Iran’s evolving threat perception played an important role in Soleimani’s promotion to Quds Force commander in late 1997 or early 1998. Iraq, the major proximate threat to Iran since the founding of the Islamic Republic, was effectively neutralized following the Gulf War and subsequent imposition of international sanctions. In neighboring civil war-torn Afghanistan, meanwhile, the extremist Sunni jihadist movement, the Taliban, rose to power in 1996, backed by Iranian geopolitical rivals Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The emergence of the Taliban government, which was inimical to Iranian interests, stood as the major looming challenge on the horizon.
Soleimani’s background fighting against Kurdish separatists early in his career and pacifying the drug crisis along Iran’s Afghan border familiarized him with navigating tribal societies and Afghanistan. This made him an attractive candidate to lead the Quds Force as Iran reoriented its focus toward containing the rising Taliban threat.
During the Afghan Civil War, Iran defensively sought to cultivate military and political influence in Afghanistan by backing elements hostile to the Taliban with ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic affinities toward Iran, namely Shia ethnic Hazaras in the West of the country and Persian-speaking Tajiks in the North who formed the core of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, more commonly referred to as the “Northern Alliance.” Iran’s backing of minority elements placed it at an inherent disadvantage, as the Taliban drew its support base from Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, which comprised two-thirds of the population.
In August of 1998, the Taliban escalated tensions with Iran following its capture of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a cosmopolitan and diverse city with a large Shia Hazara population. The Taliban brutalized the town’s Hazaras, raping and massacring hundreds. Amidst the chaos, Taliban soldiers besieged an Iranian consulate and executed nine Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist.
The incident was the first major crisis of Soleimani’s tenure. Iran’s response was characterized by bluster tempered with caution. Iranian political leaders vowed revenge for the deaths at gatherings punctuated by chants of “Death to the Taliban.” The IRGC issued a televised statement that, “The Taliban and the main agents responsible for this horrific crime must know that they shall never be immune to the tumultuous anger of the Islamic corps.” Iran had 70,000 IRGC troops already stationed at the Afghan border to defend against spillover from the conflict next door. They immediately began undertaking war games both to signal a potential looming offensive and deter against further Taliban provocations.
Two months after the killings, Iran amassed 200,000 additional conventional troops near the Afghan border in Sistan and Baluchestan province for a parade of Iranian military hardware and to conduct live-fire military exercises and war games in conjunction with the IRGC forces stationed there. Iran warned that it planned on maintaining the troops following the war games to defend Iran’s national security, a move that would represent a severe escalation of tensions. As demands for retaliation grew, IRGC Commander-in-Chief Safavi drew up operational plans and requested Supreme Leader Khamenei’s permission to advance two IRGC divisions to Afghanistan’s Shia stronghold of Herat as a base from which to “annihilate, punish, eliminate them [the Taliban] and return.”
Soleimani – averse to direct confrontation and heavy Iranian casualties – intervened and helped defuse the crisis, coming up with an alternate plan that involved ramping up Iran’s backing of the Northern Alliance rather than fighting the Taliban directly. Soleimani reportedly played a personal role in directing the Northern Alliance’s operations from Tajikistan, where the Tajik-dominated group had established bases from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan and coordinate resupply of its fighters. In thwarting a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, Soleimani established a template that would resurface consistently throughout his career, using a light Iranian footprint while bolstering indigenous forces and thereby maximizing Iran’s political and military influence for minimal expenditure and exposure.
Afghanistan’s Taliban government provided Al Qaeda safe haven for its terrorist operations in the mid-1990s and the group took advantage of the vast terrorist infrastructure, including training camps, which were left in place from the era of the global jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1999, the CIA authorized covert assistance to the Northern Alliance to facilitate operations against the growing Al Qaeda threat, an unusual instance of Iran and the U.S. independently backing a guerilla movement albeit for different ends. After the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, America turned its sights on Afghanistan’s Taliban government, a welcome development for Iran. Despite the enmity between the Islamic Republic and the United States dating back to the Islamic Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, Soleimani evinced pragmatism, seizing the opportunity to leverage American military might to neutralize a more proximate and pressing adversary—a trend that the region would witness later in the effort to crush the Islamic State in Iraq.
In the month between the attack and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Ambassador Ryan S. Crocker, then a senior U.S. State Department official, conducted several rounds of shuttle diplomacy with Iranian negotiators in Geneva to facilitate cooperation in confronting the Taliban. The talks were carried out in secret, as the U.S. and Iran had severed diplomatic relations after the hostage crisis. According to Crocker, the Iranian emissaries answered to Soleimani, who effectively controlled Iran’s Afghan portfolio. With Soleimani’s backing, Iran’s negotiators encouraged the U.S. to begin kinetic operations in Afghanistan and handed over intelligence detailing Taliban positions to target during the early stages of the conflict. Iran, meanwhile, kept up its role supplying and training Northern Alliance fighters.
The U.S.-led invasion commenced on October 7, 2001 and by November, Kabul fell and the Taliban government collapsed. In December, the United Nations staged an international conference in Bonn, Germany bringing together numerous Afghan factions. As one of the primary backers of the Northern Alliance, Iran played a major diplomatic role in achieving the December 5 Bonn agreement, which installed Hamid Karzai as interim administration head and led to the formation of an international peacekeeping force to maintain stability in Afghanistan.
