ISTANBUL—The infamous chief of Iran’s expeditionary forces has been criss-crossing the Middle East for years, flaunting his country’s power in the region. But now he’s taking on Donald Trump, and possibly close to home.
More than a decade ago, fighters directed by Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Suleimani harassed and killed U.S. troops so effectively in Iraq that many American officers who served there—including James Mattis, now secretary of defense—would never forget or forgive.
More recently, as the overlord of the most powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, Suleimani has been Iran’s virtual proconsul there. His clients, including Lebanese Hezbollah, are vital to the survival of the savage Assad regime in Syria. And the covert operations organized by his Quds Force have a long history using terror to punish Iran’s enemies around the world, from Arabia to the Americas.
One of the stated reasons Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and now is reimposing draconian economic sanctions is to try to rein in Suleimani. He is the personification of the “chaos and terror” Trump denounced in May when he accused Iran of fueling conflicts in the region and supporting “terrorist proxies” that have “bombed American Embassies and military installations, murdered hundreds of American service members, and kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured American citizens.”
But now Suleimani has raised the stakes, taunting President Trump directly as if to say “bring it on,” daring the emotional American commander-in-chief to try to take him down, and threatening frightening consequences if he tries.
“There is not one night we sleep without thinking of you,” Suleimani said ominously in a televised appearance last month. “Mr. Gambler Trump, we are near you where you don't expect.”
Certainly Suleimani would be a tempting target for Trump, who might try to portray the Iranian general’s termination as a more important deed than Barack Obama’s elimination of Osama bin Laden. And Suleimani is not hiding out the way bin Laden was or the head of ISIS still is. Suleimani poses for photos on the battlefield and delivers speeches that later appear on social media, including on his own Instagram page, which has around 68,000 followers. His closely trimmed beard and carefully brushed hair, now all white, and his dark, deep-set eyes may not be as familiar to Iranians as the faces of the supreme leader and their president, but they certainly come close.
So Suleimani is a tempting target for both Trump and Israel, which is worried about the armed militias he’s helped organize across Syria. Yet there is major reluctance in the U.S. security establishment, and in Israel as well, when it comes to targeting such an important figure, however dangerous he may be.
“He’s not just a senior military commander but also a senior political leader inside of Iran,” said a former senior U.S. national security official who served in the Obama White House. “He is seen as so senior that targeting him personally would be seen by Iranians as so provocative that it would spark an escalation.”
Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion wrote a paper in July for the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv advocating the targeting of the Quds Force, although he stopped short of advocating an attack on Suleimani himself. “We’re talking about an organization and an institution,” Orion told The Daily Beast. “Its handiwork can be seen in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, now shooting tankers in Bab al-Mandib, launching missiles into Riyadh. In every piece of mischief you see this organization. As long as you fight the proxies only, you see them reemerge and regenerate. If you want, quit going after the mosquitos, you need to go after the ecosystem.”
For years the U.S. has designated the Quds Force as a terrorist organization, accusing it of supporting elements of the Afghan Taliban as well as Iraqi Shiite militias targeting U.S. forces, plotting to assassinate the Saudi envoy in Washington, running counterfeiting and money-laundering schemes, supplying missiles to Yemen rebels fighting the U.N.-backed government, and ferrying weapons and military personnel on commercial airlines across the region. Israel sees Suleimani as the ringleader of the ambitious plan to recruit, train, equip, and support militia forces that are amassing near Israel in southern Syria.
An obscure Kuwaiti newspaper reported late last year that Israel had received a green light from the Trump administration to target Suleimani. Few have given the report a lot of credence, but given the hawkishness of Trump administration figures like National Security Adviser John Bolton on Iran, it likely wouldn’t take much to get the White House to sign off on such a gamble.
“Between Trump and Bolton, my sense is if the Israelis came to the administration with anything they wanted to do against the Iranians in the region, the administration would be fine with it,” said the senior Obama administration official.
Killing so high-ranking a government official as Suleimani would be unprecedented, the equivalent of taking out a four-star general who is in charge of Special Operations forces.
Although Suleimani is behind the forces that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq, half a dozen former U.S. intelligence and national security officials as well as experts tuned into Washington told The Daily Beast that the U.S. had never seriously contemplated targeting Suleimani directly, the way Americans targeted bin Laden or al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“Such a thing would be very sensitive,” said Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You still have loose talks about what the options might be available to kill certain people. You never really hear it about him.”
As a Navy sailor posted off the coast of Lebanon in the 1980s, Michael Doherty witnessed attacks on U.S. forces in Beirut by Suleimani or his predecessors. Decades later he lived through the missile barrages that targeted him and his colleagues while a member of a State Department provincial reconstruction team in southern Iraq.
“We got rocketed and there were roadside bombs that were a threat to us and the soldiers,” he said. “But considering the fact that in Basra we were only 20 kilometers from Iran’s border and the borders were pretty much open in no way do I believe the Iranians used their full capabilities against any of our missions. His actions in Iraq against the U.S. mission were very calibrated. It was nothing personal.”
