At the Tip of Iran's Spear
Let's try for a moment to put ourselves in the mind of Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. For it is the soft-spoken Soleimani, not Iran's bombastic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who plays a decisive role in his nation's confrontation with the United States.
Soleimani represents the sharp point of the Iranian spear. He is responsible for Iran's covert activities in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and other battlegrounds. He oversees the regime's relations with its militant proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. His elite, secretive wing of the Revolutionary Guard is identified as a terrorist organization by the Bush administration, but he is also Iran's leading strategist on foreign policy. He reports personally to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his budget (mostly in cash) comes directly from the supreme leader's office.
Soleimani is confident about Iran's rising power in the region, according to an Arab official who met recently with him. He sees an America that is weakened by the war in Iraq but still potent. He has told visitors that U.S. and Iranian goals in Iraq are similar, despite the rhetoric of confrontation. But he has expressed no interest in direct, high-level talks. The Quds Force commander prefers to run out the clock on the Bush administration, hoping that the next administration will be more favorable to Iran's interests.
"The level of confidence of these [Quds Force] guys is that they are it, and everything else is marginal," says the Arab who meets regularly with Soleimani.
Soleimani has been adept at turning up the heat in Iraq, then lowering the temperature when it suits Iran's interest. A good example was the Basra campaign in March, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attacked the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia headed by Moqtada al-Sadr. Though the Iranians had been backing Sadr, they made a quick switch to supporting Maliki. It was Soleimani himself who brokered the cease-fire that restored calm in Basra.
The simultaneous support for Maliki and Sadr is characteristic of Soleimani, according to people who know him well. Rather than pick a single ally, as Americans tend to do, he will choose at least two. By riding several horses at once, he maximizes Iran's opportunities and reduces its risks.
Soleimani's opportunism was evident during the heavy shelling of the Green Zone in March. The Iranians had supplied their Mahdi Army allies in Sadr City with very powerful 240mm rockets and mortars, and they had bracketed their targets in the Green Zone so precisely that U.S. casualties were rising sharply.
After a particularly heavy day of shelling, Gen. David Petraeus sent Soleimani a message -- "Stop shooting at the Green Zone." The message was conveyed verbally by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The Quds Force commander didn't react immediately. But the heavy mortar fire on the Green Zone soon tapered off. Iran had flexed its muscles and demonstrated America's vulnerability, and then opted for a tactical retreat.
This ebb and flow of Iranian tactics was noted by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. He told journalists Thursday that the Iranians have withdrawn Mahdi Army fighters from Basra and Sadr City, but it isn't clear yet whether they have decided that "the militia era is over" in Iraq or are just making a "tactical pause."
The question for Soleimani-watchers is how he will play his hand in the growing confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. The Bush administration seems to have decided on a course of escalating pressure against Tehran during its remaining months in office. The Iranians, while maintaining a tough line on the nuclear issue, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, appear wary of an all-out confrontation.
So imagine that you are Qassem Soleimani, commander of a covert Iranian army deployed across the Middle East: You doubt the Bush administration would run the risk of a military strike against Iran, but you can't be sure. You think America can't afford to play chicken in an election year, but you can't be certain of that, either. You think Iran is on a roll, but you know how quickly that advantage can be squandered by unwise choices. You know that Arabs, even in Iraq, have become peeved at what they see as meddling and overreaching by Tehran.
So you watch and wait. You give ground where necessary, but you prepare to strike back, as devastatingly as possible -- and on your own terms, not those of your adversary.