The confluence of shared U.S.-Iranian interests in this period occurred during the administration of Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate who sought a reduction of tensions and cultural exchanges between Iran and the U.S., although not a full political and diplomatic restoration of ties. One of the Iranian interlocutors in the secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations revealed to Crocker that Soleimani, pleased with the cooperation, had been considering, at great political risk as he was not yet the revered figure he would later become, a reevaluation of Iran’s ties with the U.S. More conservative figures within Iran, including Supreme Leader Khamenei, were cautiously on board with allying with the U.S. toward the limited tactical end of confronting the Taliban, but remained skeptical of U.S. motives. Soleimani posited that even if the U.S. ended up betraying Iran after the shared objective of defeating the Taliban were complete, it was still a win-win for Iran, as their enemy would be defeated, and America would end up entangled in Afghanistan, similar to the Soviet Union. “Americans do not know the region, Americans do not know Afghanistan, Americans do not know Iran,” warned Soleimani.
The betrayal that Soleimani and others in the Iranian leadership anticipated came to pass in President George W. Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address, when he labeled Iran, along with Iraq, as part of an “axis of evil.” The proclamation caught Iran off-guard, and dashed the spirit of cooperation that had characterized the first stage of the war. With the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s threat perception changed as the U.S. was no longer the distant “Great Satan,” but a proximate threat with an expanding military footprint in the region that had toppled two neighboring governments and was ultimately bent on Iranian regime change.
As such, Iran’s primary objectives in Afghanistan shifted toward ensuring that the country remained sufficiently weak as to preclude a further military threat toward it, and imposing costs on the U.S. to compel its withdrawal. Paradoxically, Tehran had a compelling interest in a stable, albeit weakened, Afghanistan to prevent terrorism and the drug trade from spilling over its borders. To that end, Iran pursued foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and assistance in the fields of infrastructure, agriculture, energy, and communications.
Iran played what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates termed a “double game” in Afghanistan, seeking good relations with the central government while also modestly funneling arms to insurgents of various ethnic and ideological stripes through Soleimani’s Quds Force, according to U.S. intelligence. In this manner, Iran ensured a relatively stable yet not overly strong government next door, retained levers to impose costs against the U.S. or Afghan government on an as-needed basis (in response to pressure over its nuclear program or malign activities in Lebanon and Iraq, for instance), and was able to cultivate influence with a variety of Afghan factions.
Showing the lengths to which Soleimani’s pragmatic streak extended, one of the primary insurgent groups the Quds Force began arming was Iran’s erstwhile adversary, the Taliban. Beginning in 2006, the U.S. State Department alleges that the IRGC-Quds Force began “training the Taliban in Afghanistan on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons” in addition to providing armaments “including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives.” Iran has also permitted the Taliban free movement of foreign fighters through Iranian territory to support its insurgency in Afghanistan. On October 25, 2007, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Soleimani under Executive Order 13382 for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.
Soleimani’s direction of Iran’s Afghanistan strategy through multiple iterations reveals him as a canny, pragmatic actor. He was able to skillfully negotiate with hostile actors – first the U.S. to topple the Taliban, and later the Taliban to bleed the U.S. – in pursuit of Iran’s short-term objectives. Iran’s long term interest is in a stable, friendly, weak Afghanistan, and Soleimani has pursued this by haphazardly supporting the Afghan government, the Taliban, as well as Persian-speaking Tajiks and Shia Hazara groups opposed to the Taliban. Soleimani’s approach is not without drawbacks, as it has engendered enmity among broad swathes of the population, as evidenced by pushback and demonstrations against Iranian meddling in recent years. Iran has sought to mitigate such blowback by ensuring that Afghanistan’s Hazaras (roughly 20% of the population) predominantly subscribe to Iran’s Khomeinist revolutionary ideology, establishing a permanent pocket of influence within Afghanistan.
Since its inception, Hezbollah – a Lebanon-based Shia terror organization and paramilitary force committed to Iran’s revolutionary ideology – has operated as the IRGC’s spearhead far beyond Lebanon’s borders in order to protect and advance Tehran’s interests. Hezbollah plays a leading role in training and equipping militia groups around the Middle East loyal to Iran’s foreign policy objectives. One of Iran’s primary stated objectives is the elimination of Israel, viewed by Tehran as an illegitimate outpost of American influence implanted in the heart of the Middle East. Hezbollah is Iran’s primary vehicle for confronting Israel. The group has also conducted terrorist attacks targeting American and French interests and Iranian opposition figures abroad at Tehran’s behest.
While Hezbollah’s adherence to Khomeinist ideology dates back to the group’s founding charter, Qassem Soleimani played a role in enhancing the group’s utility as an instrument of Iranian foreign policy. Bolstering Hezbollah was one of Soleimani’s top-line priorities immediately upon taking over as Quds Force commander, which he pursued simultaneously with his handling of Iran’s Afghanistan portfolio. Soleimani set about forming close, personal ties with Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, and primary military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was Hezbollah’s chief terrorist mastermind who planned and executed Hezbollah’s 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, and the 1992 and 1994 bombings of an Israeli embassy and cultural center in Buenos Aires. With these relationships cemented, Soleimani concentrated on transferring additional resources to the group, which at the time was engaged in fighting against the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) occupation of a security zone it had carved out in southern Lebanon, and Israel’s South Lebanon Army (SLA) proxy. Soleimani dispatched Quds Force operatives to the area, who trained, advised, and assisted Hezbollah forces. Later, Hezbollah hailed Israel’s withdrawal as a victory for Iranian-backed “resistance,” creating a mythology that would serve as the engine for the growth of Iran’s enhanced diplomatic and military influence throughout the Middle East.
