Who was Qassem Soleimani, the 'Shadow Commander' who extended Iran's reach in the Middle East?
On 3 January 2022, thousands of Iranians took part in a procession through the streets of Tehran commemorating the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, killed two years earlier in a US airstrike in Baghdad.
The event appears to be a fixed date in Iran’s official calendar mobilising supporters through this day of mourning.
Soleimani has become a figure lionised in state-sanctioned hagiographies, achieving a saint-like status among regime loyalists.
"For the Iranian regime, Soleimani’s story perfectly fitted with a narrative that legitimised its own rule over the masses"
Arash Azizi’s biography, The Shadow Commander, appears a fitting title for the general who spent his life pursuing an unyielding campaign to entrench and expand Iran’s military presence in the region, but at the cost of thousands of lives.
Now available in paperback, The Shadow Commander is acknowledged to be the definitive account of Soleimani’s life and shows the imprint his death has left on Iran.
Man of the people
For the Iranian regime, Soleimani’s story perfectly fitted with a narrative that legitimised its own rule over the masses.
Soleimani was born in humble beginnings in rural Kerman province during the reign of Iran’s final shah who through intelligence, tenacity, and bravery rose through the ranks of the Islamic Republic.
Azizi’s own personal connections with the region provide a rich tapestry of anecdotes about Soleimani, while his academic background and extensive research and interviews further anchor the book.
Through Azizi’s accounts, we can see what set Soleimani out from his peers when he moved to the provincial capital of Kerman to work for the local water board. Soleimani not as a zealot, as many of the Islamic Republic’s leadership, were, but a conservative young man with an enthusiasm for physical exercise and prayer.
After the Islamic Revolution, the sturdy Soleimani - honed by years of gym and karate - was picked out by a leading officer while on guard duty owing to his impressive stature and persona.
In the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, Soleimani surrounded himself with natives of his home province, Kerman, folk who earned a reputation as fierce fighters and staunch loyalists of the new regime.
The Kermani connection would be a thread running through his life, creating his own vanguard within the Revolutionary Guard and leading to investment trickling back into this impoverished province.
Soleimani ended his life leading an expeditionary force that took on the US, its allies, and the Islamic State group across the region. For millions of civilians affected by the often-brutal military campaigns conducted by his special forces and subservient militias, Soleimani became a byword for ruthlessness and cruelty.
Early in Soleimani’s leadership, the officer became engaged in battling the banditry and separatist movements that were rife in Baluchistan in the east of Iran.
The insecurity had political dimensions that spilt over the borders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the young Soleimani soon engaged in affairs beyond Iran’s borders.
"In the West and much of the Middle East, he was a figure shrouded in mystery but also notorious for protracting bloody wars, resisting the downfall of dictators, and aiding a whole series of unsavoury militias"
In Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria his political influence was unyielding, seeing him embark on stealthy shuttle diplomacy across the region, despite this political role not being part of his job description.
Soleimani was viewed by some in Tehran’s leadership as not only a brilliant tactician but a loyal troubleshooter despite his lack of diplomatic credentials.
His ability to raise an army of destitute and often oppressed Shia immigrants and refugees from Pakistan and Iran helped prop up Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus when faced with overthrown following a mass uprising against his rule.
Soleimani was a man who could mend bickering in Baghdad, boost morale in Beirut, and rumour has it, direct policy in Damascus. He also appeared to have stood in good standing in Moscow, where it is said that a visit to meet President Vladimir Putin led to Russia’s crucial intervention in the Syria war.
What is less well known about Soleimani’s life is the incredible political influence he wielded in the corridors of power in Tehran and Qom, which Azizi goes into in-depth.
Soleimani became a close confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, which helped him survive the changing seasons in Tehran when presidents - and as a result, Iran’s image in the world – transitioned from extremist to moderate and back again.
As an ally to Iran’s conservatives, Soleimani was to prove a constant thorn in the side of Iranian moderates, particularly the wily former Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Azizi writes.
The clashes between these two figures, who represented almost opposite ends of Iran’s political spectrum, would set the country on a paradoxical collision course with the rest of the world.
It was one where TV screens in Europe and the US beamed the effusive profile on Zarif during the nuclear deal, while the stern uncompromising rhetoric on Khamenei was another face of the regime.
The Shadow Commander shows how Soleimani was adept at cruising the Machiavellian politics of the Islamic Republic making him resented by many moderates and reformists as a meddling military man.
Soleimani’s bravery in battle, shrewdness as a tactician, and willingness to live among the ranks saw him enamoured by Revolutionary Guard soldiers and officers alike.
In the West and much of the Middle East, he was a figure shrouded in mystery but also notorious for protracting bloody wars, resisting the downfall of dictators, and aiding a whole series of unsavoury militias.
It is this double-faced epitaph that he will be known. In Tehran’s loyalists' circles, he was a soldier of the revolution willing to carry out any orders for the sake of the Islamic Republic.
For many more, he had blood on his hands, using their homes as collateral in Iran’s battle with the US.
The impact of Soleimani’s death appears yet to be seen, yet Azizi’s biography stands as a brilliant primer on the politics of the Islamic Republic and an in-depth study on one of its most famous sons.
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin