Who Was Qasem Soleimani?

By: Joseph Lyttleton

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An overnight air raid by the US military has led to the death of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), and a man thought by many to eventually succeed the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader.

To some, Soleimani was a military hero, to others he was a supporter of terrorists and rogue actors throughout the world.

A revolutionary Iran

Soleimani was born in the Kerman Province of southeast Iran on March 11, 1957. Soleimani was the son of peasants and worked in construction before entering the military. Soleimani had said that he was influenced by the Islamic teachings of Hojjat al-Eslam Rezal Kamyab in 1976 and 1977. Kamyab was a revolutionary preacher with close ties to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, currently Iran’s Supreme Leader.

The Iranian Revolution broke out in 1978-79 and succeeded in overthrowing the US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been in power since 1941. Former Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was one of the key leaders of the revolution and helped establish the Islamic Republic of Iran following the Shah’s exile. 

Ruhollah Khomeini became the country’s first Supreme Leader. From 1981 to 1989, Ali Khamenei was the president of Iran. When Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989, Ali Khamenei became the nation’s second Supreme Leader.

Soleimani’s membership in the IRCG

The IRCG, also known as the Army of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, was formed in 1979 as a separate branch of Iran’s military. 

Shortly after the revolution, Soleimani joined the IRCG and rapidly rose in the ranks, distinguishing himself as a passionate but sensible fighter. His reputation grew during the Iran-Iraq War that was fought from 1980-1988.

Soleimani was leading the Forty-First Tharallah Division of the IRCG by the war’s end and he continued to do so in post-war military activities that saw his division fighting drug cartels, among others. In 1997, the head of the IRCG appointed Soleimani as the Quds Force Chief. The Quds Force is a largely secretive military unit of the IRCG, but its main operations are extraterritorial actions that sees it fighting outside of Iran.


Soleimani’s leadership of the IRCG

After his appointment, Soleimani used his position to shore up alliances across a divided Middle East, including with Syria and the pro-Iran Hezbollah political party in Lebanon. 

In the wake of September 11, 2001, Soleimani offered the US support in eliminating the Taliban, an enemy of both his country, Iran, and the US. Likewise, the US invasion of Iraq was seen as mutually beneficial to both countries.

A power vacuum followed the capture and hanging of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that created space for Soleimani to establish his influence in the region. Soleimani used his country’s military power to reinforce Iran’s political and economic strength throughout the region and beyond.

In addition to opposing American interests in the region, Soleimani is purported to have planned attacks across the globe aimed at figures seen as detrimental to Iran’s interests. 

This maneuvering led him to being called the “second most powerful” person in Iran.

Opposition with the United States

On February 14, 2007, then President George W. Bush stated in a press conference that the Quds Force was responsible for providing explosive devices to resistance fighters in Iraq, resulting in numerous American deaths. 

In 2007, the US Treasury Department cited an executive order by Bush in designating both IRCG and Soleimani as supporters of terrorism, including wording that said the IRCG had provided “material support to the Taliban.”

In 2019, it was reported that the Quds Force was seeking an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian political movement that President Donald Trump has sought to officially designate a terrorist group. The US has also been considering designating the IRCG a terrorist group, a move that some believe could pose a risk to US military personnel in the region.


Initial reactions to Soleimani’s death

Soleimani’s death came just days after a group of Iran-backed protestors took siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad. This protest was in response to US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Trump immediately threatened to retaliate against Iran.

Some in the US expressed the belief that this action was necessary. Ari Fleischer, the Press Secretary under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, stated in an interview on Fox News that he thought the US’s actions would be a “catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani.”

Others, however, were more cautious. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently seeking to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020, released a statement shortly after the bombing was announced. He warned that while “No American will mourn Qassem Soleimani’s passing,” Trump had “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox” as “Iran will surely respond.”

After news broke that Soleimani has been killed, “Iran”, “WWIII”, and “World War III” were the top trending Twitter topics in the US.