After Israel’s withdrawal, the Quds Force increased its material support to Hezbollah, including helping set up Hezbollah’s long-range rocket infrastructure. The growth of Hezbollah’s military capabilities gave the group the ability to plunge Lebanon into conflict at Iran’s behest. In 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, precipitating a 34-day war that devastated Lebanon’s infrastructure. The Quds Force provided Hezbollah critical support during the conflict and was integrated into Hezbollah’s command units. Hezbollah has also recently revealed that Soleimani was present in Lebanon during the 2006 war, aiding in the planning of operations against Israeli forces.
Following the end of the Second Lebanon War, the Quds Force played a central role in the rearmament of Hezbollah. Soleimani leveraged the opportunity to entrench an Iranian presence in Lebanon.
The IRGC created the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon (ICRL), an important institution that Iran uses to curry favor in Beirut which doubles as an instrument of Tehran’s expansionist agenda. Tasked with helping rebuild Hezbollah-controlled areas of southern Lebanon devastated in the war, the ICRL played a role in reconstructing mosques, educational centers, and health facilities, but the bulk of its aims were nefarious and non-humanitarian related.
The ICRL provided a cover for Iran to embed elite Quds Force operatives in Lebanon under the radar. The organization’s “civilian” leader, Hessam Khoshnevis, was in reality a senior Quds Force commander named Hassan Shateri using a false identity. Under Shateri’s leadership, the ICRL played an integral role in resupplying Hezbollah’s arsenal and building a secret fiber optics network for secure communications which triggered a crisis in 2008 that strengthened Hezbollah at the expense of the Lebanese government.
On February 12, 2008, Israel’s Mossad intelligence service carried out an operation in coordination with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military chief and overseer of the group’s rearmament. The Israelis surveilled Mughniyeh, who was visiting Damascus for weeks. On the morning of the planned car-bomb assassination, the Israelis had to abruptly abort the mission, as Mughniyeh was engaged in a warm conversation outside his vehicle with Qassem Soleimani, underscoring Soleimani’s personal role in abetting Hezbollah. However, the Israelis only had clearance to target Mughniyeh, and thus spared Soleimani’s life, carrying out the assassination of Mughniyeh later that evening.
Particularly since 2003, and especially in the last decade, Hezbollah has played a critical role in Iran’s regional adventurism, training and assisting Shia militias in Iraq, fighting and recruiting Shias to buttress Syria’s Assad regime, and dispatching advisers to Yemen to aid and train Houthi rebels in their fight against neighboring Saudi Arabia.
As such, maintaining its supply line to its Hezbollah proxy serves as Iran’s primary objective in its project to establish a Shia crescent. Iran is able to transport weaponry via air to Damascus international airport, and from there, transport it by land to Hezbollah’s stronghold in the Beqaa valley. Were a hostile power to take over in Damascus, it could deny Tehran access to the Damascus airport, curtailing this supply line.
Under Soleimani, the Quds Force manages Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure, which is now firmly entrenched in Lebanon and Syria. Arming Hezbollah has taken on renewed urgency given its role in Syria combat. To that end, Soleimani has prioritized enhancing ties between the Quds Force and Hezbollah procurement agents, working to streamline logistics and procurement channels to more effectively supply Hezbollah with weaponry. Exploiting the chaos of Syria’s civil war, the Quds Force has attempted to clandestinely transfer advanced, balance-altering weapons into Lebanon – with unclear levels of success, given Israeli aerial interdiction of these shipments in Syria while they are en route to the group. Nonetheless, despite the heavy casualties it has suffered in Syria, Hezbollah is emerging from the Syrian civil war as an increasingly critical and powerfully armed partner and instrument of the Quds Force.
Nowhere was Soleimani’s brilliance as a strategist and tactician more evident than in his handling of the Iraq portfolio. The U.S. invasion in 2003 paved the way for Iran to solidify its influence in the country, and to extract costs from the U.S. in terms of casualties, dollars, and prestige. Through a combination of military aid, cash, favors, bribes, and intimidation, Soleimani came to wield tremendous personal influence over the country’s Shia militias and political parties.
Having been labeled a member of the “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush, Iran viewed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as both a welcome and worrying development. The invasion removed Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the next biggest proximate threat to Iran after the fall of the Taliban, but also raised the prospect that Iran would be next. Iran went to great lengths to signal it did not want confrontation with the U.S., reportedly dispatching runners across the border to tell U.S. troops in the field that Iran wanted no problems with the U.S. The 2003 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate even found that Iran slowed down work on its illicit nuclear program (or at least reconfigured elements of the program to make it more covert), presumably in order to draw scrutiny away that may have invited conflict.
