die Aktion hat ungeahnte Folgen für die Region – und auch den Westen. Ajatollah Ali Chamenei, Irans Religions- und Revolutionsführer, hat bereits „schwere Rache“ für den gezielten Drohnenanschlag auf Soleimani geschworen.
Die Märkte spiegeln diese Sorge vor einem neuerlichen Nahostkrieg bereits wider: Der Ölpreis stieg auf den höchsten Wert seit September. Die Ölsorte Brent verteuerte sich um fast fünf Prozent auf fast 70 US-Dollar, die US-Ölsorte WTI stieg auf über 64 Dollar pro Fass. Es war der größte Tagesgewinn beim Öl seit den Attacken auf saudische Ölinfrastruktur im September vergangenen Jahres.
In der Vergangenheit hatte der Iran immer wieder damit gedroht, die Straße von Hormuz zu schließen. Durch die wichtigste Schifffahrtspassage des globalen Ölhandels wird ein Fünftel der täglichen Ölproduktion verschifft. Die USA und Saudi-Arabien haben den Iran immer wieder für Attacken auf Öltanker in der Region verantwortlich gemacht. Sollten die Iraner mit ihrer Drohung ernst machen, könnte ein bewaffneter Konflikt um die Meerenge ausbrechen.
Ice cream to the death
As news broke that the US struck and killed Qasem Soleimani, President Trump was dining at his Mar-a-Lago club, surrounded by old friends and others like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
As meatloaf and ice cream were served, the Pentagon confirmed that the US was behind the strikes, the only statement from the administration throughout the night.
Putting this airstrike in perspective: The scene Friday was similar to the one after Trump gave the order for American forces to carry out the missile strike on a Syrian airfield in the spring 2017.
After that strike, Trump went into great detail about the chocolate cake he had with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was there for a summit, when he informed him about the series of tomahawk missiles.
"I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you — this was during dessert,” Trump said at the time. “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing. Brilliant. It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius.”
"He was eating his cake and he was silent," the President added.
Trump later described it as "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen—and President Xi was enjoying it.”
Iran’s top security body, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), says the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani was the United States’ “greatest strategic mistake."
“America will not find an easy escape from being held to account for this miscalculation,” the SNSC added in a statement reported by Iran semiofficial news agency Fars News.
“These criminals will face the harsh revenge of those who seek it, in the appropriate time and place.”
The SNSC went on to say that it “has adopted the appropriate decisions and hereby announces that the regime of the United States of America will bear responsibility for all the consequences of this criminal adventurism."
The Iran deal and Europe
Anna Walker, director of Europe at the consultancy Control Risk, says the airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani will force the European Union to be "highly reluctant to be drawn into any military confrontation."
"European leaders have reiterated the need for a de-escalation of tensions in the region, and efforts are likely be under way behind the scenes to both craft a coordinated response to what is the first major foreign policy challenge for the new EU leadership and to use diplomatic channels to attempt to reduce the threat of escalation," Walker told CNN via email.
Walker added that Iran has a lot of flexibility about when and where to respond to Soleimani's death. It has previously conducted, directed or planned significant attacks in Europe (such as the 2012 Burgas airport bombing).
"Europe will want to distance itself from the strike partly to avoid blowback in the EU," Walker added.
"In addition, the strike could fatally undermine European efforts to uphold the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, potentially forcing it into more alignment with the US on sanctions if Iran expands nuclear enrichment activities.
Iran’s exit from the deal could trigger the automatic reimplementation of EU and UN sanctions (US sanctions have been reinstated), which may encourage Iran to continue to remain at least partly in the deal, while using other means to respond to US strikes."