(CNSNews.com) – Iran’s next presidential election is still 18 months away, but the prospect that arguably the country’s most dangerous general may run to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has some Americans worried.
The name Qassem Soleimani increasingly is heard on Capitol Hill, most recently in connection with a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., and Iran’s involvement in the bloody crackdown in Syria. (On Thursday, the Treasury Department’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen mentioned him during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing as a target of U.S. sanctions.)
Gen. Soleimani, who is in his mid-50s, has been on the radar screens of Iran specialists and the U.S. military for many years. For the past decade, he has been head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ shadowy Qods Force (IRGC-QF), an organization responsible for terrorist operations abroad.
U.S. and British military officials have long accused it of arming and supporting Shi’ite militias in Iraq, including providing particularly lethal types of improvised explosive devices that have killed many coalition and Iraqi troops, as well as Iraqi civilians.
An editorial early this month in Iran’s Kayhan – an influential newspaper closely associated with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – was startlingly candid about the IRGC-QF’s exploits.
“[I]t is undeniable that the Qods Force – and General Ghasem Soleimani – have played the most significant role in cutting down to size the U.S. war machine in the Middle East,” it said.
The assertion, verging on acknowledging responsibility for anti-coalition operations, sharply contrasted with Iran’s routine denials of Western accusations that it meddles in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Beyond Iraq, the IRGC-QF also provides assistance and weapons to the Taliban, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, according to the Treasury Department.
Soleimani has been designated three times under a U.S. executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists – first in 2007, to punish the Qods Force and broader IRGC for supporting terrorism and nuclear activities; last May, for supporting the Syrian regime’s repression; and in October, when he was one of five Iranians designated for their roles in the alleged U.S. assassination plot.
During an Oct. 26 U.S. House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee hearing on Iranian terrorism, a former U.S. Army vice chief of staff and a former CIA operative both suggested that Soleimani be killed, prompting official outrage in Tehran.
Soleimani is not known to make public statements often, but last Thursday he delivered a speech in southern Iran to 50,000 members of the Basij, the regime militia notorious for its role in Iran’s post-2009 election violence, which falls under IRGC command.
The semi-official Fars news agency quoted him as saying that political upheavals in the Arab world were giving rise to “new Irans” – in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
Pointing to the “Occupy” movement in U.S. cities, he said even Americans were waking up and “no longer tolerate war-mongering polices.”
Soleimani also told the gathering that he did not fear assassination but on the contrary prayed for “martyrdom.”
Britain’s Guardian commented this week that a “personality cult” was developing around the IRGC-QF commander. Fars reported on Tuesday that posters of Soleimani were held aloft by some members of the mob that stormed the British Embassy in Tehran. (Iranian media describe the embassy attackers as “students” but the British government said they were members of the Basij, prompting speculation that the IRGC-QF was behind the provocative incident.)
The possibility that Soleimani may run for president of Iran when Ahmadinejad’s second term ends in mid-2013 is reportedly being discussed in media outlets of the hardline establishment known in the Iranian lexicon as “principalists.”
The reformist Rooz news portal reported on Oct. 25 that some Iranian Web sites were referring to Soleimani “as principal choice in the elections for the eleventh president of Iran” although it also said that principalist Web sites “exaggerated the influence and authority of Ghasem Soleimani in the regime.”
In a column on internal Iranian politics published last July, Los Angeles-based Iranian journalist and engineering professor Dr. Muhammad Sahimi said he had heard from a “well-positioned source” in Iran that Soleimani may be favored by supreme leader Khamenei as a candidate for president in 2013.
“According to the source, Soleimani – who was recently promoted to his current rank, held by very few military commanders in Iran – is being talked up in hardline circles in part due to his intimate involvement in all the work that the military and intelligence forces have been doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere abroad and because he has proven consistently loyal to the senior Khamenei,” Sahimi wrote.