After Saddam’s regime fell, there were early signs of indirect Iranian cooperation as the U.S. endeavored to establish a provisional governing council. However, once the U.S. occupation began to collapse and get bogged down by insurgency, Iran’s fears of a follow-on U.S. invasion dissipated and Soleimani opportunistically changed tacks, doing everything is his power to add to the U.S.’s frustrations in Iraq.
One of his first moves was to work with the head of Syrian intelligence to establish pipelines to facilitate the flow of Sunni jihadists from around the region across Syria’s border into Iraq, where they launched frequent attacks against U.S. forces.
While useful in the short term, Soleimani could not control these Sunni forces, and he soon thereafter turned his attention to standing up a network of Iraqi Shia militias to attack U.S. and coalition forces and otherwise pursue Iranian strategic objectives. The vast network of Shia proxy militias that Soleimani controlled, coordinating their battlefield activities and spearheading their funding and equipping, served as his main lever for influence in Iraq, and will continue benefiting Tehran, even after his demise. Even while Saddam Hussein was still in power, Soleimani’s operatives had been actively cultivating Iraqi Shia militias to wage an underground struggle against Saddam, using Iran as a base of operation. The most powerful of these was the Badr Organization, which was founded during the Iran-Iraq War as the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a Khomeinist political party created by Iran in order to organize Iraqi Shia under the banner of the Islamic Revolution.
After Saddam’s fall, the Badr Organization, which is loyal, but not fully subservient to Iran, largely refrained from attacking U.S. forces and focused instead on exacting revenge on Baathist remnants. Soleimani thus set about establishing militias whose primary focus was targeting U.S. and allied forces, most notably, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH). These new militias, which followed the Hezbollah model of fusing militant and political power, were more committed to Khomeinist ideology and were directly under Soleimani’s control. Thousands of Iraqi Shia militants traveled to training camps in Iran, where they received paramilitary training from Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives (who helped overcome language barriers) before returning to Iraq.
In addition to recruiting and training militants, Soleimani was instrumental in supplying them with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. By 2006 the Quds Force had developed “a widespread network for transferring and distributing arms from Iran into Iraq through the Ilam region in western Iran.” Iran’s imprimatur over the militias was most vividly borne out with the evolution from primitive Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks on U.S. service members to more lethal explosively formed projectile (EFP) attacks, whose sophistication U.S. military officials insist point to Iranian origins. In total, the U.S. Pentagon found that Iran-backed militias were responsible for 603 U.S. servicemember deaths between 2003-2011, accounting for roughly one in six U.S. casualties during that period.
Soleimani’s ambitions in Iraq went beyond just killing American troops; he sought and ultimately became the leading power broker within the country. Equally as important as his ability to order his proxies to target adversaries, he could demand and receive restraint at strategic moments. In a manner similar to his conduct in Afghanistan, Soleimani played a double game of stoking tensions and then being called upon to mediate them. Soleimani’s machinations served to keep Iraq’s central government weak and politicians from various factions reliant on him to maintain stability. Politicians were effectively held hostage to Soleimani’s demands, as he could call on the militias under his command to make trouble if they tried to cross him.
In the first years after the invasion, the U.S., bogged down fighting the Sunni jihadist insurgency, largely avoided direct confrontation with Soleimani’s militant proxies or Quds Force operatives active in Iraq, as it could ill afford an escalation in tensions or the opening of another front. As the threat posed by Soleimani’s forces metastasized, the U.S. set up a covert task force in 2006 to kill and capture Iran- backed insurgents and Quds Force operatives. At one point, they raided a prominent Shia politician’s compound and encountered Quds Force General Mohsen Chizari, the head of Quds Force operations in Iraq. The Americans briefly detained Chizari, the most dramatic escalation against Iran to date.
Ultimately, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who was beholden to Soleimani to maintain his grip on power, demanded the Americans hand Chizari over to him, and promptly released him.
The incident demonstrated Soleimani’s growing influence in Iraq and set the stage for a series of Iranian- backed provocations and American responses. The U.S. began publicly pointing the finger at Soleimani as a leading terrorist and source of instability, and a debate dragged on for several years within the military over whether to cross into Iran and target the Quds Force’s training camps and weapons factories. Ultimately, the U.S. refrained from such a dramatic escalation, as Soleimani would strategically pull back or offer limited cooperation, such as brokering ceasefires with factions targeting the U.S., when situations demanded it.
Soleimani became an indispensable and feared figure behind the scenes in Iraqi politics, using intimidation to ensure fealty from Shia and Kurdish factions. Iran’s embassy in Baghdad to this day serves as an operating and organizing base for the Quds Force to project influence. For example, since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Soleimani has installed Quds Force operatives as Tehran’s ambassadors in Baghdad. Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, Hassan Danaeifar, and Iraj Masjedi have all been IRGC operatives who ensure Iran’s primacy at the decision-making table in Baghdad.
The militias under Soleimani’s control borrowed from Hezbollah’s example in terms of providing security and social services to Shia constituencies in Iraq, thereby cultivating patronage and loyalty which extends to the Iranian regime and its revolutionary ideology. The militias have successfully translated the support of their Iraqi Shia backers into political clout, which they in turn use to apply pressure for policies favorable to the Islamic Republic. The concentration of military and political power in the hands of Shia militias serves to weaken the centralized Iraqi government, making it harder to defend against Iran’s ideological expansion in Iraq.
