“a Middle Eastern Karla”

From Dexter Filkins’ highly readable New Yorker splash on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani – who “appears to exist in a special category, an enemy both hated and admired: a Middle Eastern equivalent of Karla”:

Worse, Assad’s soldiers wouldn’t fight—or, when they did, they mostly butchered civilians, driving the populace to the rebels. “The Syrian Army is useless!” Suleimani told an Iraqi politician. He longed for the Basij, the Iranian militia whose fighters crushed the popular uprisings against the regime in 2009. “Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I could conquer the whole country,” he said … Finally, Suleimani began flying into Damascus frequently so that he could assume personal control of the Iranian intervention. “He’s running the war himself,” an American defense official told me … The Middle Eastern security official said that the number of Quds Force operatives, along with the Iraqi Shiite militiamen they brought with them, reached into the thousands. “They’re spread out across the entire country,” he told me.

On the rise and fall of US-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan:

Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October, 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. “If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!” he shouted. “When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.” He stomped out of the room. “It was a great moment,” Crocker said.

The coöperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.” The flow of information went both ways. On one occasion, Crocker said, he gave his counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda facilitator living in the eastern city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained him and brought him to Afghanistan’s new leaders, who, Crocker believes, turned him over to the U.S. The negotiator told Crocker, “Haji Qassem is very pleased with our coöperation.”

The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”

On the Iranian reaction to the Iraq War:

After Saddam’s regime collapsed, Crocker was dispatched to Baghdad to organize a fledgling government, called the Iraqi Governing Council. He realized that many Iraqi politicians were flying to Tehran for consultations, and he jumped at the chance to negotiate indirectly with Suleimani. In the course of the summer, Crocker passed him the names of prospective Shiite candidates, and the two men vetted each one. Crocker did not offer veto power, but he abandoned candidates whom Suleimani found especially objectionable. “The formation of the governing council was in its essence a negotiation between Tehran and Washington,” he said. That exchange was the high point of Iranian-American coöperation. “After we formed the governing council, everything collapsed,” Crocker said.

On the Suleimani-Petraeus correspondence:

Around the same time, Suleimani struck up a correspondence with senior American officials, sending messages through intermediaries—sometimes seeking to reassure the Americans, sometimes to extract something. One of the first came in early 2008, when the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, handed a cell phone with a text message to General David Petraeus, who had taken over the year before as the commander of American forces. “Dear General Petraeus,” the text read, “you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.” After the five American soldiers were killed in Karbala, Suleimani sent a message to the American Ambassador. “I swear on the grave of Khomeini I haven’t authorized a bullet against the U.S.,” Suleimani said. None of the Americans believed him.

In a report to the White House, Petraeus wrote that Suleimani was “truly evil.” Yet at times the two men were all but negotiating. According to diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks, Petraeus sent messages through Iraqi officials to Suleimani, asking him to call off rocket attacks on the American Embassy and on U.S. bases. In 2008, the Americans and the Iraqi Army were pressing an offensive against the Mahdi Army—Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia—and, in retribution, the militia was bombarding the Green Zone regularly. Suleimani, who sensed a political opening, sent Petraeus a message lamenting the situation and saying that he had assigned men to apprehend the attackers. Petraeus replied, “I was born on a Sunday, but it wasn’t last Sunday.” Eventually, Suleimani brokered a ceasefire between Sadr and the government.

At times, Suleimani seemed to take pleasure in taunting his American counterparts, and stories of his exploits spread. In the summer of 2006, during the thirty-four-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the violence in Baghdad appeared to ebb. When the fighting ended, the Iraqi politician told me, Suleimani supposedly sent a message to the American command. “I hope you have been enjoying the peace and quiet in Baghdad,” it read. “I’ve been busy in Beirut!”

On Iran’s attitude to Syria’s chemical weapons use:

Last December, when Assad’s regime appeared close to collapse, American officials spotted Syrian technicians preparing bombs carrying the nerve agent sarin to be loaded onto aircraft. All indications were that they were plotting an enormous chemical attack. Frantic, the Americans called leaders in Russia, who called their counterparts in Tehran. According to the American defense official, Suleimani appeared to be instrumental in persuading Assad to refrain from using the weapons.

Suleimani’s sentiments about the ethics of chemical weapons are unknown. During the Iran-Iraq War, thousands of Iranian soldiers suffered from chemical attacks, and the survivors still speak publicly of the trauma. But some American officials believe that his efforts to restrain Assad had a more pragmatic inspiration: the fear of provoking American military intervention. “Both the Russians and the Iranians have said to Assad, ‘We can’t support you in the court of world opinion if you use this stuff,’ ” a former senior American military official said.

Iran-Iraq cooperation over Syria:

Suleimani’s greatest achievement may be persuading his proxies in the Iraqi government to allow Iran to use its airspace to fly men and munitions to Damascus. General James Mattis, who until March was the commander of all American military forces in the Middle East, told me that without this aid the Assad regime would have collapsed months ago. The flights are overseen by the Iraqi transportation minister, Hadi al-Amri, who is an old ally of Suleimani’s—the former head of the Badr Brigade, and a soldier on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War. In an interview in Baghdad, Amri denied that the Iranians were using Iraqi airspace to send weapons. But he made clear his affection for his former commander. “I love Qassem Suleimani!” he said, pounding the table. “He is my dearest friend.” … “Maliki dislikes the Iranians, and he loathes Assad, but he hates Al Nusra,” Crocker told me. “He doesn’t want an Al Qaeda government in Damascus.”

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