Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

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As Assad’s power dwindles, Iran creates a state within a state in Syria

The New York Times reports: Four years ago, Syria’s army had 250,000 soldiers; now, because of casualties and desertions, it has 125,000 regulars, alongside 125,000 pro-government militia members, including Iranian-trained Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghan Hazaras, according to the senior American official in Washington.

And Syrians are not always in charge, especially where Hezbollah, the best trained and equipped of the foreign militias, is involved.

“Every area where there is Hezbollah, the command is in their hands,” said the Syrian with security connections. “You do something, you have to ask their permission.”

That, he said, rankled senior security officials who recalled the rule of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, in the 1980s, when Hezbollah’s patron Iran was the junior partner in the alliance with Syria.

American officials are exploring how to exploit resulting tensions between Syrian and Hezbollah commanders, said the senior American official.

An official in the region sympathetic to Hezbollah said that enemies were trying to exploit natural tensions that “happen between allies, and between brothers and sisters in the same house,” but would not succeed.

“Even if Hezbollah does battle alone, it is with Syrian approval,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Hezbollah is only a stone that helps the builder.”

But others see a loss of Syrian sovereignty to Iran, which needs Syria as a conduit to arm Hezbollah. Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Doha Center in Doha, Qatar, said Iran with the help of Hezbollah and other militias is building “a state within a state in Syria — an insurance policy to protect itself against any future Assad demise.”

Ali, 23, a soldier on leave in Damascus from the southern front, said one of his officers, a major, had complained that any Hezbollah fighter was “more important than a Syrian general.”

Then there is simple jealousy. Hezbollah fighters are paid in dollars, while Syrian soldiers get depreciating Syrian pounds. Hezbollah fighters get new black cars and meat with rice, Ali said, while Syrian soldiers make do with dented Russian trucks and stale bread.

A student who recently fled Damascus after being constantly stopped at checkpoints to prove he is not a deserter said that Hezbollah now runs his neighborhood in the old city and once helped him solve a problem between his brother and security forces. (Syrian police, he said, are so little seen that people now smoke hashish openly.)

“If you have Hezbollah wasta,” or connections, he said, “your problems will be solved.” The student identified himself only as Hamed Al Adem, a name he uses as a performance artist, to protect family members still in Damascus.

Even so, Hezbollah is not in a position to bail out Mr. Assad the way it did in 2013, when it sent hundreds of fighters to crush the insurgent hub of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah now has more fighters and advisers in Syria than ever, about 5,000, American intelligence officials said. But, said the Syrian with security connections, they “only interfere in areas that are in their own interests.”

The official sympathetic to Hezbollah said it has “maybe thousands” of fighters along the Lebanese border, hundreds in the south, bordering Israel, and only dozens around divided Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

It had none in Idlib city, which he said may have fallen because some Syrian officers failed to correctly assess threats.

The Syrian with security ties said the leadership had not made a priority of defending Idlib. Many government troops, he said, fled after insurgents knocked out their communications network and called “God is Great” from the mosques.

“Damascus and the Syrian coast, other than this nothing is important. Nothing,” he said, adding of Mr. Assad: “He doesn’t give a damn if Syria is destroyed.” [Continue reading…]

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The Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s deep state

Aaron Bastani writes: At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.


During that brief period of euphoric triumphalism in the White House and Downing Street, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that Tehran would gain the most from Saddam’s overthrow, and that within 12 years its sphere of influence would extend to four Arab capitals. More likely, the experts would have rejoined, that Iran would itself see regime change, by force if necessary.

Yet as Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament for Tehran, said last September, three Arab capitals – Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus – now ‘belong’ to the Islamic Revolution. The rise of Ansar Allah in recent months (the Zaidi Shia militias fighting in Yemen, often referred to as Houthis) means that Sana’a could be added to the list, though for how long is unclear.