In 2010, Iraq held parliamentary elections which resulted in a nine-month stalemate. Soleimani brokered the impasse, bringing together Kurdish and Shia politicians in support of a second term as prime minister for his preferred candidate, al-Maliki. As international sanctions severely curtailed Iran’s petroleum exports, Soleimani leaned on Prime Minister al-Maliki, beholden to Soleimani for his political survival, to hand him over the proceeds from roughly $20 million worth of Iraqi oil sales per day, a scheme that helped shield the Quds Force from international sanctions over Iran’s illicit nuclear program. In exchange for his backing, Soleimani also extracted from al-Maliki – who had previously walked a tightrope to ensure U.S. and Iranian backing – and his coalition partners a public demand for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops, which was completed in December 2011. Soleimani was seen as handing the U.S. an ignominious defeat through his political maneuvering and relentless attacks on U.S. forces, paving the way for Iran to solidify its control over Iraq.
Iran’s hostile takeover of Iraq, subversion of its sovereignty, and pilfering of its resources, along with its support for the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war and al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian governance, stoked sectarian backlash, catalyzing the rise and potency of the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, at the apex of ISIS’s power, the group took over Mosul with little resistance from Iraqi government forces and began advancing toward the outskirts of Baghdad. The situation, compounded by the fecklessness of the Iraqi military, created an opening for Soleimani to further entrench Iranian control over Iraq.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric whose desire for pluralistic governance and non-adherence to Iran’s Khomeinist doctrine of velayat-e faqih makes him a rival of Tehran for influence in Iraq, issued a fatwa urging all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Soleimani’s focus had largely shifted to propping up the Assad regime in Syria. Soleimani had shifted resources from the transnational Shi’a foreign legion under his control to the Syrian theater, with many of the most prominent Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias sending militants to Syria to fight for Iranian objectives and to recruit, train, and advise additional fighters to defend the Assad regime. When the ISIS situation demanded action, Soleimani ordered the Iraqi militias to cross back over the border from Syria to rescue Iraq.
In conjunction with the Iraqi government, Soleimani helped stand up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of predominantly Shia militia groups that coordinated with Iraq’s central government in the fight against ISIS. While not all the forces in the PMF are aligned with Iran, about 50 Shia militia groups are backed by Iran if not under Soleimani’s direct control, including some of the largest, best-funded, and most heavily armed groups. The creation of the PMF command structure and its integration with the Iraqi central government led to unprecedented coordination among the Iran-backed Shia militias and has helped entrench Iranian control over Iraqi affairs. While the PMF helped put out a fire that was largely of Iran’s making in fighting ISIS, the creation of the PMF further eroded Iraqi sovereignty, as recruits, funds, and increasing amounts of sophisticated weaponry made their way to independent, Iran-backed militia forces rather than the Iraqi government. These forces, which tend to be anti-American, and rabidly sectarian, place loyalty to Iran’s revolutionary ideology and foreign policy objectives over the Iraqi state they ostensibly represent. As such, they stand as the main impediment to a stable, pluralistic Iraq today.
Whereas Soleimani previously operated largely behind the scenes in Iraq, seeking to covertly cement Iranian influence, with the creation of the PMF, Soleimani became a ubiquitous presence on the battlefield and in diplomatic circles, with his trips over the border – in violation of the international travel ban he was under – carefully curated for Iranian social media and propagandistic purposes. During Soleimani’s frequent trips to Iraq, he coordinated battlefield activities among the various militias under his command in conjunction with the Iraqi government, facilitated the flow of intelligence and military hardware to his forces, and liaised with Iraqi government and Kurdish officials for strategic purposes.
In elevating Soleimani to the forefront, Iran seemed to be sending a message that it was a force for stability in Iraq through its leadership in the fight against ISIS, and more insidiously, that Iran was the dominant influence in the country. The propaganda campaign served domestic purposes as well, casting the IRGC in a nationalistic light as the defender of the Iranian nation, fighting ISIS in Iraq to prevent having to fight them in Tehran.
The rise of ISIS compelled a limited U.S. re-engagement in Iraq and created a de facto tactical alliance between the U.S. and Soleimani’s forces, which benefitted from the direct support given to Iraqi troops who fought alongside the Shia militias. At one point, U.S. forces and Shia militiamen even shared an airbase near Anbar province, although they were kept separate. This temporary alliance of convenience once again showed Soleimani’s pragmatic streak and penchant for propaganda victories. By cooperating with Soleimani’s forces, the U.S. allowed Soleimani to portray himself as Iraq’s savior, buttressing his image and Iran’s influence. Given the U.S. and Iran’s opposing objectives in Iraq, the ongoing presence and growing influence of Shia militias in Iraq risked becoming a flashpoint between the U.S. and Iran, as Soleimani was able marshal them to strike against U.S. interests when he saw fit. This state of affairs would ultimately play a role in the series of escalations that led to Soleimani’s demise.
The tacit, indirect U.S. backing of PMF forces saw U.S. equipment to the Iraqi government forces end up in the hands of Soleimani-backed forces, several of which are designated as foreign terrorist organizations. For instance, Kata’ib Hezbollah used U.S.-made helicopters, M1A1 Abrams tanks, and Humvees in some of its operations, even flying its banner on these American vehicles. This development was especially troubling, as the Shia militias engaged in systemic human rights abuses and brutality that rivalled ISIS’s as they cleared out ISIS territory. Iraqi Shia militias were alleged to have engaged in extrajudicial assassinations, summary executions, kidnappings, and torture of both combatants and civilians, including children.