Many described the idea of targeting Suleimani as counterproductive, entailing untold risks without any guaranteed benefits. In 2008, Suleimani, famously approached then U.S. General David Petraeus to inform him that he was the guy who could stop the rocket attacks hitting U.S. bases in Iraq. Since then the U.S. has managed to communicate indirectly with Suleimani through Iraq’s Kurds and other officials. The senior Obama administration national security official said the U.S. contemplated directly reaching out to Suleimani to ask him to rein in militias bombing American troops as they were attempting to withdraw from the country in 2011.
In the pantheon of rogues, troublemakers and warlords playing the Middle East’s games of infiltration and subterfuge, Suleimani’s a guy you can at least talk to.
“There’s a verified public history of the U.S. making outreach efforts,” said a former CIA official who served in Iraq and worked on Iran. ”He’s still an asshole. But we know his mentality. We know him. It’s not a secret what he does.”
There’s another consideration. Some former officials liken Suleimani to a sort of Ho Chi Minh, overseeing a cabal of brasher, bolder and more ruthless young men eager for action and recognition. Get rid of Hajj Qasem, as he is known by his supporters in the Shiite world, and power might pass into the hands of a more reckless young tough eager to make a name for himself. ”If there’s a younger, more ruthless generation waiting in the wings, I’d rather stick to granddad,” said the former CIA official.
If the U.S. or Israel take out Suleimani in a drone strike in Syria, even before the anti-American demonstrations and funeral processions die down, Iran may feel forced to respond by bombing an embassy, or perhaps a Trump property. Then Americans would have to respond. Then what? While killing Hajj Qasem might generate sensational headlines in Israel and the U.S., it would also bring unanticipated headaches.
“Such an action would bring Iran's strong response; Israel wouldn't gain more than a PR campaign,” said Mojtaba Mousavi, editor of the conservative Tehran-based Iran Views news website.
The senior Obama administration official warned that the White House shouldn’t start something they’re not willing to finish. “If they are contemplating this, are they doing this with their eyes open to the second, third, fourth steps down the rather slippery slope?” he said,
Michael Knights at the Washington Institute notes a murkily documented incident in recent years when Israelis were about to conduct one of their frequent airstrikes against a suspected Lebanese Hezbollah commander in southern Syria when they were informed Suleimani might be there. They opted to hold off.
“If he had a heart attack tomorrow no one would shed a tear,” he said. “But killing him is a real act of war.”
Still Suleimani’s speech, delivered safely inside Iran from the city of Hamedan, was carefully calculated, in response to an all-caps Trump tweet that probably was not. A few days earlier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had said, “Americans must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” To which Trump responded: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
“You know that this war will destroy all that you possess,” Suleimani responded. “You will start this war but we will be the ones to impose its end. Therefore you have to be careful about insulting the Iranian people and the president of our Republic.”
“You know our power in the region and our capabilities in asymmetric war,” Suleimani continued. “We will act and we will work… There is not one night we sleep without thinking of you. Mr. Gambler Trump, we are near you where you don't expect.”
Multiplying his calculated taunts, Suleimani derided American military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and said U.S. troops had to be supplied with "adult diapers."
Suleimani’s warning that his men were surveilling U.S. interests must have set off alarm bells among U.S. and allied officials in Israel, the Arabian Peninsula states, and beyond.
European officials are livid over an alleged plot by elements within Iran’s security forces to bomb an Iranian opposition meeting in Paris at the end of June attended by several high-profile U.S. officials, including Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. (Although an Iranian diplomat in Vienna and several other suspects were picked up, the Iranian government insisted it was a “false flag” operation meant to incriminate Tehran.)
“Suleimani is saying we have people watching the Americans,” said Phillip Smyth, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar who closely follows actions by Iranian and Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East. “That would put him on the radar and would certainly raise his profile in terms of being a hostile force.”
Although he’s a “known commodity,” said the former Obama administration official, “he’s also essentially the ringleader for everything that Iran is doing that’s destabilizing the region, so how could it be worse?”
Despite his high profile, Suleimani does take plenty of precautions. In Iraq, he often is surrounded by swarms of militiamen. In Syria, He enjoys the protection of Bashar al-Assad’s state. “He appears to have really good security,” said David Witty, a former U.S. Special Operations colonel who served in Iraq.
When his image appears on social media, the pictures are frequently carefully cropped, with some faces blurred, and they pop up online well after he’s left a location. “He is always moving very discreetly, unpredictably and without any pre-notice or pre-schedule,” said retired Lebanese Brig, Gen. Tannous Mouawad, a security specialist who runs a research consultancy.
The protection measures are as much to protect him from jihadi groups fighting Iranian-allied governments in Baghdad and Damascus as any potential U.S. or Israeli attack. “I’m sure if ISIS could fix him to a location they would try to kill him,” said Knights.
Retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser downplayed the risk of escalation. Even if Suleimani was killed in a U.S. or Israeli attack, the regime in Tehran would be wise enough to hold off on making any moves that could trigger an all-out confrontation. “I don’t think the Iranians—maybe because they are chess players—would take a gamble after losing their queen and lose their king as well,” he said.
Kuperwasser, former head of research at Israel’s military intelligence branch, is among the region’s most outspoken voices against Iran, but he says he opposes any targeted assassination unless there is an imminent threat.
“I’m not very fond of this line of action,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s not about this person or that person. We are dealing with a system, organization, ideology. It’s not him. He’s a very bad guy. But there are hundreds like him within the Iranian security forces and the Iranian leadership.”