Wednesday, September 25, 2013

4 Takeways from the Filkins study of Qassem Suleimani

This piece by Dexter Filkins on Qassem Suleimani, CO of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - Quds Force, is a must read. At least for anyone who has an interest in the politics of the Middle East.

My 4 takeaways...

1) Suleimani is a comfortable regime hardliner
Put simply, you don't become the head of the Quds Force unless you are an ideological hardliner. Take this quote from the general: ''When I see the children of the martyrs, I want to smell their scent and I lose myself.'' Suleimani has no doubt in the righteousness of the Islamic revolutionary project of which he is a part. As he sees it, he's an heir to Husayn; a pious servant in the service of divine righteousness. This notion of ordained purpose coalesces with Suleimani's comments on the ''paradise'' of ''the battlefield''. The general's sustaining ideological motivations are far from flexible. This is not a guy who'll one day sit down and become a supporter of democracy.

2) Suleimani is a semi-astute political actor
Unlike Salafi Jihadists, Suleimani carefully attunes his activities towards his specific interests in the political moment. As Filkins notes, Suleimani is occasionally willing to work with the United States - Filkins references Crocker's (former US Abmbassador-Iraq) decision to allow Suleimani to help shape Iraq's first post-war provisional government. What Filkins neglects to mention is that Suleimani played a very clever game with this endeavor - see a certain Ahmed Chalabi... 

Nevertheless, Suleimani isn't a political mastermind. For one, he seems to underestimate the US Intelligence Community - see his absurd letter denying responsibility for attacks on US forces/the 2011 plot against the Saudi Ambassador in DC.

In a final regard, there should be no doubt that Suleimani considers the United States to be a fundamental enemy - Filkins aptly points out the general's support for EFP cells in Iraq.

3) US Foreign Policy can both deter and embolden Iranian aggression
As Filkins hints, Suleimani's fluctuating aggression has been explicitly linked to Iranian perceptions of American confidence or weakness. In essence, when the US is seen as timid, Iran becomes more aggressive. On the flip side, the opposite is true. From my perspective, this speaks to two things - 1) That the US collapse in Syria is indeed a strategic catastrophe in terms of the motivating signal it sends to Iran. 2) That a credible threat of military force could push Iran towards serious compromise in their nuclear ambitions.

4) Iran is fully engaged in support of Assad
During the recent Syria intervention debate, some suggested that even a limited US operation would encourage major Iranian escalation in support of Assad. Yet, as Filkins explains, the Iranians are already fully committed to the survival of their key ally. In that sense, by sitting on the Syria sidelines, we're allowing Iran to dominate the Syria battlespace. We're also indirectly empowering Salafi Jihadist formations over nationalist rebel formations. In short, our Syria strategy is completely idiotic.

My related thoughts on the Middle East can be found here.


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