Due to the armed strength and brutality of the Shia militias within the PMF, their power has come to eclipse that of the central government, leading Iraqi officials to either surrender to and appease the PMF, or face reprisals. Iraq’s previous prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, praised Iran at Davos in 2015 for springing to Iraq’s defense and even singled out Qassem Soleimani as an ally in the fight against ISIS. There are reportedly around 80,000 to 100,000 Iran-aligned Shia fighters inside Iraq today, and the government has little recourse to bring the Iran-backed militias, which desire to retain their independence, under its command.
In the most recent May 2018 parliamentary elections, the PMF’s political bloc won the second-most seats, but Tehran-backed elements did not win enough seats to form a governing coalition. Iraq’s eventual prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, was elected with a mandate to curb Iranian influence. Soleimani had other plans, and began dispatching hit squads to assassinate critics of Iranian influence in Iraq from both the government and civil society.
Through his de facto control of the PMF, Soleimani effectively laid the groundwork for Iran’s takeover of Iraq, stationing allies in powerful positions both within government and outside of it. Disbanding the PMF militias remains an undertaking that the Iraqi government is not equipped to handle and the U.S. has little appetite for, so Iraq will likely remain riven by the persistence of a coordinated network of Iranian proxy militias, modeled after Lebanese Hezbollah, undermining the central government for years to come.
Since 2011, when Bashar al-Assad’s heavy-handed attempts to quell popular demonstrations against his repressive rule devolved into a civil war, Qassem Soleimani’s principal preoccupation shifted to saving and sustaining the Assad regime, Iran’s critical ally in the “resistance axis” against Western influence in the Middle East. Retaining a friendly regime in Damascus has served numerous Iranian foreign policy objectives over the years. Most importantly, Syria is a key transshipment point for Iranian arms to Lebanese Hezbollah, which Assad allows to land at Damascus airport before they are transported via land to Hezbollah. If a hostile Sunni power took over in Syria, it would likely cut off this supply chain, potentially strangling Hezbollah. As such, Iran views maintaining the Assad regime in power as central to the preservation of its hard-won “Shia crescent” land bridge linking Tehran to the Mediterranean and to the export of its Islamic Revolutionary project. Underscoring Iran’s commitment, Soleimani declared in 2013 that the Islamic Republic would “support Syria until the end.”
At the onset of the Syrian civil war, Iran was financially constrained by the international sanctions regime targeting its illicit nuclear program. Nevertheless, it viewed supporting the Assad regime as an existential issue and therefore proffered a $7 billion loan to shore up the Syrian economy. Initially, Soleimani’s mandate was limited to the Quds Force advising and training Assad regime forces. The outbreak of the war exposed the Syrian armed forces as weak and ineffectual in the face of rebel advances, which led Soleimani to reportedly gripe, “The Syrian Army is useless! … Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I could conquer the whole country.” Assad’s weakness prompted Soleimani to begin traveling to Damascus regularly, where he assumed personal control over assembling and commanding a mélange of pro-Assad, pro-Iranian forces in the country.
Soleimani’s first order of business was drawing from the reservoir of terrorist organizations and proxy militias he effectively controlled, ordering them into Syria to help the Assad regime stanch its losses. Lebanese Hezbollah joined the war effort virtually from the beginning at Iran’s behest. With the U.S. having withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, Soleimani also ordered Iraqi Shia militias to come to Assad’s defense. Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias served to recruit and train additional militants drawn from the local Syrian populace and from the broader Arab and Islamic world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Soleimani mobilized, funded, and armed around 20-30,000 militants from across the Middle East to fight on Assad’s behalf, supplementing Syria’s depleted forces. Soleimani was at the head of these forces, coordinating activities among the various Shia mercenary forces and ensuring that their activities fulfill Iranian foreign policy objectives. The various militia groups under Soleimani’s aegis tend to be modeled after Lebanese Hezbollah and undergo ideological instruction to complement their paramilitary training. Iran has sought to use religious symbolism, such as the defense of the Sayyeda Zainab shrine and martyrdom of Imam Hussein, to inculcate willingness of its fighters to be martyred for the cause. Still, the salaries and benefits Soleimani offers to his disaffected conscripts stand as the most potent recruitment tool in his arsenal.
As the Assad regime weakened, it became increasingly reliant on the local and foreign Shia militias beholden to Iran to seize and hold territory. Soleimani’s provision of proxy support was critical in stabilizing Assad’s rule, especially with his own forces plagued by defections and flagging morale. In 2013, Soleimani’s forces began to turn the tide of the civil war. After the capture by Sunni rebels of the strategic city of Qusayr, which sat on the border with Lebanon and was an important conduit for arms to Hezbollah, Soleimani led the operation to restore the city to Hezbollah control. Soleimani called on Hassan Nasrallah to dispatch 2000 troops for the operation who carried out the bulk of the fighting, going house to house and sustaining heavy casualties.
