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Meet The Most Powerful Operative In The Middle East

An Iranian general is gaining publicity as he spreads his country’s influence all the way from Lebanon to Afghanistan.

Qassem Suleimani is the commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guard designed to operate outside Iran’s borders. Pictures of Suleimani have been appearing in greater frequency in the past year, raising questions as to why this former covert operator would allow a degree of notoriety.

Once a shadowy figure, Suleimani has risen to near-celebrity status. The first reason for this shift can be explained as an “attempt to reach out to political decision makers, communicating that if they want to reach an agreement with Iran, they need to talk to him,” said Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Evidence of this aim was a foiled assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador while he ate at a restaurant near the White House in 2011. Suleimani hired a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit, but his operative accidentally approached an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official in the cartel.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was secretly negotiating with the U.S. during this time, according to Alfoneh. Suleimani wasn’t so interested in whether or not it would be successful, but he wanted to derail any attempts to normalize Iran-U.S. relations.

On principle, Suleimani isn’t against nuclear negotiations or normalization with the U.S., but he wants to be in charge. In 2008, Suleimani sent an infamous text to former Gen. David Petraeus, saying he’s the one who decides Iran’s policies in the Middle East region.

Secondly, publicity provides a way for Suleimani to wage psychological warfare on the Islamic State. He’s released a photograph of himself sipping tea with Iraqi commanders outside Tikrit. This is Suleimani’s way of communicating the message that he’ll not only take the city, but he’s relaxed about it.

Of the 30,000 fighters involved in the Tikrit offensive, an estimated 20,000 are members of Iran-backed, Shiite militias. These groups are competing with each other for Suleimani’s favor, who is supplying arms, money and logistical support. The Iraqi military is officially responsible for the operation — but in reality, Suleimani is leading the offensive in Tikrit.

Alfoneh told The Daily Caller News Foundation:

He is perfectly happy with the fact that the Islamic State is present in Iraq. I am not so sure his end goal is to annihilate the Islamic State. I am thinking he is taking advantage of the fact, because this legitimizes Iran’s military presence in Iraq. This was something that was completely unacceptable just a couple years ago. Now, it has become legitimized.

The Islamic State is also a bargaining chip in the hands of Iran, as it conducts nuclear negotiations with the U.S. Both governments claim the terrorist organization is not a part of the process, but information has been exchanged about the Islamic State in Iraq.

“I would be deeply surprised if Iran is not taking advantage of its strong position in Iraq in order to force concessions from the U.S. in the nuclear issue,” said Alfoneh.

A third motivation for Suleimani’s shift is that he has some designs when it comes to domestic policy. He wants to be a known person in the Iranian public, and might have political ambitions in the future, says Alfoneh.

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