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Published on November 25th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
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Meet the Iranian Karla: General Qasem Soleimani

“Soleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today, and no one’s ever heard of him”.  John Maguire former C.I.A. officer in Iraq in an interview with the New Yorker.

He is becoming one of the most talked about figures in the Middle East, but little is known about this shadowy man.  Major General Qasem Soleimani is chief commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and now one of the most feared men in the Middle East. Quds is the Arabic and Persian name for Jerusalem. The ‘Jerusalem Force’ specializes in irregular and asymmetrical warfare and according to some analysts is “one of the best special forces units in the world”.  The Quds force is not only responsible for fighting but also financing, training and spying on movements and countries abroad; it is a cross between the CIA or MI6 and the SAS. The unit is regarded as the one of the key guardians of the Islamic Republic and as such does not report directly to the Iranian President but to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Soleimani has been head of the unit for over 15-years and has built the Quds force into the feared and formidable force that it is today. A short-man of 5 foot 6 inches but well-built and muscular he is referred to as ‘Iran’s spymaster’ and is compared to John Le Carre’s Karla from ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by Washington. He was born on 11 March 1957 in Rabor village in Kerman province and his father is believed to be of Jewish heritage. His early years are described as rough and working-class; he was a peasant labourer who would move around from town to town looking for work and odd jobs. He then joined the Iranian army and was stationed in Northwest Iran and helped crush the Kurdish uprising. Then when the Iran-Iraq war broke out he took command of the southern front and is considered a hero by veterans; while many were running away from the front line, he was running towards it. Since then his forces have been engaged in covert warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan against U.S. and Western forces.

He helped to turn the Lebanese Hezbollah into a formidable fighting force. Hezbollah runs one of the most extensive and effective intelligence and counter-espionage operations in Lebanon, so much so that in 2011 they managed to expel the CIA from Lebanon. In 2006 when Israel attacked Lebanon, Hezbollah’s well-trained fighting units were able to repel Israeli forces; they often knew where Israeli force would be because they managed to get into Israeli internal communications. In 2012 they flew unmanned drones over Israel’s nuclear sites; all of this was made possible by Iranian support.

But Soleimani really came to the attention of Western forces in Iraq- he is believed to have created and trained different Iraqi militias and has many agents inside the Iraqi security forces. He exerts so much influence over the Iraqi government that he is believed by some to be secretly running the country. When the Guardian newspaper did an interview with the Iraqi state security minister, Sharwan Al-Waeli, they mentioned the name Qasem Soleimani and he started shaking and said “You mean Sayed Qasem Soleimani”. Sayed is an honorific title like referring to someone as Lord. One US official claimed that “He dictates terms then makes things happen and the Iraqis are left managing a situation that they had no input into.”   The US regards him as their chief nemesis that thwarts their plans in the Middle East.

There has been a desperate scratch for personal information on him by American officials and media. He is said to live an ordinary life in Tehran. He is married and has five children, although he has expressed concern over the behaviour of his daughter, Nargis, who lives in Malaysia and is quoted as saying “She is deviating from the ways of Islam”. He is also believed to have a back problem and is very dedicated to his wife, even taking her on his trips abroad (to the frontlines). However this is the extent of personal information the Americans have on him, despite Soleimani growing more important as he is extensively involved in Syria.

He is believed to have made a number of trips to Syria since the uprising began two and half years ago. He helped fund, arm and train Assad’s forces and help them device military strategies for dealing with the rebels. It is widely believed that it is Iran’s support which has kept the Assad regime’s forces from collapsing. Recently leaked video footage also shows Iranian forces actively engaged in combat in Syria. The U.S. has tried to prevent him from carrying out operations and has added him to a list of individuals who are financially under sanctions- but they have little idea of his movements or financial assets. Reuters recently published three articles about the off-the-books financial assets of the Iranian Supreme Leader and members of the Revolutionary Guard. Their assets are estimated to be worth £60 billion and from this they are able to fund numerous projects- which have included pumping £7 billion into Syria since the uprising began.

Soleimani is a small piece of the jigsaw, but he occupies an important place on the board. To figure out what he is doing is to figure out what Iran is doing. But most importantly, the lack of information on him also demonstrates the limits of mass spy-programmes such as PRISM run by the NSA. The chief argument behind the necessity of the programme was to stop people like him from operating, and as far as we can see this has failed. It remains to be seen what will happen in Syria, but the fight will be a long one.


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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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