By 2015, the proxy forces marshalled by Soleimani were virtually single-handedly prosecuting the war against various Sunni rebel and jihadist factions, with the fiercest fighting centered around Sunni rebel-held Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and industrial center. Soleimani had reportedly formulated a strategy to retake Aleppo in 2014, but had to shelve the operation when ISIS’s rapid gains in Mosul compelled him to divert personnel and resources back over to Iraq. In 2015, with the situation stalemated, Soleimani refocused attention on Syria and sought the backing of a major power to restore momentum to his side. In the most brazen violation of the U.N. international travel ban targeting him to date, Soleimani flew – reportedly on a commercial flight – to Moscow, where he met with Russia’s defense minister and President Vladimir Putin and convinced them to intervene more forcefully on Assad’s behalf.
With Russian aerial support, Soleimani strategized an offensive by the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah and with IRGC and Shia militia reinforcements he called into the war, to reconquer the regions of Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib. In the final months of 2016, the world looked on in horror as Soleimani’s mercenary forces, backed by Russian air power, laid waste to Aleppo, wresting the city from rebel control. The battle for Aleppo was the decisive turning point in the Syrian civil war and swung the momentum irrevocably in favor of the Assad-Iran-Russia-Hezbollah axis’s favor. In 2018, the Assad regime further consolidated its control in brutal fashion, pressing an offensive in Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel-held bastion in the Damascus suburbs. The Eastern Ghouta campaign forced the remnants of rebel forces and thousands of civilians to flee to Idlib province, which is now Syria’s last-remaining rebel-held enclave.
Soleimani’s intervention on the Assad regime’s behalf has come with a significant price tag for Assad. Whereas Syria’s relations with Iran were previously cast on an equal footing, Soleimani’s provision of cash and proxy fighters has fostered reliance on Iran, and Tehran is exploiting Assad’s weakness to entrench itself economically, militarily, and culturally in Syria for the foreseeable future as the nation rebuilds.
Using the playbook it perfected in Lebanon, Iran is eroding the Assad regime’s sovereignty and transforming Syria into a playground for it and its proxies to run amok. Iran views Syria as a forward operating base from which to threaten and occasionally attack Israel and has set about constructing military bases and weapons production and storage facilities to that end. Israel has targeted Iranian weapons depots on numerous occasions, vowing to strike against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria when it feels threatened. In 2018, Iran used Syria as a launching ground for an armed drone skirmish with Israeli forces and fired 32 missiles at Israel from Syrian territory. The Soleimani-engineered creeping Iranian takeover has given it territory from which to attack Israel, and it is Syria, not the Iranian homeland, that bears the brunt of the reprisals.
Soleimani has expanded Iran’s hegemonic ambitions to encompass Yemen as well, giving the Iranian regime added strategic depth. In a similar vein to Iran’s efforts to establish forward operating bases in Syria and Lebanon from which to encircle, threaten, and provoke Israel, Yemen offers Iran a staging ground to attack another key U.S. ally and Iranian adversary, Saudi Arabia.
Further, Yemen plays into Iran’s strategy of controlling key Arab waterways. Control of Yemen and its strategic ports affords control of vital commercial and energy shipping lanes which connect the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East to Europe. Control of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait poses a strategic nuisance for Israel, enabling Iran to cut off its naval trade routes to Asia and opening up a new conduit for Iran to smuggle weapons to Hamas and other terrorist proxies. Iran has thus sought to gain a foothold in Yemen which would allow it, despite the weakness of its naval forces relative to others in the region, to sabotage international commerce and energy markets when its interests are threatened.
Beginning in 2004, Shia Houthi rebels waged a low-level insurgency against the Sunni-dominated, internationally recognized Yemeni central government, a key U.S. counterterrorism ally. Iran and Hezbollah offered limited assistance to the Houthis, whose ideology emulated Khomeinism, since at least 2009 in the form of arms and training, with the Quds Force organizing crude Iranian small-arms shipments that were occasionally intercepted by Yemeni and U.S. naval patrols. The Quds Force had also provided guidance to the Houthis to set up an affiliated political party, Ansar Allah, mimicking the Hezbollah model of fusing militant and political power. With the bulk of Soleimani’s attention devoted to the Shia crescent project, Yemen was a secondary security interest for Iran; primarily a way to poke at and cause headaches for Saudi Arabia.
This all changed in September 2014, when the Houthis, who had allied with Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, leveraging his ties to loyalists throughout the government and armed forces, exploited the weakness of Yemen’s central government and seized the capital of Sana’a – including the strategically important Red Sea port of Hudaydah – without firing a shot. Within four months, the Houthis had toppled the central government.
Soleimani, who was tied up in Baghdad at the time directing Iraqi militia operations against ISIS, remarked that the fall of Sana’a represented a “golden opportunity” for Iran. An allied Shia force now controlled the capital of a neighboring country to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s primary Middle Eastern geostrategic adversary. In conjunction with Hezbollah, the Quds Force set about remaking the Houthis in Hezbollah’s image, building up their military capabilities and dispatching senior Quds Force advisors to train them. The Quds Force stepped up illicit arms exports of increasingly sophisticated weaponry, including Sayyad 2C surface-to-air missile, guided anti-ship missiles, kamikaze aerial drones, landmines, Kalashnikov variant rifles, RPG-7 and RPG-7v rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, precision rifles, and anti-tank missiles. The Quds Force’s support has helped the Houthis overcome some core deficiencies, including strategic planning, political mobilization, and operating advanced weaponry.
