Qassem Sulaymani: Life and Ambition

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 2 March 2021

A year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump gave the order to kill Qassem Soleimani, the de facto deputy leader of Iran. Arash Azizi’s The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions is an effort to explain who Soleimani was, how he rose to controlling the lives of millions of people well outside the borders of Iran, and how in the end he was brought down.


Soleimani was born in the small village of Qanat Molk, in the Kerman province of Iran, in 1957, during the Cold War, the crucial context for the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution. ‘Although his opponents would come to caricature him in that way, the Shah [King of Iran] was no corrupt and nasty Cold War dictator like François Duvalier or Ferdinand Marcos’, Azizi notes, though his brief rendition of the Mohammed Mossadeq episode is less nuanced. To refer to the period 1941-53 as ‘Iran’s twelve-year experience of democracy’ is a stretch, historical and lexicographical.

Soleimani’s father benefited from the Shah’s land reforms, but acquired debt – a source of shame in Iran. Qassem did much less complicatedly well by the Shah’s state: finishing school and being given a job with steady income in the Kerman water organisation in 1975, aged 18. This involved Soleimani’s move to the city of Kerman. Hardly Tehran, it was still a major change for a young man from a ‘little village where even electricity was a luxury’.

The Islamic Revolution re-wrote this period as one of misery and repression. The truth is ‘[t]he 1970s were an exhilarating time’, writes Azizi. This was the height of Iran’s economic growth under the Shah; the cultural scene was vibrant, even in a conservative place like Kerman.

Azizi speculates most plausibly that young Qassem sampled what urban Iran in the 1970s had to offer; hagiographical accounts say only that Soleimani got a black belt in karate, which he probably did not, though he certainly excelled in the gym and at martial arts, spaces where any inadequacy he felt at being the villager around the city folk evaporated.

Read the rest at Fathom Journal

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