Suleimani Isn’t Finer’s “Man on Horseback,” But His Views and Those of Other Senior Military Commanders Will Impact Geneva’s Outcome

The young man in the photo above is Qassem Suleimani.  This photo of Suleimani, was taken during the Iran-Iraq War.  General (Sarlashkar) Suleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, currently serves as commander of Iran’s Quds Force.  The photo was presented on Twitter on December 20, 2013 by Will Fulton, a leading US expert on Iran policy and Iranian security issues. Also on December 20th, Fulton completed his outstanding service as part of American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Critical Threats Project where he published the Iran News Round Up.  Whether through his work at AEI or simply on Twitter, information provided by Will Fulton displayed  his remarkable depth of knowledge on Iranian security issues, shedding light on how and why events occurred and personalities who were moving events forward.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Suleimani was one of tens of thousands Iranian men engulfed in the fighting.  Relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues fell together during that fight for Iran’s very survival as a nation.  It was probably impossible for Suleimani to imagine then that he would survive or have a military career that would allow him to become the commander of Iran’s most elite formation.  For the past three decades, he has engaged in conventional and unconventional warfare, wherever required globally, to support and defend Iran and promote the Islamic revolution.  While pictured above riding a horse, he is far from being “The Man on Horseback,” a term Samuel Finer made popular in 1962, referring to a military figure whose ambitions and popularity mark him as a potential dictator.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine any Iranian military commander could be more patriotic, more devoted to Shi’a Islam, more dedicated to the Islamic revolution and the resistance against “oppression,” or more adoring of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  These qualities allowed him to become a trusted confidant and reliable commander for Khamenei.

Much as Fulton has steeped himself on Iranian security issues, for quite a while Suleimani has been quite focused on US security issues.  Consider that at one point the US had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, west and east of Iran respectively, and a fleet of warships deployed in the Persian Gulf.  As of late, his attention has expectedly been drawn to the bilateral talks between the US and Iran and the Geneva nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council and Germany.  Suleimani has made public statements about the Geneva process.  However, in those public expressions, Suleimani does not display a depth of knowledge similar to Fulton’s.  Rather, his public assessments on the capabilities and possibilities of the US have been inaccurate.  This is surprising as Suleimani very likely understands the importance of the Geneva process to Iran.  The real focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process is Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.  The danger may not be clear and present as when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran.  Nonetheless, pragmatic thinking is truly required of all elements of the Iranian government on this matter, not boasts and declarations.

In his address at the martyrs ceremony in Kerman Province, Suleimani was quoted by Fars News on December 22, 2013 as stating the following: “There was day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.”; “Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker’.”; “Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.”; “The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.”; “From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.”;and, “In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”  (This translation of the Fars News quotes was provided by Will Fulton)

A martyrs ceremony is typically a highly-charged political gathering at which passionate, patriotic statements are expected.  Suleimani’s address, while being such, also reflected the group-think among Iran’s hard liners about the US rather than a sound presentation of the current situation.  Indeed, in foreign and defense policy circles in Tehran, it seems to have been concluded that the US is now disinterested in the Middle East as it does not align with its new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is viewed as a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they view US President Barack Obama as lacking the will to fight.  To that extent, Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed.

As Suleimani pointed out in his address, the US has actually suffered economic woes and political divisions, and steep reductions have been made in the US armed forces, but these are not signals the US has somehow become weaker as a nation.  The US remains a nuclear armed superpower, fully capable of acting militarily across the spectrum of warfare.  Its capabilities to defeat Iran’s efforts to establish a nuclear weapons program, a potential military mission, are continually considered and enhanced through the development of new systems and tactics.  The White House would not agree that the Obama administration not to take military action in Syria signaled an unwillingness to take military action.  Rather, the decision was viewed as a maturation of it approach to the use of force.  Iran must concern itself not only with the Obama administration response to a violation of an agreement with the US, but also the response of a prospective winner of the 2016 US Presidential Election to a violation or to the agreement itself. 

Interestingly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, acknowledged worldwide as an expert on US foreign and defense policy issues, has a different take on US prestige, power, and authority in the world.  He has rebuffed statements made by Iranian military leaders such as Suleimani and General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC.  According to a December 20, 2013 article on BloombergZarif, on December 3, 2013, publicly declared that Iran’s military was not powerful enough to deter the West. 

Men such as Qassem Suleimani are unintimidated by war and are prepared to sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice in the defense of Iran and the Islamic revolution.  However, the survival of Iran is central to the survival of the Islamic revolution.  In a war with the US, in which nuclear weapons are in the mix, the survival of Iran could not be guaranteed.  Good judgment requires the Iranian military commanders such as Suleimani to support the construction of an agreement that is acceptable to them, given the current realities, while at the same time being sustainable.  This would allow them to ensure Iran’s security and allow future generations to the opportunity to further the Islamic revolution.  Although it would not be a spectacular victory, it would nonetheless represent a victory for Iran.

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