In addition to bolstering the Houthi forces, the Quds Force has also reportedly mobilized elements of its foreign legion of proxy militias, injecting Shia mercenary forces into the Yemen conflict, mirroring its strategy in Syria. According to a Reuters report, “Iranian and regional sources said Tehran was providing Afghan and Shi‘ite Arab specialists to train Houthi units and act as logistical advisers. These included Afghans who had fought in Syria under Qods Force commanders.”
Iran’s aid to its Houthi proxies has provided a low-risk, cost-effective avenue to becoming the dominant political and military influence in Yemen. Iran has also managed to weaken its geopolitical adversaries by goading an Arab coalition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into the conflict in 2015, which has devolved into a costly war of attrition for their side.
In March 2017, Soleimani reportedly convened a meeting of senior IRGC military officials to explore ways to further “empower” the Houthis. An official at the meeting noted that “Yemen is where the real proxy war is going on and winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.” Since that time, Iran has introduced increasingly complex weaponry into the Yemeni theater, and the Houthis have stepped up their aggression in accordance with Iranian foreign policy objectives. The Houthis have stepped up rocket and drone attacks on the Saudi homeland, targeting vital infrastructure including the king’s official residence, military bases and encampments, oil refineries, the Riyadh international airport, and shopping malls. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Houthis have also periodically targeted commercial and military vessels transiting and patrolling the Red Sea using naval mines, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-ship missiles, and waterborne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs).
Qassem Soleimani’s asymmetric warfare strategy helped Iran establish an unbroken arc of influence linking Tehran to the Mediterranean via Syria and Iraq and provided an additional strategic outpost in Yemen. Through the territory, proxy militias and terrorist organizations, and weaponry at its disposal, Iran is able to threaten American, Israeli, and Gulf Arab interests around the Middle East. A precarious balance of terror has taken hold, as Iran’s proxies’–which Soleimani played the dominant role in standing up–frequent provocations risk sparking a wider conflagration.
Soleimani’s ability to plunge the Middle East into chaos came into full display during the last months of his life. In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA and subsequently imposed a maximum pressure campaign on Iran, ratcheting up sanctions and reducing Iran’s ability to generate revenues by curtailing its ability to export oil. The maximum pressure campaign is designed to compel Iran to return to the negotiating table for a new agreement that addresses the JCPOA’s deficiencies and Iran’s ballistic missiles and malign regional expansionism. Iran’s hardline leadership has taken the position that it will not return to negotiations as a result of U.S.-imposed pressures. In an April 2019 speech, Soleimani backed this view, stating, “The enemy wants to make us sit to the negotiating table by economic pressures and such a negotiation is an instance of surrendering, but our people are vigilant and wise and believe that negotiation with the enemy under the present circumstances means complete surrendering and we will definitely not accept this humiliation." He went on to say that Iran would seek to impose “costs” on the U.S. in response to its attempts to pressure Iran.
After the U.S. designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and declined to reissue waivers allowing eight select countries to continue importing Iranian oil in April 2019, Iran faced cascading economic pressures and saw no hope for the resumption of European trade and investment on the horizon. The situation placed Iran at a crossroads; it could either swallow its pride and return to the negotiating table having ceded its leverage in order to sue for sanctions relief, or it could pursue a path of stepped up aggression in the hopes that imposing costs on the U.S. and its allies would force the U.S. into negotiations on Iran’s terms. Iran has chosen the latter path.
With the economic vise tightening, Soleimani and his proxies escalated their aggression against U.S. allies and interests into overdrive. According to intelligence reports, Soleimani met with Iraqi Shia militia leaders and told them to prepare for a proxy war against the U.S. in late April 2019. The U.S. responded by dispatching an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf to send the message to Iran that attacks on U.S. personnel would lead to reprisals against Iranian interests. On May 19, Iranian proxies in Iraq launched a rocket that landed inside Iraq’s fortified Green Zone, near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Aside from this provocation, Soleimani urged restraint from the Iraqi militias, as he did not desire a full-scale conflict that would threaten Iran’s hard-fought military entrenchment in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Nevertheless, Soleimani stepped up provocations designed to extract costs, but not severe enough to invite devastating reprisals. During the intervening months, the Houthis have launched drone attacks and missiles targeting Saudi airports, airbases, and energy infrastructure, and have used a surface-to-air missile with direct Iranian assistance to down a U.S. drone over Yemen. Iran, meanwhile, was allegedly behind the sabotage of a Japanese oil tanker and a Taiwanese and Norwegian oil vessel in the Gulf of Oman. On June 20th, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, allegedly over international waters. The Trump administration came close to launching a reprisal after the incident, but ultimately refrained due to concerns over civilian deaths.
The elevation of hostilities mirrored Soleimani’s playbook from 2011-2013, the last time Iran faced significant economic pressure over its nuclear program. At the height of the international sanctions regime and American and Israeli attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, there was an uptick in Iran-backed terror plots targeting primarily American and Israeli interests. Most notably, Soleimani and the Quds Force were implicated by U.S. intelligence in the 2011 plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. on American soil in Washington, DC. Additionally, Iran was involved in terror plots targeting U.S. and Israeli interests in Bulgaria, Cyprus, India, Azerbaijan, Thailand, and Kenya.