Qassem Suleimani: a CEO tasked with spreading Iran's influence across the Middle East

The Quds Force commander was unparalleled in exploiting sectarian seams throughout the region, which allowed the regime in Tehran to promote its friends and destroy its opponents
(FILES) In this file handout photo released on March 27, 2015 by the official website of the Centre for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shows him (C) with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani (3rd from R), attending a religious ceremony in Tehran to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the daughter of Prophet Mohammed. Top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US strike on Baghdad's international airport on January 3, 2020, Iraq's powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force has said, in a dramatic escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran. / AFP / KHAMENEI.IR / HO

In a 2017 documentary, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis – head of Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah who was killed in a US airstrike outside Baghdad's airport on Friday – revealed the details of a pivotal encounter with the Iranian leadership more than three decades ago.

The eight-year Iran-Iraq War had ended in 1988, and then Iranian president Ali Khamenei had gathered Al Muhandis and other leaders of the Tehran-aligned political group Badr Organisation to announce that they still had a “major role” to play in Iraq’s future. The Iraqis, in the doldrums of battlefield defeat, were disbelieving. “We were amazed, what role did he mean?” Al Muhandis recalled.

Fast forward to two years ago and it was clear that Iran-backed militias – collectively known as Popular Mobilisation Forces or Hashd Al Shaabi – were the dominant entity in Iraq, having been instrumental in defeating ISIS. “Most of this Hashd are Badrists,” Al Muhandis said, vindicating the prophecy of Khamenei, who is Iran's supreme leader today.

Killed alongside Al Muhandis was Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force, a unit in Iran's paramilitary militia called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. Often described as head of the overseas arm of the IRGC, Suleimani was a figure who transcended his official title. He was essentially CEO to Khamenei's chairman of the board, with his task being to deliver a network of political and military influence across the Middle East on behalf of Tehran.

Suleimani, 62, acted like no other Iranian official. He appeared unchecked by the regime’s collectivist ethos and, like a corporate titan, constantly toured the operations. He drew feedback from the ground, ordering materiel and resources according to frontline needs. In unexpected encounters, he would give on-the-spot guidance to foot soldiers.

Co-opting the tools of social media and propaganda television, Suleimani published pictures of himself – scarf often tied around his neck – as a man of action addressing the troops.

There were touches of the Roman commander about how he operated. One anecdote said that he had a message delivered in 2007 to General David Petraeus, then architect of the US surge in Iraq, that said: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.”

Yet it was not until October 2011 that the US department of treasury acted to impose sanctions on this most high-profile nemesis operating across the region.

People gather at the funeral of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, top commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, and the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in Baghdad, Iraq, January 4, 2020. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili

The elimination of such a Machiavellian figure prompts questions over the unravelling of his web of intrigue. Suleimani was unparalleled in exploiting sectarian seams throughout the Middle East, which allowed Iran to promote its friends and destroy its opponents.

As Al Muhandis attested, the foundations of Iran's strategy to spread its "revolution" across the region predated the emergence of this flamboyant frontman. Tehran's initial focus was to nurture Iraq-based Badr Organisation and orchestrate the rise of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

In a survey last year about Iran’s regional networks, London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) pinpointed the country's role in growing Hezbollah from disparate parts of the local Shiite community into a cohesive force. With Iranian encouragement, Hezbollah’s alignment with Palestinian aspirations was quickly transmuted into national and regional ambitions. Hezbollah became a test bed for the Iranian project, developing its own fund-raising capabilities, an active propaganda arm and offensive operational capacity.

The cast list of Iranians dispatched to Beirut to work with Hezbollah included many who were eventually killed in action or simply disappeared, such as Ahmad Motevaselian, who has not been seen since 1982. Despite these setbacks, Hezbollah was increasingly unchallenged in Lebanon over time and its commanders soon looked beyond its borders.

A United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) armoured vehicle is parked under a portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on a side road in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Kila near the border with Israel on January 3, 2020. Following this morning's killing of Iranian commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani, Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement called for the missile strike by Israel's closest ally, to be avenged. "Meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins... will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide," Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.
 / AFP / Ali DIA

The second phase in Tehran’s project came about after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which provided an opening for the regime to implant allies such as Al Muhandis into fledgling state institutions while allowing Suleimani to show his spurs as a power broker. Alongside Badr veterans was a raft of new faces funded and trained to form militias. Qais Al Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, told US interrogators how “special groups” were created – largely separate from the Badr commanders – after a 2003 meeting with Khamenei, Suleimani and others.

Hezbollah was drafted in as an enabler. Al Khazali, who participated in the storming of the American embassy in Baghdad last week, had in 2007 been arrested by the US-led coalition along with Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq.

The war in Syria provided another chapter for the Suleimani playbook. He publicised his landings in the Al Assad stronghold in Latakia and other frontlines from 2012 onwards. Before he was killed in 2015, Hossein Hamdani – another general in the IRGC – boasted that efforts to create a "Syrian Hezbollah" had borne fruit.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the IRGC was working to revive its links with the Houthi militias, first established when Badreddin Al Houthi sought sanctuary from the regime in 1979.

With hot battles under way in so many places across the region, Suleimani openly traversed it by air and along the Iranian land bridge across Iraq. One chart in the IISS report records dozens of trips made by Suleimani outside of Iran since 2014, including three to Moscow.

But with Suleimani dead, it is now left to Khamenei – as chairman of the board – to adjust for the loss of its charismatic CEO. As he knows well though, the loss of key personnel is a running feature of its recent history.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National

Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.