The expansion of the Islamic Republic’s reach can’t be seen in isolation from the Arab Spring. Iran considers the uprisings the continuation of a historical movement it initiated. The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in December that Iran supports the ‘rightful struggle’ of Ansar in Yemen, and considers the movement part of the ‘successful materialisation of the Islamic Awakening’ – Tehran’s name for the Arab Spring, which it views as evolving rather than defeated. [Continue reading…]

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Soleimani: No more selfies

Arash Karami writes: When the fighters of the Islamic State (IS) took over large parts of western Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran did not hesitate to assist both Iraqi and Kurdish forces in pushing back against the advance of the terrorist group. Iran’s geopolitical decision was also accompanied by what seemed an unofficial media decision: to promote the status of Quds Force Cmdr. Qasem Soleimani in the fight against IS.

Pictures of Soleimani at the front line among Iraqi forces surfaced on social media overnight. The various Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages dedicated to Soleimani had begun to act as his unofficial media arm, and his popularity has soared online. Often he could be seen looking at the camera, making no attempt to conceal that Iran had sent its commander in charge of regional policy to Iraq.

But now it seems that Soleimani has had enough. In an April 11 open letter to an Iranian filmmaker requesting that he cease producing a film about him, Soleimani also denied some of the things said about him on social media and asked officials to control the rumors. [Continue reading…]

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Framework nuclear deal respects Iran’s red lines: Iran commander

Reuters: An outline nuclear accord reached this month between Iran and world powers respects Iran’s red lines, though ambiguities over the lifting of sanctions must be resolved, a top Iranian military official was quoted as saying on Saturday.

Iran and world powers are engaged in talks to reach a comprehensive deal that would place limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for the removal of some U.S., European, and United Nations sanctions on its financial and energy sectors.

The United States has said that sanctions removal on Iran will be phased gradually, but Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have said that sanctions on Iran must be lifted as soon as a final agreement is concluded.

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Militiamen in Yemen’s Aden say two Iranian officers captured

Reuters reports: Local militiamen in the southern Yemeni city of Aden said they captured two Iranian military officers advising Houthi rebels, during fighting on Friday evening.

Tehran has strongly denied providing any military support for Houthi fighters, whose advances have drawn Saudi-led air strikes in a campaign dubbed “Decisive Storm.”

If confirmed, the presence of two Iranian officers, whom the local militiamen said were from an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, would deepen tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, who are vying for influence in the Middle East.

Three sources in the city’s anti-Houthi local militias said the Iranians, identified as a colonel and a captain, were seized in two different districts rocked by heavy gun battles.

“The initial investigation revealed that they are from the Quds Force and are working as advisors to the Houthi militia,” one of the militia sources told Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s leaders fall into line behind nuclear accord

The New York Times reports: Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian hard-liners have been free to take to the streets and object to any form of compromise with the West, and particularly the United States.

But when a conspicuously small group of hard-liners did so on Tuesday morning in front of the Parliament building, holding up placards and shouting slogans against the nuclear framework agreed to last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Iranian Interior Ministry condemned the demonstration as illegal, because the protesters had failed to obtain a permit. There were also very few reporters.

It was perhaps the first time that conservatives — in this case mostly young people genuinely disappointed over the compromises Iran has made to reach a nuclear agreement — seemed disconnected from the power structure here.

Analysts say the message from the top is clear: Get with the program. Senior officials, important clerics, lawmakers and Revolutionary Guards commanders, who in the past have reflexively opposed any accommodation with the West, now go out of their way to laud Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team of negotiators, as well as the government of President Hassan Rouhani.

On Tuesday, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the highest-ranking commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, joined the chorus. “The Iranian nation and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps thank these dear negotiators for their honest attempts and political jihad, and for their resistance on the defined red lines,” the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted him as saying. [Continue reading…]

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Iran says U.S. drone kills 2 advisers in Iraq; U.S. denies claim

The Associated Press: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard says a U.S. drone strike killed two of its advisers near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, where a major offensive is underway against the Islamic State group, but the U.S. said Monday its coalition conducted no airstrikes in the area during the time of the incident.

U.S. Central Command said it didn’t target the area around Tikrit from March 22 through March 24, the window when the Guard said the two men were killed.

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Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s Supreme Leader wants a nuclear deal

Trita Parsi writes: There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji’s writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States — the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders — over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.

It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran — from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.

Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through — as a participant, not an observer — every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.

Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s hard-liners show restraint on nuclear talks with U.S.

