Iran’s ‘Deadly Puppet Master’ Soleimani: Regime icon, international mystery

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Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)’s elite Quds Force, was labeled “Iran’s deadly puppet master” by former US General Stanley McChrystal.

He was killed early Friday in a rocket attack at Baghdad International Airport ordered by US President Donald Trump.

Solemani was “no ordinary Iranian revolutionary,” according to expert Behnam Taleblu.

“Soleimani’s combination of belief and lethality is what made his force so dangerous,” said Taleblu, who works at Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

Prior to joining the IRGC, Soleimani had no military experience. But after gaining more than 20 years of direct operational capabilities, Soleimani was arguably the most dominant force in recent Iranian military history.

Born in the Iranian city of Kerman in 1957, Soleimani worked in construction before beginning his climb to the top of Iran’s military in 1979 at the age of 22.

His rise to prominence came in the 1980s after the Iran-Iraq War, where he gained an exceptional record, participating in major military operations, making him a national hero.

Almost two decades after joining the IRGC, Soleimani would reach the highest level when he took charge of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force in 1988.

While Soleimani achieved celebrity status in Iran, he backed away from the international spotlight and for the most part operated in the shadows of the Western world.

Soleimani was “a very shadowy figure,” according to former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Colonel Miri Eisin.

“He knew to stay out of the spotlight. That added to his longevity - which ended today,” said Eisin, who served in the Israeli intelligence community and was a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an interview.

Soleimani was a key driver behind Iran’s hard power approach, consolidating Iran’s influence over its Shia associates in the region and creating vast proxy networks from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen.

Soleimani’s legacy “is better understood by looking at how Iran has been able to insert itself into multiple conflicts that it does not belong in,” said Taleblu, adding that Soleimani led the campaign against the US in Iraq and engineered the defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Soleimani’s support for Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas has become an enduring feature of Iran’s foreign policy, which has provided financial support and training to the groups.

The elimination of Soleimani will create fear among Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, according to Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the US Representative Office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI-US).

Established in 1979, the Quds Force attempts to extend Iran’s influence across the Middle East and its mission is to “establish popular Hezbollah cells all over the world,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a 1990 speech.

Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, the named replacement for commander of the Quds Force, is unlikely to fill Soleimani’s shoes, according to experts.

“No matter who takes over, Solemani has no successor,” said Jafarzadeh.

“Solemani is irreplaceable for the terror apparatus of the Iranian regime. He was one of the most notorious criminals in Iranian history,” he added.

“Whoever steps in now will not have the personal relationship with Hezbollah that Soleimani had,” said Eisin.

Khamenei said on Friday the killing of Soleimani would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, state television reported.

“All Enemies should know that the jihad of resistance will continue with a doubled motivation, and a definite victory awaits the fighters in the holy war,” Khamenei said in a statement carried by TV, in which he called for three days of national mourning.

Khamenei also vowed “severe revenge” and that Soleimani’s work will continue on.

Khamenei does “not want to get into a direct war” with the US over the killing of Soleimani, but also “will not want to look weak,” according to former US ambassador Dennis Ross.

Iran will use the death of Soleimani “domestically to mobilize nationalist passions, will look for ways to hit soft American targets and friends through deniable actions - all the while avoiding a shooting war with [the US],” Ross said in an interview, advising that America’s friends in the region should triple their security measures.

Eisin warned that any US or American visual in the Middle East right now “is certainly a target.”

“I think the response against US allies in the area could be any immediate response, not necessarily by the Quds Force, but by all of the local Shia organizations under the umbrella of Qassem Soleimani,” said Eisin.

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