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Michael Weiss

Qassem Soleimani has a headache

An exclusive profile of the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (image via mojahedin.org)

In late October 2014, an unnamed American journalist commissioned by NOW traveled to Iraq to profile Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force. Given Soleimani’s importance to the US strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, and in the interest of budding US-Iranian detente, the journalist hoped to gain an interview with the once reclusive and suddenly ubiquitous spymaster.

 

Soleimani had never before talked to a Western reporter on or off the record. His late penchant for having his picture taken hadn’t changed that. So the journalist stayed in Iraq for weeks, interviewing many of the people around Soleimani including his Quds Force associates, his militia trainees, his political allies. The result, a factually accurate portrait of the feared and celebrated Iranian operative, colored with rich secondhand detail, helped usher in a genre of Newish Journalism whereby undeclared US allies can be introduced to American audiences.

 

Qassem Soleimani, holding a faded, brown leather notebook and his tasbīḥ, sat on the carpeted floor, his back against the white stucco wall of a safe house known to few, flanked by two young, bearded militiamen waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing. He’d been quiet all evening, barely mustering his mischievous smile, now the spymaster’s unlikely calling card from the battlefield — his way of demonstrating to the Silent Partner who really ran the world. His black baseball hat was turned backward, more JSOC than Jay-Z. His kaffiyeh was slipping from around his slumped shoulders. His khaki pants were caked with mud. Outside on the street a car backfired, giving everyone unfamiliar with IEDs a start except the one man who knew their sound as he did his own voice. The militiamen got up and ran outside to investigate. Soleimani didn’t move. He was tired.

 

His wife had discovered over the course of decades what those shy emissaries from Baghdad conveying messages from the Silent Partner had learned at their peril — that it was unwise to force conversation on Soleimani when he was exhausted, a state he often found himself in ever since assuming command of his fourth simultaneous war in the Middle East. Technically, it was his fifth simultaneous war, if you counted Afghanistan, which he still did even if the Silent Partner couldn’t wait to forget about it. His budget was off-book, thanks to his way with Iraqi banks, but sanctions relief made it even moreso. His body bore the signs of waste and fatigue. He was 57 but looked 10 years older. The hair on his head and around his mouth had turned grey long ago in the gutters of Sadr City. Ever since Hassan Shateri’s funeral, Soleimani had developed a small, low-riding paunch, easily mistakable for a whisky habit, even though he’d been eating less and less. The circles under his eyes, which had once seemed to squeeze his gaze into a falcon’s focus, now resembled dark hollows, like mortar craters. Men half his age worked an eighth as hard. Everyone he knew would kill for him. The Houthis had aggravated his prostate.

 

Soleimani was back in Iraq to train fresh recruits for a new Shiite militia which even the Silent Partner didn’t know existed yet but would soon find out about and approve. This one was called the Magyars of the Mahdi and it consisted entirely of Hungarian converts — because no one would see that coming and because he couldn’t turn down a dare. Ali, one of his Quds Force colonels, had dared him. Ali lost, happily.

 

Soleimani had taken two-bit punks from Baalbek with blood on the brain and “Ya Zeinab” as their ringtones and turned them into warriors so impressive that the Silent Partner’s intelligence service used its favorite McDonald’s in Beirut to pass them intel on Salafis. “Give me a Solomon Schechter day-school graduate from Westchester and in a week I’ll have him smuggling detonators from Pakistan,” Soleimani had once declared to a slightly bemused Nasrallah, back in calmer days, before ISIS sacked Mosul. “I’d have the FSA ready for NATO membership in six months” was another boast. People believed him.

 

He’d done this so many times before, trained up so many “equities” from places you’ve never heard of, made fools of so many skeptics who said he was out of his depth, that the rigamarole was now more tic than tradecraft. Always the seminar on drill-bits before the seminar on electrical cables; always the same overzealous idiot injuring himself on day one, trying to show off with a Craftsman Cordless from Sears. What was Hungarian for “ice it down, son”? Soleimani didn’t know, much less care. Since June he had not stopped working, save for a few days’ ring-a-ding in Tehran, where he mainly sat poolside drinking mate and reading Human Rights Watch reports about his latest and greatest.

 

The older he got, the more unpredictable and cryptic he became. At a dinner party in 2009, in Jalal Talabani’s house in Erbil, another guest, an old comrade from PJAK, had accidentally knocked a small but intricately-rendered porcelain statuette of Mao from a side table, then apologized profusely to his host, glancing nervously in Soleimani’s direction, knowing how much the bauble had meant to Talabani. Soleimani said nothing. He walked over and picked up the pieces of the shattered totalitarian, staring into his hands for five minutes before whispering for no one else’s benefit: “But what if fish have grown weary of water, Chairman?”

 

A smile stays genuinely mischievous for only so long before it becomes a rictus. Studied repetition, the catechism of any operation, can also lend itself to occupational wear-and-tear. The dull throb, another keepsake from the battlefield, rose in his temple like a snare drum crescendoing. Maybe it was the hour, or the temperature, or the latest difficulties with the Magyars, or maybe it was that his aide-de camp had brought him kanafeh with a scoop of vanilla ice cream — he hated vanilla ice cream, and threw the dish at the aide — but here it came again, in one of Chalabi’s unregistered flats in Najaf. Soleimani had a headache.

