Tom Tugendhat is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.
Few military commanders have had the freedom Qasem Soleimani has enjoyed. For the best part of 20 years, Soleimani’s actions have been Iran’s foreign policy. Regimes he has backed, militias he has supported and terrorist campaigns he has encouraged have become the strategy of the mullahs in Tehran.
Soleimani joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps at the time of the Iranian revolution. Founded to defend the regime, the IRGC is separate from the regular army, navy and air force. It answers to a different command structure and runs companies and businesses that enrich its generals. It has been at the vanguard of Iranian military action inside and outside the country to keep the dictatorship in power.
Over the years the IRGC have crushed uprisings at home using their Basij volunteer militias to assault protestors and terrify opponents from speaking out. Abroad they have expanded their operations. The special operations unit, named the Quds Force after the Arabic name for Jerusalem, is charged with conducting operations to bring about the Islamic revolution’s goals, including the destruction of Israel. That’s where Soleimani has excelled.
Since around 1998, Maj Gen Soleimani has led the Quds Force in expanding from their traditional alliances with Hezbollah and others and used Iraq and Afghanistan to develop capabilities he would later go on to perfect in Syria. In all those struggles he has used three principle means that our own forces would recognise – supplying weapons, partnering with local forces and bringing specialist skills.
In Afghanistan, these partnerships were far from ideological. The Taliban, a Sunni religious cult, almost went to war with Iran in 2001 but only five years later, Iranian weapons were turning up in weapons caches in Helmand. The Quds Force shared skills too. Over the years, Afghan insurgents used increasingly professional shaped-charges to pierce armour and kill British, American, and other Nato servicemen and women. The intelligence trail was clear – the parts and knowledge came from Tehran.
In Yemen the same unit supplied rockets that have been falling on Saudi Arabia and bringing death villagers in the mountains. The Houthi rebellion has largely been a proxy war by Tehran’s military against their Sunni rivals in Riyadh with Yemeni civilians paying the highest price.
On Israel’s borders katyusha rockets that have killed civilians and been hidden amongst a Lebanese population terrified into silence. Both sides of the conflict have suffered but perhaps Lebanon most of all. In recent years thousands of Lebanese have been pressed into Hezbollah’s militias to fight in Syria. Many have been killed.
Skills transfer and terrorist training was not limited to the region but have seen groups spreading around the world. The 2012 attack on Israelis in Bulgaria, the assassinations of Arab nationalists 2015 and 2017 in the Netherlands and the failed bombing campaign in France in 2018 all point to a willingness to use any means to spread terror around the world. In 2015 this reached the UK.
Hezbollah-connected groups were found to have collected three tonnes of ammonia nitrate explosives in north west London and though the planned operation never took place, the warning that we here are not immune from Soleimani’s brand of foreign policy was clear. Even after we signed the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Quds Force saw us as a target.
The question now is what this means for Iran and what it means for us.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s rapid appointment of Soleimani’s deputy as his replacement masks the hole left in Iranian leadership. Despite his long addiction to opium he must know that Soleimani is irreplaceable. Over the past decades Iran’s strategy has been the general and his mythical status shows it.
Through personal relationships he has picked political leaders, backed their armies and funded their campaigns. If Bashar al Assad still sits in Damascus, it’s not because of his own skill, we saw how useless a commander he was in the early days of the revolution, but because Soleimani willed it. It is unlikely the IRGC will be able to find another leader like him.
Now Britain and others have a chance to reach out to former enemies and partners and point out that era defined by one man can end. The death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese and more can stop. The policy embodied in one man can end. But that requires some choices not only by the Iranian dictatorship, but many others in the region. This is a chance to change direction, let’s hope we take it.