Qassem Soleimani in Israel’s crosshairs – and maybe US’s too

Soleimani has emerged as Iran’s leading military commander in Tehran’s strategic drive to expand its control across the region.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Advance man. A file picture shows Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force Major-General Qassem Soleimani sitting during a religious ceremony in Tehran. (AP)

BEIRUT - Israel has identified Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, as the mastermind of the May 10 Iranian missile broadside against Israeli-held territory that marked a sharp escalation in the brewing conflict between the two countries.

It is thus highly probable that Soleimani, who has achieved almost mythical status as one of Iran’s greatest military heroes, is now at the top of Israeli intelligence’s hit list as the two long-time rivals move almost daily closer to war. If that’s the case, the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, can be assumed to have received the green light from its political masters to actively plot Soleimani’s demise.

The actual act of eliminating Soleimani would be difficult and dangerous. Despite his penchant for being photographed on the front lines in Syria at the head of Iranian forces supporting embattled President Bashar Assad, he is known to take exhaustive measures to ensure his personal security. In recent years, Soleimani has emerged as Iran’s leading military commander in Tehran’s strategic drive to expand its control across the region, from Afghanistan to the Levant. He constantly flits with apparent ease across the Middle East’s war zones. Soleimani, who has been the key figure in Iran’s expansionist objective to become the Middle East’s paramount power, is now holding talks with Iraqi politicians in Baghdad to promote a new, Tehran-approved cabinet that would effectively transform the country into an Iranian satrap.

He is portrayed by the Iranian regime’s propaganda machine as a fearless tactician who leads from the front, always in the thick of the action with his men and weeping over their bodies when they are killed.

The Americans would like to see Soleimani removed from the Middle East’s many-sided conflicts and there have been repeated reports he was in the US’s crosshairs. Apart from his leadership of al-Quds Force and its efforts to expand Iran’s power in the Middle East, the United States accuses Soleimani of playing a key role in an allegedly foiled 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant. Tehran denies that.

In December 2017, the former Iranian ambassador to Jordan, Mostafa Moslehzadeh, claimed the United States had been hatching plots to kill the high-profile al-Quds commander for 14 years. There is nothing to indicate that the United States has ever actually mounted any operations specifically aimed at eliminating him.

Moslehzadeh was quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency on December 24, 2017 as telling a Tehran forum: “Based on US documents, the Americans have been seeking to assassinate him since 2003.

“This plot has been officially raised in the US Congress… It has also been said that the abduction of a number of Iranian diplomats in foreign countries had been conducted because it was thought that General Soleimani was among them,” Moslehzadeh was quoted as saying.

On January 1, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that US intelligence had given Israel the green light to kill Soleimani in Syria, where several other Iranian generals have been assassinated since Iran intervened to help Assad in the civil war that erupted in March 2011.

Several of these killings were attributed to Syrian rebels, but it is widely accepted that Israel was the most likely culprit and by far the most experienced in waging a shadow war against the Islamic Republic since the pro-Israeli shah was overthrown in 1979.

Imad Mughniyeh, military chief of Hezbollah and a long-time target of assassination attempts by Israel and the United States, was blown up in a joint CIA-Mossad operation in a high-security sector of Damascus on February 12, 2008.

On August 1, 2008, Israel’s naval special forces unit, codenamed Flotilla 13, shot dead Brigadier-General Mohammad Suleiman during a party at his villa outside the Mediterranean port of Tartus, now a Russian naval base. He was one of Assad’s right-hand men. One of his key duties was coordinating Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Several Hezbollah chieftains have been killed in Lebanon and Syria under mysterious circumstances since then. Among them was the group’s chief technology expert and arms procurer, Hassan Lakkis, shot dead outside his home near Beirut on December 4, 2013.

Al Jarida, which periodically publishes sensational reports on Israel’s security issues, gave no reason for the Americans’ apparent change of heart regarding Soleimani, a close associate of Mughniyeh, and whom Washington holds responsible for the death of more than 500 American troops in Iraq in 2005-2011 following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Al Jarida even went so far as to say, quoting unidentified sources, that in 2015 the then-US administration of President Barack Obama tipped off Tehran that the Israelis were “on the verge” of killing Soleimani “near Damascus.” This occurred as the United States and five global powers were negotiating the landmark nuclear agreement with the Tehran regime that was eventually signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vehemently opposed the negotiations with the Jewish state’s main enemy, claiming that any deal would leave Israel exposed to Iranian attack.

Killing Soleimani would have undoubtedly torpedoed those negotiations with the United States.

With Netanyahu warning darkly of a new Iranian threat − building up its military power in the divided Golan Heights of southern Syria, part of which Israel has occupied since 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1981 − analyst Mahan Abedin told Middle East Eye that these reports on Soleimani being targeted “appear to make sense.”

In October 2017, Trump announced he was launching a new Iran strategy aimed at countering the “fanatical regime” in Tehran.

Abedin, an analyst and terrorism specialist with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think-tank, observed: “Even before Trump’s arrival, the CIA had become a lot more aggressive to Iran.”

Abedin and other security activists noted that over the years the sprawling US intelligence apparatus has had major difficulties in infiltrating Iran’s state structures, while the Israelis “on the other hand, are prepared to do things the Americans are not prepared to do” – such as assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists inside the Islamic Republic and, maybe, Soleimani too.

So who is Soleimani, this paragon of revolutionary zeal? The courteous, grey-bearded general looks more like a friendly bank manager or an avuncular uncle than one of the region’s most ruthless spymasters, fiercely loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Born to a poor family in Kerman, south-west Iran, and driven to go to work as a day labourer in the construction industry as a boy, Soleimani first achieved prominence in the 1980-88 war against Iraq, when he frequently operated behind enemy lines.

From such humble beginnings, he now shuffles tens of thousands of troops and militiamen around the region and has been linked to several terrorist attacks, mainly against Israel, around the globe. Khamenei once praised Soleimani as a “living martyr” − a status the Israelis and Americans might wish they could change.