Book Review: The Shadow Commander by Arash Azizi

I got interested in the life and activity of the late Iranian general Qassem Soleimani after reading a 2013 article about him, with the same title as this book which was published in the New Yorker magazine. Since then had been following his activities till his death in January 2020. This book by Iranian scholar and journalist Arash Azizi, is not only the biography of Major General Soleimani, chronicling his life, but also about the general events that shaped and conditioned his life, making him the second most powerful man in contemporary Iran after the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

My main takeaways;

  1. Born in 1957, in a village in Iran’s Kerman province he moved to the provincial capital at the age of 18, to work in the water department there. As a teenager new to the capital, he was more interested in honing his karate skills than in religion or politics. Ironically when he sought to join the emerging Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC), he was rejected by the young recruiter. He could join the organisation only later, thanks to the Iran Iraq war where the general population needed to be mobilised for ‘sacred defence’ of Iran. In course of time, IRCG became the most powerful armed force in Iran, eclipsing even the Iranian regular army. So it was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 which shaped Soleimani’s destiny. As Azizi notes, “Were it not for Saddam’s attack on Iran and the mass mobilization that came with it, the likes of Soleimani might have continued their lives on the margins.”
  2. Starting his career in the IRCG where his first assignment was to guard the provincial airport at Kerman, he soon rose through the ranks, thanks to his devil may care attitude and desire to lead from the front. He got seriously injured twice in the battlefield. Impressed by his leadership capability and bravery, he was given command position at the age of 25. During this war, he also developed and honed his rhetorical skills, invoking God and “the religious folkloric tradition that every Shi’a boy or girl would instantly recognize,”, a skill he later used effectively to inspire and motivate the future militias that he commanded in battlefields across the Middle East.
  3. After the war ended, he was given the responsibility of taking on the powerful drug smuggling gangs in Iran’s southeast, an area over which the central government of Iran had never managed to exercise total control. He dealt major blows to these gangs through his hands-on military approach, leading from the front as well as enlisting the support of the locals. Being a tribal himself from these areas, he understood how to handle the tribes and win their loyalty.
  4. During the Afghan conflict Iran firmly sided with the Northern Alliance and the legendary Ahmad Shah Masood with Soleimani being the point man dealing with him.  In 1998 when he was promoted as the Commander of the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s campaign against the Taliban.
  5. After 9/11 when the United States attacked Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, Iran whole heartedly cooperated with the United States. The Americans were quite taken aback by the support the Iranians were providing them, and that too so openly. It looked like a new beginning was being made in the relationship of the erstwhile foes, but then as it happens many times in history, one false statement ruins it all. Much to the surprise and chagrin of seasoned diplomatic hands like Ryan Crocher, who was coordinating with the Iranians, President Bush in his State of the Union Address, written by the neo- con David Frum, categorised Iran as an ‘Axis of Evil’. This completely derailed all cooperation that Iran was affording the USA, the liberals led by President Khatami (who were calling for cooperation with the USA) panned and discredited by the hardliners. Iran and USA’s loss was Pakistan’s gain, for if the relationship between USA and Iran had continued its positive trajectory, Pakistan would have lost much of its geo strategic primacy for the USA in the Afghan war, as an alternative GLOC could have been available through Iran.  
  6. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, overthrew Saddam Hussain, Soleimani set about cementing Iran’s influence in the New Iraq. This was followed by expanding Iran’s influence in the region – in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. He was not only a Military commander but also controlled the foreign policy of Iran for these regions. He declared in his infamous communique to U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq, “I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” Constantly on the move, the book recalls how stories circulated about him “having breakfast in Beirut, lunch in Damascus, and dinner in Baghdad,” all in pursuit of his tireless effort to build “a transnational army”. Various Islamist groups of the region like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were either controlled or deeply influenced by the Iranians.
  7. In 2014, when ISIS captured Iraq’s second city Mosul and rampaged across northern Iraq, Soleimani once again took a hands-on approach, organizing Shi’a militias and sending arms to the besieged Iraqi Kurds. He helicoptered into the besieged Iraqi Shi’a Turkmen city of Amerli to help organize Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga to repel ISIS. His photographs on many battlefields across Iraq and Syria made him a celebrity both in USA and in Iran. I remember, his walking on the streets of Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit, shortly after the IRGC controlled militias displaced IS in 2015, was repeatedly shown on TV.
  8. And as they say- pride goes before a fall. Drunk on the feeling of his invincibility he did the thing which cost him his life. My study of IR and geo politics has taught me two basic facts – (a) you do what you want to do, but don’t get USA so worked up that it loses its sense of proportion and (b) never ever attack the Russians in Russia, in history all powers doing so have been ruined. While President Trump and Soleimani were exchanging a war of words in December 2019 a Kataib Hezbollah rocket attacked and killed a U.S. civilian contractor in Kirkuk. In response the U.S. launched a series of airstrikes killing several members of the group in both Iraq and Syria. Azizi writes, “One would now expect Soleimani to back off,”..“But he had no such intentions. On his direct order, Kataib Hezbollah supporters marched on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, putting it under effective siege. The shadow commander had played his hand badly” (by making USA really angry and lose its sense of proportion). An angry President Trump, fearing the repeat of the siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, ordered the killing of Soleimani, who was blown up at Baghdad Airport on 3 January 2020 in a drone strike. The Iranian Supreme Leader however, seemed to have learned his lesson….he hectored on revenge…but the missiles that the Iranians launched on the American bases in Iraq as a retaliatory measure,  landed far enough from the base that no American soldiers was killed. J  
  9. Interestingly, it is his daughter Zeinab Soleimani who has been declared his successor, who has been calling for the revenge of her father’s death during his funeral. As it is her name has a special resonance with Shia Islam! She later married the son of Hezbollah’s Chief, Hassan Nasrallah’s cousin, Hashim Safi Al-Din, who many argue might succeed Nasrallah. Esmail Qaani, has succeeded Soleimani as the Chief of the Quds Force, but so far he has been no match to Soleimani, much to the relief of many in the region.

A nice read.

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