Tehran’s overrated military strategist made many political miscalculations

Suleimani squandered Tehran’s chances with focus on proxies and imperial frontiers

One day they may name a street after President Donald Trump in Tehran. Why? Because Trump just ordered the assassination of possibly the dumbest man in Iran and the most overrated strategist in the Middle East: Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani.

Think of the miscalculations this guy made. In 2015, the US and the major European powers agreed to lift virtually all their sanctions on Iran, many dating back to 1979, in return for Iran halting its nuclear weapons programme for a mere 15 years but still maintaining the right to have a peaceful nuclear programme. It was a great deal for Iran. Its economy grew by over 12 per cent the next year. And what did Suleimani do with that windfall?

He and Iran’s supreme leader launched an aggressive regional imperial project that made Iran and its proxies the de facto controlling power in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. This freaked out US allies in the Sunni Arab world and Israel, and they prevailed on the Trump administration to respond by tearing up the nuclear deal and imposing oil sanctions on Iran that have now shrunk the Iranian economy by almost 10 per cent and sent unemployment to more that 16 per cent.

All that for the pleasure of saying that Tehran can call the shots in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa. What exactly was second prize?


By severely depriving the Tehran regime of funds, the ayatollahs had to raise gasoline prices at home, triggering massive domestic protests. That required a harsh crackdown by Iran’s clerics against their own people that left thousands jailed and killed, further weakening the legitimacy of the regime.

Israeli intelligence

Then Mr “Military Genius” Suleimani decided that, having propped up the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria and helping to kill 500,000 Syrians in the process, he would overreach again and try to put direct pressure on Israel. He would do this by trying to transfer precision-guided rockets from Iran to Iranian proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria.

Alas, Suleimani discovered that fighting Israel – specifically, its combined air force, special forces, intelligence and cyber – is not like fighting the Nusra front or the Islamic State group. The Israelis hit back hard, sending a whole bunch of Iranians home from Syria in caskets and hammering their proxies as far away as western Iraq.

Suleimani would land a plane with munitions in Syria at 5pm and the Israeli air force would blow it up by 5.30pm

Indeed, Israeli intelligence had so penetrated Suleimani’s Quds Force and its proxies that Suleimani would land a plane with precision munitions in Syria at 5pm and the Israeli air force would blow it up by 5.30pm. Suleimani’s men were like fish in a barrel. If Iran had a free press and a real parliament, he would have been fired for colossal mismanagement.

But it gets better, or actually worse, for Suleimani. Many of his obituaries say that he led the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq, in tacit alliance with America. Well, that’s true. But what they omit is that Suleimani’s, and Iran’s, overreaching in Iraq helped to produce the Islamic State group in the first place.

It was Suleimani and his Quds Force pals who pushed Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to push Sunnis out of the Iraqi government and army, stop paying salaries to Sunni soldiers, kill and arrest large numbers of peaceful Sunni protesters and generally turn Iraq into a Shia-dominated sectarian state. The Islamic State group was the counterreaction.

Finally, it was Suleimani’s project of making Iran the imperial power in the Middle East that turned Iran into the most hated power in the Middle East for many of the young, rising pro-democracy forces – both Sunnis and Shias – in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

As Iranian-American scholar Ray Takeyh pointed out in a wise essay in Politico, in recent years, “Suleimani began expanding Iran’s imperial frontiers. For the first time in its history, Iran became a true regional power, stretching its influence from the banks of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Suleimani understood that Persians would not be willing to die in distant battlefields for the sake of Arabs, so he focused on recruiting Arabs and Afghans as an auxiliary force. He often boasted that he could create a militia in little time and deploy it against Iran’s various enemies.”

Massive corruption

It was precisely those Suleimani proxies – Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen – that created pro-Iranian Shia states-within-states in all of these countries. And it was precisely these states-within-states that helped to prevent any of these countries from cohering, fostered massive corruption and kept these countries from developing infrastructure such as schools, roads, electricity.

And therefore it was Suleimani and his proxies – his “kingmakers” in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq – who increasingly came to be seen, and hated, as imperial powers in the region, even more so than Trump’s America. This triggered popular, authentic, bottom-up democracy movements in Lebanon and Iraq that involved Sunnis and Shias locking arms together to demand non-corrupt, non-sectarian democratic governance.

On November 27th, Iraqi Shias – yes, Iraqi Shias – burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq, removing the Iranian flag from the building and putting an Iraqi flag in its place. That was after Iraqi Shias, in September 2018, set the Iranian consulate in Basra ablaze, shouting condemnations of Iran’s interference in Iraqi politics.

The whole “protest” against the US embassy compound in Baghdad last week was almost certainly a Suleimani-staged operation to make it look as if Iraqis wanted America out when in fact it was the other way around. The protesters were paid pro-Iranian militiamen. No one in Baghdad was fooled by this.

In a way, it’s what got Suleimani killed. He so wanted to cover his failures in Iraq he decided to start provoking the Americans there by shelling their forces, hoping they would overreact, kill Iraqis and turn them against the US. Trump, rather than taking the bait, killed Suleimani instead.

I have no idea whether this was wise or what will be the long-term implications. But here are two things I do know about the Middle East.

First, often in the Middle East the opposite of “bad” is not “good”. The opposite of bad often turns out to be “disorder”. Just because you take out a really bad actor like Suleimani doesn’t mean a good actor, or a good change in policy, comes in his wake. Suleimani is part of a system called the Islamic Revolution in Iran. That revolution has managed to use oil money and violence to stay in power since 1979 – and that is Iran’s tragedy, a tragedy that the death of one Iranian general will not change.

Emptiness of regime

Today’s Iran is the heir to a great civilisation and the home of an enormously talented people and significant culture. Wherever Iranians go in the world today, they thrive as scientists, doctors, artists, writers and filmmakers – except in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose most famous exports are suicide bombing, cyberterrorism and proxy militia leaders. The very fact that Suleimani was probably the most famous Iranian in the region speaks to the utter emptiness of this regime and how it has wasted the lives of two generations of Iranians by looking for dignity in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.

The fact Suleimani was probably the most famous Iranian in the region speaks to the utter emptiness of this regime

The other thing I know is that in the Middle East all important politics happens the morning after the morning after.

Yes, in the coming days there will be noisy protests in Iran, the burning of American flags and much crying for the “martyr”. The morning after the morning after? There will be a thousand quiet conversations inside Iran that won’t get reported. They will be about the travesty that is their own government and how it has squandered so much of Iran’s wealth and talent on an imperial project that has made Iran hated in the Middle East.

And yes, the morning after, America’s Sunni Arab allies will quietly celebrate Suleimani’s death, but we must never forget that it is the dysfunction of many of the Sunni Arab regimes – their lack of freedom, modern education and women’s empowerment – that made them so weak that Iran was able to take them over from the inside with its proxies.

I write these lines while flying over New Zealand, where the smoke from forest fires 2,500 miles away over eastern Australia can be seen and felt. Mother Nature doesn’t know Suleimani’s name, but everyone in the Arab world is going to know her name. Because the Middle East, particularly Iran, is becoming an environmental disaster area – running out of water, with rising desertification and overpopulation. If governments there don’t stop fighting and come together to build resilience against climate change – rather than celebrating self-promoting military frauds who conquer failed states and make them fail even more – they’re all doomed. – New York Times