The New York Times reports: A coterie of Iran’s hard-line Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders is usually vocal on the subject of the Iranian nuclear program, loudly proclaiming the country’s right to pursue its interests and angrily denouncing the United States.

But as the United States and Iran prepare to restart nuclear talks this week, the hard-liners have been keeping a low profile.

“They have been remarkably quiet,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group.

Their silence is a result of state policies intended by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to seriously try to find a solution through negotiations. Ayatollah Khamenei has largely supported the nuclear talks and the Iranian negotiators, whom he has called “good and caring people, who work for the country.”

The restraint by the hard-liners also reflects a general satisfaction, analysts say, with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s advances create alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

Ian Black writes: The commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been working overtime recently, flaunting their achievements across the Middle East and flexing muscles as international negotiations over the country’s nuclear programme enter their critical and perhaps final phase.

On Wednesday it was the turn of Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s most senior officer. “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution,” he declared. “Not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran.”

Last month a similarly boastful message was delivered by General Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s elite Quds force — and who is regularly photographed leading the fightback of Iraqi Shia miltias against the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State (Isis) as well as against western and Arab-backed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria. “Imperialists and Zionists have admitted defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic and the resistance movement,” Suleimani said.

Iran’s advances are fuelling alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, where Tehran has been a strategic rival since the days of the Shah, and which now, it is said with dismay, in effect controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and in the last month Sana’a in Yemen – which is uncomfortably close to home. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq

Joyce Karam writes: While the invasion in 2003 and the shortsighted policies by the U.S. disbanding the Iraqi army and propping up the sectarian rule of Nouri al-Maliki, opened the door for Iranian meddling and militia-building in Iraq, ISIS has invited a more aggressive role for Iran along the Euphrates.

“Iran has taken full advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul” says Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and author of a policy paper on Shiite Jihad. The rise of ISIS as an existential threat to Shiites whom it considers heretics and apostates, drove many in that community to carry arms and defend themselves while the Iraqi state continued to crumble. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s Fatwa last summer “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places” was exploited to set the stage for the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces, made up of disciplined Shiite recruits and a much smaller component of Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.

Smyth sees Iranian influence in funding, training and equipping Shiite militias at an all time high. He estimates the number of Shiite militia fighters in Iraq today between 70,000 [to] 100,000, a volume that “is both astounding and strategic to the way that Iran has constructed them.” The expert sees Iran as player whose influence is only rising in Iraq, “they run ministries in Iraq today with their own security apparatus.” This new dynamic was front and center in appointing Mohammad Ghabban from the Iranian funded militia Badr as the new Iraqi interior minister. [Continue reading…]

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IRGC official: Iran indoctrinating Syria youth

NOW reports: A top Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer boasted about Tehran’s role in Syria and revealed that his country has been indoctrinating youths in the war-torn country to fight under the IRGC.

“The IRGC has begun to establish new religious groups in Syria called ‘Kashab’ among young Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and Ismailis,” Al-Arabiya on Tuesday cited Hussein Hamdani as saying.

These groups aim to carry out what Hamdani called “ideological education” for the “recruitment of teenagers in Syria to fight in militias under [the command] of the IRGC.”

The advisor to the Revolutionary Guards commander-general did not elaborate further on the youth groups, but did boast that Iran had formed 42 brigades and 138 battalions fighting for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Hamdani added that the “establishment of the Basij in Syria was one of Iran’s most important achievements in recent years.” [Continue reading…]

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Celebrity status of General Soleimani coincides with rise in Iranian nationalism

Qassem-SuleimaniMahan Abedin writes: His photos are everywhere in the Iranian media and his name is mentioned on a daily basis by the national broadcaster. Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is officially a national hero.

This extreme publicity is all the more surprising in view of Soleimai’s command of the most secretive and sensitive branch of the IRGC. The Quds force is the expeditionary wing of the Revolutionary Guards and spearheads Iran’s engagement with pro-Iranian armies, militias and political factions across the region.

To the outside world, in particular to Iran’s enemies and opponents in the region and beyond, Soleimani is the potent face of Iran’s political and ideological offensive in the Middle East.

