Shortly after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, 22-year-old Soleimani joined the IRGC, which was founded in May of that year to provide Iran’s nascent revolutionary government an armed basis of support and defend against domestic and external threats to the Islamic Revolution. Recalling this period, Soleimani once told an interviewer, “We were all young and wanted to serve the revolution in a way. This is how I joined the Guards.” Soleimani received only about six weeks of formalized military training, but rapidly thrived in his new role and was designated as an instructor, beginning an unlikely ascent that would culminate with him becoming Iran’s most influential military official.
Soleimani attained his first frontline battlefield experience when his unit was dispatched to Iran’s Western Azerbaijan region to quell a Kurdish separatist uprising. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, catalyzing the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Soleimani was initially dispatched back to Kerman province to train troops, but soon was redirected to the front lines, where he volunteered to spend extra time and gained renown for his battlefield exploits and bravery. Soleimani’s initial mission was simply to supply water to the men at the front, but he ended up taking part in most of the war’s key front-line battles, “from the retaking of Bostan in December 1981 to the invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1987, during which Saddam’s forces attacked his unit with chemical weapons, to the climactic expedition to the al-Faw Peninsula in April 1988, whose failure helped precipitate the ceasefire that ended the war,” according to former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan.
The brutal Iran-Iraq War was characterized by the Iranian regime’s disregard for its own soldier’s lives on the battlefield, as exemplified by its “human wave” assaults, where thousands of fighters, many of them minors, would storm Iraqi lines, often to clear minefields, with staggering losses of life. Soleimani, by contrast, developed a reputation for looking after the welfare of his fellow fighters. He would reportedly return from reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines with live goats with which to feed his unit, earning him the admiring nickname “the goat thief.” He was soon placed in command of a brigade of conscripts from Kerman due to his battlefield prowess. Before battles, he would reportedly embrace each man in his unit and bid them goodbye, and on occasion he would be viscerally affected by large losses of lives of his men. Soleimani was reportedly wounded at least once during the conflict, and his cousin, Ahmad, who he was close to, died in combat in October 1984. Soleimani at times would criticize superiors for seemingly having no plan to win the war and for the lives cost by their wastefulness, but despite his insubordination, he was promoted to division commander while still in his mid-twenties.
Soleimani emerged from the Iran-Iraq War as a decorated and highly respected war hero who began to attract attention from the higher echelons of the Iranian regime. He was photographed during this period at the right-hand of then president and current supreme leader Ali Khamenei, planting the seeds for a relationship that has been central to Soleimani’s rise within the Islamic Republic.
Following the war, Soleimani became a commissioned officer of the IRGC with the rank of brigadier general. Soleimani became part of a network of IRGC officers whose hardline worldviews were shaped by the Iran-Iraq War and who remain part of Iran’s military elite to the present day. In particular, the conflict reinforced this network’s enmity toward the U.S. and the West, which they viewed as implacably hostile to Iran and responsible for backing Saddam Hussein in the conflict and supplying him with chemical weapons which he deployed against their fighters. Another major takeaway from the war for Soleimani and his cadre was an aversion to head-to-head combat. As a result, Iran increasingly turned toward asymmetrical, proxy warfare and terrorism to confront its adversaries, strategies that Soleimani would deploy to great effect as the commander of the Quds Force.