Iran vs. ISIS: Rallying Behind General Suleimani
John Henry Murdy
General Soleimani of Iran has become a near-celebrity in the wake of his fierce and decisive leadership against the Islamic State. As the foreign operations commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ international “Quds” unit, Soleimani has publicly lead opposition against the Islamic State, directing Iranian Special Forces and Shia militias in the relatively successful counterattack in Iraq. In the process, the general has become a bona-fide celebrity in Iran.
As the BBC describes, he is the subject of many documentaries, periodicals, reports, and even a music video showing Shia militiamen in Iraq spray-painting his face onto a wall. The Iranian news-site, KhabarOnline, even voted him “Iran’s 2014 Person of the Year,” beating out notable persons like the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zari, who is negotiating nuclear rights, and Morteza Pashaei, a hugely popular pop singer. Now commonly seen in social media photos on the front lines of the Iraq conflict, Soleimani is seen as a real peoples’-man, fighting for the good of the Iranian people against an evil Islamic State. His popularity has reached such levels that some in Iran have called on him to stand in the upcoming 2017 presidential elections, describing him as the country’s “most honest and least corrupt politician.” Needless to say, the man has become a heavily influential force both inside and outside of Iran.
General Soleimani’s celebrity-status was not always so widely proclaimed. Due to the secretive nature of the Quds force, the general held a low profile before his involvement against the Islamic State, but he has still managed to be the main director behind Iran’s foreign policy for the past decade. He is suspected of being the driving force behind the 2001 collaboration between the US and Iran against the Afghani Taliban. However, soon after the Iraq invasion and subsequent Shia revolt, the US accused him of being a terrorist arming anti-US rebels. Years later, Soleimani was in direct control of Iran’s 2007 negotiations over the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, literally calling the shots through a phone-line with the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq. More recently, he is thought to have been behind the strategy that allowed President Bashar al-Assad to turn the tide against Sunni-rebels in Syria.
After the emergence of the Islamic State, the general moved closer to his homeland to fight the extremists in Iraq, becoming the public face of Iranian resistance and influence against the radical group. Most recently confirmed to be fighting IS in the crucial battle for Tikrit, unconfirmed rumors suggest that he has left Iraq to aid the Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen. If the presence of such a high level official was confirmed, it would show a dramatic increase in the support Iran is giving to the Shia group. Iran would be overtly broadening the scope and importance of the conflict, directly opposing Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis. Whether or not Yemen truly is his next destination, General Soleimani will certainly be at the forefront of Iranian hard-power diplomacy for the foreseeable future.