This portrait of Soleimani is being increasingly adopted at home as well, fed by a daily diet of the Quds force commander’s exploits on the Iraqi battlefield, most recently in the offensive to re-take Tirkrit from the so-called Islamic State.

Whilst Soleimani’s leading role in Iran’s counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Syria is undoubtedly pivotal to the Islamic Republic’s regional policy, there are huge questions marks regarding the extreme publicity that now surrounds him.

One plausible explanation is that Soleimani’s adoption as a national hero heralds a change of political culture in Iran with significant long-term ramifications for the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

Qasem Soleimani’s transformation from a secretive commander to national celebrity is unprecedented in modern Iranian culture, and his enormous popularity notwithstanding, it is not entirely without controversy. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s ‘Supermani': fabled general, Internet sensation

The Los Angeles Times reports: In one image he calmly rubs elbows with Iran’s top leaders. In another, he bestows an avuncular gaze on a gaggle of militia fighters.

No matter where he appears, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, remains the stuff of U.S. policymakers’ nightmares: a murky yet seemingly ubiquitous figure with a penchant for turning up in Middle Eastern trouble spots and proxy wars — often at several battlegrounds simultaneously, it would seem, judging by his outsized and at times fictitious presence on the Web and in breathless international press reports.

“Supermani” is the handle one wag has bestowed upon Tehran’s inscrutable point man.

His mission? Thwarting the goals of Washington and its allies at every turn, while adding to the revolutionary glory of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The actual effectiveness of Tehran’s fabled emissary may be open to question. But in cyberspace, Suleimani — with a graying beard, steady mien and passing resemblance to “The Most Interesting Man in the World” of Dos Equis fame — has emerged as a kind of Iranian master manipulator, schemer and super-spy. His presence on any battlefield, according the ever-expanding if often apocryphal legend, is tantamount to victory for fighters fortunate to bask in his presence. [Continue reading…]

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Iran: Israeli air strike killed general advising Syrian government forces

McClatchy: Iran said Monday that a general in its elite Revolutionary Guards who’d been sent to Syria to help that country battle rebels died in an Israeli air strike on Sunday, raising tensions and heightening expectations of possible retaliation.

A statement on the website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards said that Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed when Israeli planes bombed a convoy in southern Syria, where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have been fighting rebels that include al Qaida’s Nusra Front.

The statement said Allahdadi had been helping the Syrian government “confront the takfiri Salafist terrorists,” using religious terms to refer to the Sunni Muslim rebels who’ve been trying to topple Assad for nearly four years.

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Deaths in Iraq show two sides of Iran’s role in sectarian conflict

The Guardian reports: Thousands of Revolutionary Guards gathered in Tehran on Sunday for the funeral of Iranian Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, who was reportedly killed by a sniper while organising the defence of the Iraqi city of Samarra against Islamic State (Isis) militants.

According to Fars News, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani told mourners that if “people like Taqavi do not shed their blood in Samarra, then we would shed our blood [within Iran] in Sistan [-Baluchestan], [East and West] Azerbaijan [provinces], Shiraz and Esfahan [to defend the country]”.

Mehr News reported the funeral was also attended by General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds brigade, the overseas arm of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which has been active in Iraq. The Iranian Labour News Agency relayed condolences from Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, “to the Lord of the Age [the 12th Shia Imam, believed to be in occultation], the Supreme Leader, the honourable Iranian nation, his comrades and respected and patient family members.”

Taqavi, 55, was the most senior Iranian military commander killed in Iraq, where Tehran calls its role “advisory” in assisting the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias against Isis. While Taqavi’s funeral illustrated the clear official Iranian commitment to its armed forces, the murkier dimensions of Tehran’s growing role in the brutal sectarian conflict engulfing Iraq and Syria were highlighted by the death of Wathiq al-Battat, an Iraqi militant with long links to Iran and leader of one of Iraq’s several Shia militias.

The Mukhtar Army, the Iraqi militia, recently announced its leader Wathiq al-Battat had been killed in Diyala province. Battat had been a player in the shady war between Iraqi Shia militias and the Sunni militants of Isis. [Continue reading…]

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