It is almost a year since Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani (11 March 1957 – 3 January 2020) was killed in a US drone attack near Baghdad International Airport. His final months were apparently characterised by his growing arrogance and unshakeable power: "Soleimani now often spoke in a threatening fashion to all," writes Arash Azizi in his new book The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran's Global Ambitions. But who was Soleimani and how did he become so powerful?
This is what Azizi explores in his book. The Iranian journalist and historian based at New York University offers an intriguing insight into an enigmatic man who was both admired and reviled. His killing by the Americans shocked many. As Azizi puts it, "He moved seamlessly across borders, as if he could be present in more than one place at the same time. The shadow commander had been a man without a shadow. But now he was merely a mutilated corpse."
Born in the village of Qanat-e Malek in Iran's Kerman province in 1957, Soleimani's childhood was characterised by a lack of money and opportunities. His family benefited from the Shah's White Revolution and land reforms which enabled them to buy a plot of land, but the government's poor implementation of the scheme saw the family get into heavy debt, which scarred them. The teenage Soleimani was forced to leave home and seek employment elsewhere, notably in the construction industry. He discovered martial arts while living in the provincial capital; this transformed his life.
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It was while he was in Kerman that Soleimani experienced the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He played no notable role in the uprising, but his karate and bodybuilding would later bring him to the attention of the newly-formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). When, in 1980, Iraq invaded its neighbour Iran, the young Soleimani went from gym enthusiast to soldier; within a few short years he was leading military operations.
The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years and was a disaster for both countries, with a military defeat for Iran. Unlike many who gladly left the army as soon as the war was over, though, Soleimani stayed on, even though he was relieved that the fighting was finished. He was redeployed to deal with terrorism, smuggling and the drug war and his ability to understand and recruit Balochi tribesmen would further bolster his growing reputation.
I think that Azizi could have explored the 1990s in even more detail, as I believe that the model that Soleimani would later develop in Iraq and Syria was formulated during the border wars with Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Azizi provides interesting details and important general background, I believe that he could have gone further.
In 1998 Qasem Soleimani was appointed to lead the IRGC's Quds Force, but it was not until 2001 that the unit was dedicated to thwarting US plans in the Middle East. As Azizi points out, that year's 11 September terrorist attacks brought Tehran into line with Washington. Iran believed that it would explore cooperation in the war on terror with the Americans but, surprisingly, Washington declared the Islamic Republic to be part of the "Axis of Evil".
"Soleimani's Quds Force was now given free rein by both the Supreme Leader and the president to do all it could to disrupt the Americans' plans," writes Azizi. "The Americans only understood the language of force, Khamenei's thinking went. They had to be hit."
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and 2011 Syrian revolution would show what Soleimani was capable of. He grew steadily into the most powerful man in Iran after the Supreme Leader and answered directly to him. Powerful politicians, including the Iranian president, were relatively powerless next to him and his growing celebrity won him many admirers at home, even among those who despised the ruling regime.
"In February , when Syria's Bashar Assad visited Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif failed to be invited to his meetings with Rouhani and Khamenei," says the author. "The whole thing had been arranged by Soleimani as if Iran didn't have a foreign minister anymore."
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Major General Soleimani's ability to marginalise government figures was coupled with his growing political ambitions. Azizi argues that had Donald Trump not ordered his assassination, Soleimani would have run for president in 2021. His killing has left a massive void which his successor has so far been unable to fill.
Aziz does not pay much attention to Soleimani's personal life. Towards the end of the book, though, we learn that his daughter Zeinab has emerged as the public face of the family and seems to have political ambitions of her own.
While I enjoyed this book, I found the sections dealing with Qasem Soleimani's role in Syria to be disappointingly thin; a lot more could have been done in this respect. Nevertheless, Arash Azizi has written an important book about one of the Middle East's most charismatic and powerful men in recent years. I look forward to seeing more written about the IRGC and Soleimani, for which The Shadow Commander… will be a valuable source. Written for a general audience with no particular background knowledge about Iranian politics, it will stimulate discussions outside the usual foreign policy class circles.