Author Q&A: Arash Azizi
Open Canada contributor Arash Azizi, a PhD candidate in history at New York University, is the author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions (Oneworld, 2020).
Qassem Soleimani was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, which is responsible for the Revolutionary Guards’ operations outside Iran. America assassinated Soleimani last year in Baghdad, Iraq. More than 50 Canadians died in the aftermath, when Iran mistakenly shot down a civilian jetliner it thought was an American warplane.
Q: A column in Press TV, an Iranian state news outlet, describes Qassem Soleimani as “the Muslim Che Guevara.” Was he?
A: No. Che Guevara was devoted to a global cause and put that cause first and foremost. Soleimani was a functionary of the Iranian state through and through. What he tried to spread wasn’t so much the Iranian Revolution only, but also the very crude interests of the Iranian state.
Q: But there are those who saw Soleimani as an anti-imperial icon of resistance.
A: Whatever he was, he wasn’t an anti-imperialist. He helped Russia’s imperial presence in Syria. And Russia is still there. Iran’s own presence in other countries is frankly imperial. Soleimani himself boasted how the presence of his forces in Syria and Iraq would bring economic benefits to Iran. If that’s not imperial, I don’t know what is
Q: Soleimani grew up in a provincial backwater, far from the centre of power in Iran, and rose to the top. How? What motivated him?
A: Imagine you are in your early twenties. There’s this big revolution, and then the war with Iraq breaks out. All of a sudden, you have a chance to enlarge your perspectives, to go fight in a war, to become part of something bigger. He did that. That’s crucial to understanding him.
He was also a people person. Convincing others to come and die with you is not an easy job. He was a great field commander. If it’s clear that you’re the kind of guy who’s going to be on the front yourself, that helps.
Q: How important was religion to him?
A: The Revolutionary Guards rejected him when he first wanted to join because he didn’t look like an Islamist revolutionary. He went to the local gym. He did karate. He had a bit of a religious inclination. He believed he was a good Muslim. But he wasn’t religious. He was a soldier. And that didn’t change his entire life. His knowledge of religion was very superficial.
Q: It was in Iraq during the fight against ISIS that Soleimani became most famous. What did he accomplish there?
A: The main contribution of his life was in Iraq. If it was an easy job to unite Iraqis politically, the Americans could have done it. But Soleimani was able to put together a very serious pro-Iran political and military presence in Iraq. And he was also able to have sections that were not Iran-directed or supported, but they were happy to work with these pro-Iranian parties — like the Kurdish parties. The Kurdish parties were allies of Israel and the United States, but they also worked closely with Soleimani.
But a dark stain on Soleimani’s career, and on the Islamic Republic in general, is that they fan sectarianism, they fan hatred of Sunnis, in order to spread their influence. They use it cynically. They use it because they know their stale, old, vague Khomeini-ism and anti-Zionism don’t work. But sectarianism works. And, of course, it’s being used by the other side — the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the rise of ISIS. But Soleimani helped it, really helped it, made it into an art and mobilized thousands of Shias to fight.
Q: Iran and the United States cooperated in Afghanistan against the Taliban and in Iraq against ISIS. But they often seem on the verge of war.
A: There is a very significant faction in the Iranian regime that wants peace with the United States, because it’s their best shot to stay in power. You can’t fight with the Americans all the time, and they have no reason to. Another faction will grudgingly accept the United States and have relations with it, if they’re able to have their own little dictatorship in Iran. Of course, there are also those who are democrats and want democracy for Iran. But they are now mostly out of power and in jail.
Q: Surely any assessment of Soleimani’s legacy must include his role in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
A: When Soleimani died, one of the first reactions I saw was my friend’s boyfriend — normal Syrian guy living in New York, not very political — and he was celebrating. In the streets of different parts of Syria that are not under the regime’s control, they distributed cookies.
Soleimani was one of the top three or four people who are responsible for one of the most gruesome exercises of sheer brutality on people — I mean, on your own people. President Bashar Assad of Syria has killed hundreds of his own people. We can’t even count it. He has helped the displacement of millions of people. Soleimani was a big part of that.
So, if someone asks me if Soleimani was a good guy or a bad guy, that answers it. But people have strange morals. In their warped vision of the world, Assad is part of the Axis of Resistance, together with Iran and Hezbollah, because they’re anti-western and anti-Israeli. And anyone who helps them sustain power is a good guy, no matter the cost. That’s why they would celebrate someone like Soleimani. They’re not anti-imperialist. They’re anti-American.
Q: What do Iranians think of Soleimani’s legacy?
A: If you support the regime, you support Soleimani. Others might support him as someone who fought in the Iran–Iraq war. If his career ended in 1988, as an Iranian, I would have revered him as a soldier who fought for his country. Then, there are those who are Iranian nationalists. They, frankly, like an Iranian military guy who is killing Arabs in other countries. But a majority don’t like him, because he represents Khomeini, he represents the regime, and they don’t like that. We know they don’t like that, because the regime has to kill people all the time. If it was so popular, it wouldn’t have to do that.