Arash Azizi is a Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies at New York University. He has just published a biography of Qassem Suleimani, the late head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, titled, The Shadow Commander; Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions, published by Oneworld Publications. Azizi formerly collaborated with the BBC, has contributed to Al-Monitor, is a former international editor of the Kargozaran newspaper, and hosted one of the most watched news shows in Iran. Diwan interviewed him on his new book in mid-December.
Michael Young: You’ve just published a biography of Qassem Suleimani. However, the book is more about Suleimani in the regional context as opposed to an account of his personal life. How difficult was it to wrote a biography of an individual who was so secretive?
Arash Azizi: It was particularly difficult because much of my research was done when he was still alive and a top security figure. Another difficulty was that I couldn’t travel to Iran due to the risk of persecution by the government, and had to rely on interviews from afar which are never as good as those you get when you do fieldwork. I am the first one to admit that this is not a straight-up biography of Suleimani, which would require more time, probably twice as many pages, as well as an author with more expertise in military history. It would also have a different audience. Such a biography would need more time to pass. Now that Suleimani is dead, new material is coming out every day and more people who knew him will agree to speak to journalists. At the same time, the regime’s own official histories are coming out day after day. I used some of the early versions of these, published in 2020, that were actually quite useful.
More than a straight-up biography, my book is an attempt to use Suleimani’s life as a conduit for telling the history of the Islamic Republic’s international operations. The book tries to help readers understand the phenomenon of Suleimani and the force that he led.
MY: One of your points is that the post-revolution authorities in Iran promoted men from the periphery like Suleimani, in such a way that these individuals had a vested interest in defending the gains of the revolution to defend their newfound social status. It’s interesting that Iran adopted the same approach when promoting the leadership of Hezbollah. Was this a conscious decision by the authorities and can you tell us who pushed for such an approach?
AA: The revolution was a mass event, carried out in the name of the downtrodden and the marginalized and it was natural that the latter would expect it to work for them. Actually, most of the revolution’s leadership and cadre came from the big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Mashhad, while men like Suleimani, who came from the tribal areas of southern Kerman, were an anomaly. But the republic did impressive work in peripheral and rural areas in its first two decades. Its track record in electrification and rural development is impressive by any measure. Works like Kevan Harris’ A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran are instructive in understanding the welfare measures of the Islamic Republic throughout its history, especially before the capitalist and neoliberal turn of the 1990s.
Now to your question about relying on people from marginalized areas—those who had benefited from the republic’s development programs—to boost the regime. This was both an ethos and a tactic defended by many officials. But it did not lead to egalitarianism, which was heavily discouraged after the 1990s and the pro-capitalist turn under president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei. Instead it led to a new regime of power and wealth that favored those connected to bodies such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) all over Iran. In short, it gave birth to new provincial princelings. Kerman Province was full of such figures.
MY: To what extent did Suleimani’s rise represent the IRGC’s relative marginalization of Iran’s formal political and military institutions, such as the Foreign Ministry or the regular army? And what might this mean for Iran once Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei leaves the scene?
AA: Suleimani’s rise is indeed a great symbol of how the IRGC has come to sideline formal institutions. Here is one of the most powerful men in the country and his official position is nowhere written in the constitution or formal structures of power. One very probable future for Iran is that following Khamenei’s death, the IRGC will be the kingmaker, helping to pick the next supreme leader, and basically turning Iran into more of a military dictatorship—perhaps closer to Egypt today or Pakistan in the past. This is, however, not inevitable and Iran has shown that it is never easily predictable. The reformist and pragmatist wings of the regime have been defeated but they still exist. Joe Biden’s victory in the United States gave a jolt to the latter. The rise of charismatic political figures could rejuvenate them.
MY: You write that Suleimani directly ordered the killing of former Yemeni president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh? How do you know? And how deeply is Iran involved in the details of decisionmaking by Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthi movement?
AA: Two members of the Quds Force involved in setting Iran’s Yemen policy told me this separately. Additionally, a source in the Houthi leadership said this was a request from Suleimani, which had been agreed to by the Houthis themselves. The circumstances described by them led me to believe the information was credible. It also sat right with what I knew about Suleimani and his decisionmaking style.
As for the Houthis, although there has been an increasing number of Iranians sent to Yemen, Tehran’s involvement is not comparable to its level of involvement with Hezbollah, which was established and effectively run by Iran for many years and is still heavily dependent on the IRGC. When it comes to Yemen, Iran’s participation is much more at arm’s length. It has two basic elements: Trying to help the Houthis become more sophisticated militarily; and trying to give them a firmer ideological basis. But the Yemen hands in the Quds Force with whom I spoke had quite a condescending approach to the Yemenis, considering developments in Yemen to be a tribal uprising and not properly Islamic. I don’t think Iran has dedicated enough resources to Yemen to increase its influence.
MY: You argue that later in his career Suleimani was advancing increasingly sectarian Shi‘a policies throughout the region. What impact might this have on Iran’s future policy in the Middle East?
AA: Yes, it is a sad reality, especially as I don’t believe sectarianism was the default position of the 1979 revolution or in the DNA of the Islamic Republic. As I try to show in the book, using sectarianism has been cynical and opportunistic. I still think Iran’s sectarianism is flexible. As you know, Iran has no qualms about supporting Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, despite their being Sunni organizations, or Bashar al-Assad’s Ba‘th Party, despite it being a secular party based on the Alawite minority. The global media often describe Alawites as being Shi‘a but their differences with the Twelver Shi‘a of Iran (the Ja‘fari School) are significant.