 

Soleimani with a headache is Jumblatt without an about-face, a Fajr-5 with homemade Hamas wiring — only worse. For the headache robs Soleimani of his strategic clarity, his cunning. It affects not only his own physical well-being but that of millions. A migraine for Hajj Qassem would topple Damascus.

 

It was the attention, his inner circle believed, that was getting to him. This was new for a veteran spy. He was everywhere now, thanks to smartphones, and everyone had learned his name. A Zionist magazine had recently named him the “Shadow Commander,” an epithet that suited him well and led to a series of jokes at Muhandis’ expense (the “Sun-Dappled Subordinate,” the “Overcast Also-Ran”), which Muhandis pretended to take with good humor, only rarely letting his inner pain show. The BBC had just devoted a 10-minute feature to Soleimani’s exploits as a man seen by none, recorded by many, and plausibly denied by all. At least Uncle Napoleon had finally taken notice of him.

 

Media saturation, which started off as its own species of provocation, had begun to seem a spectacle, not to mention a security risk to his well-guarded privacy. The price of detente with the Silent Partner was, strangely enough, celebrity — the nemesis of clandestine operatives. Nargis, Soleimani’s daughter in Malaysia, had emailed a Photoshopped picture of him on the moon wearing a black Members-Only jacket, standing next to an astronaut. “LOL, Daddy,” she’d written, no doubt from some karaoke fleshpot in Kuala Lumpur. Were these the communicative fruits of five years’ worth of Parisian lycée schooling, he wondered? And why did the younger generation want reconciliation with a West that both spoke and fought at the level of a kindergarten? The only shrines this generation cared about were selfies.

 

But here Soleimani was inclined to laughter. Nargis was gently mocking her father’s late-in-life penchant for photo ops. Here was one of Soleimani posing triumphantly with the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Amerli minutes after the Silent Partner’s F-18s had zipped by in a bit of muted, close air support; there he was surrounded by grinning peshmerga hours after the Silent Partner’s consignment of anti-tank missiles had been delivered to them. Western journalists kept talking about ISIS and its “reach,” which, they said, now spanned an expanse of territory equal to that of Great Britain. Maybe. But Soleimani’s reach encompassed the world. He had access to more nations, and could plot operations in more jurisdictions, than any one man since the end of the Cold War. He’d moved men and Semtex through Thailand and Nairobi while presidents slept. He’d helped Al-Qaeda into and out of Iran on a whim, sometimes arming them, sometimes blowing their cover to an enemy agent in need, just to amuse himself by the latter’s inevitable gratitude. The young Saladin who had once carried goats back from Saddam’s Iraq now carried the weight of nations — including his Iraq — on those same slumped shoulders. But now he had a headache.

 

US Weekly Khomeinism was working too well. Iraq’s new premier, Haider al-Abadi, had only that morning passed him a message from a child vizier of the Silent Partner called Ben Rhodes. Rhodes had thanked Soleimani for his efforts in retaking Jurf al-Sakhar from the terrorists and said that this had not gone unnoticed among the “principals” of the Silent Partner. Soleimani had chunks of guys like Rhodes in his stool.

 

All the sport had gone from the game. Now the New York Times and the Washington Post were cheering him on, discreetly, while Rouhani took all the credit. “Never let the operation run you,” Mughniyeh had once told him. He could always rely on Mughniyeh for honest advice, not like the toadies cadging for cash and black-market ISF uniforms. Rumors had been circulating about his plans, post-Pasdaran. Would the Shadow Commander eventually slip into shadows forever, his legacy secured as the Ozymandias of the despairing khaleejis, or would he seek something higher? The rumors had a kernel of truth.

 

The ayatollah was frail and no longer in command of his senses. A recent hospital stay had transformed him from Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic into Women’s Studies professor of Hampshire College: GamerGate now excited him more than centrifuges. It’d simply be easier to run a country by running a country, out in the open and with public acknowledgement and acclaim. Putin had tried to convince Soleimani to mount a coup after Meir Dagan retired, and what had seemed treasonous at the time now seemed sensible and fair.

 

Who else killed scores of a nation’s soldiers only to be rewarded with its Air Force? Who else gained all the perks of a nuclear umbrella by merely negotiating over the potential to build a single nuke? Who in history had peddled imperialism to mooks as rational self-interest? Saddam, Bush, Netanyahu, Abdullah — he’d survived the first two, and he’d outlast the last two.

 

The militiamen had returned — it was a car backfiring. Soleimani still hadn’t spoken, but he got up and left the safe house, stepping into the busy Najaf streets. A throng of three young boys playing soccer passed by him; two took no notice of the commander, but one, the smallest and youngest, stopped playing and looked right at him. Through the corner of his left eye, Soleimani spotted the boy on his way to a Jeep Grand Cherokee parked at the curb and he knew, because this happens every day, that the kid was thinking, is it really him, right here, in front of me? A moment before the other soccer players turned the corner, leaving their junior companion behind, Soleimani turned his head and met the boy’s gaze, waiting for the reaction he knew would come. It came, and he smiled his mischievous smile. It was unforced, after all. The boy smiled back and Soleimani was gone.

 

This is a work of satire. 

 

Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

It was the attention, his inner circle believed, that was getting to him. This was new for a veteran spy. (image via mojahedin.org)

Soleimani had taken two-bit punks from Baalbek with blood on the brain and 'Ya Zeinab' as their ringtones and turned them into warriors so impressive that the Silent Partner’s intelligence service used its favorite McDonald’s in Beirut to pass them intel on Salafis."