The thrust of Iran’s Islamism is political and not religiously strict. Iran’s ability to play the Shi‘a card has also shrunk given the robust reaction of Iraqis and Lebanese, among them Shi‘a, against Iran’s influence. The elections next year in Iraq and the performance of the government that Sa‘d al-Hariri is currently trying to form in Lebanon will determine how Iran will fare. Already in Iraq, Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani has been able to separate his forces from those of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. We should be reminded that a significant majority of the Shi‘a in the world (around 80 percent by Mehdi Khalaji’s count) still consider Sistani to be their religious guide and not Khamenei. Sistani is popular in Iran precisely because he offers a Shiism without aspirations for governance, in other words an alternative to the model adopted in the country.
Khamenei has never been a narrow sectarian. He rather cynically uses sectarianism to advance his goals. In the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, we saw that Iran was even happy to sometimes side with a Christian country, Armenia, against one of the world’s only Shi‘a-majority states that shares ethnicity with a large Azeri community in Iran! This policy, by the way, provoked anger among that part of the Iranian leadership that hails from Iranian Azerbaijan. Most of the IRGC’s top leadership have a similar way of thinking as Khamenei on this question, in that they are not narrow sectarians but political Khomeinists. So I expect a continuation of the policy of using sectarianism opportunistically.
MY: Suleimani was replaced by Ismail Qaani, of whom you write, he “didn’t even come close to filling the shoes of his predecessor.” What are you hearing today about Qaani? Has he managed to fill Suleimani’s shoes better as time has passed?
AA: Like anybody new at a job, he is learning. His Arabic, for instance, has become much better although he still speaks with a heavy Persian accent like Suleimani—and most other Iranians, including myself! But Qaani really did get this job at an unenviable time. I mentioned the shrinking space for Iranian maneuvers in Iraq and Lebanon. Add to this Iran’s economic crisis, which means Iran can’t spend like it once did. Qaani also simply lacks the charisma of Suleimani. I think the Iranian leadership has smartly accepted that Suleimani basically can’t be replicated and that’s not what they have demanded of Qaani. Rather, the leadership of the Quds Force is being transformed into playing more of a coordinator role, in which the commander delegates more to the Hezbollah leadership and Iraqi Shi‘a leaders and organizes Iranian support for them. This contrasts with Suleimani, who was effectively chief of staff of a transnational army able to act as one across borders. Qaani might prove worthy in this new role, especially given the strong political connections that he’s long had in the regime. These are only set to grow if Khamenei is replaced by Ebrahim Rayisi, a failed presidential candidate who is currently the head of the judiciary and a top candidate for succeeding Khamenei. Like Rayisi, and Khamenei himself, Qaani hails from the northeastern Khorasan region of Iran and has long been close to powerful politicians from the area, including Rayisi.
MY: How easy do you think it will be to curb Iran’s influence in those Arab countries where its influence is strong today?
AA: Let’s talk about the four main countries in which Iran is most powerful. In Iraq and Lebanon, where this influence is at its strongest, there is a very real chance that it will be curbed because there is already a popular backlash and the two countries are among the most democratic in the Arab world. In Iraq, ensuring free and fair elections next June and empowering the government of Prime Minister Mustapha Kadhimi as he tries to reassert Iraqi sovereignty will be key. When Sistani dies, a day which is perhaps not far away given his advanced age, the question of his successor and whether he will be a Tehran loyalist will also be crucial. But I believe the future of Iraq will see declining Iranian influence overall—and this includes Iran’s already waning influence over the Iraqi Shi‘a.
In Lebanon, I think we find that the whole country is in throes of a deep desire for change. Hezbollah has damaged itself by identifying itself with the sectarian system and its most hated figures, such as Gebran Bassil and his Free Patriotic Movement, which is a close Hezbollah ally. Many who looked on Hezbollah favorably, not least for its staunch anti-Zionism, are not so keen to do so today following the 2019 Lebanese uprising. Here, too, we will see declining Iranian influence, although this influence will remain stronger than in Iraq and will be significant for years to come given the deep links that bind Iran and southern Lebanon.
In Yemen, if the United States is able to get the Saudis to stop their war on the country and patch up some sort of a national unity government with Houthi representation, Iranian influence will also be reduced. The Houthis, as part of Yemen’s power structure, are likely to be much less reliant on Iran than the Houthis as an opposition movement whose role in government is unrecognized.
As for Syria, Iran, which has spent billions of dollars in the country, obviously expects to win rewards. The dominant expectation is for competition to develop between Russia and Iran over Syrian resources and reconstruction. The recent changes in the Syrian Foreign Ministry following the death of former foreign minister Walid Mu‘allem seem to favor individuals considered close to Iran. But in the long-term, Iran will have to contend not only with the Russian connection but with renewed Arab interest in Syria, with the United Arab Emirates and Oman leading the way. And who is there to say that Damascus won’t join a peace treaty with Israel? Hafiz al-Assad was close to agreeing to peace more than once.
On a broader point, Iran will of course not lose its influence overnight. But it is a regime mired in fundamental crises. This isn’t just a matter of sanctions or an economic downturn. It is the reality that the ideals of the Islamism of 1979 have been defeated. The regime is not an Islamist alternative that it once promised to be. It has created a system of kleptocratic capitalism with astonishing corruption and booming inequality. It will be hard for such a “brand” to keep many followers for long—and, after all, these followers have been the main source of Iranian influence. But they key point here is that the best way to counter Iranian influence is not by pressuring Iran but by guaranteeing the space for Arab countries to develop their own democracies. Repression, especially done on a sectarian basis, always helps Iran to increase its presence.