By Mohammad Mazhari

Gen. Soleimani changed the game after U.S. invaded Iraq: Australian National University researcher

January 7, 2022 - 12:41
‘Soleimani is someone whose friends and enemies praise him’

TEHRAN – An international relations expert says that Gen. Qassem Soleimani changed the rules of the game in the region via highlighting identity structures.

Dr. Alam Saleh says after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 the Islamic Republic decided to change the game.

“Soleimani and his military fellows and theorists were worried about the U.S. presence as one of the most powerful military forces of history in the eastern, western and southern borders of the country,” Saleh tells the Tehran Times.

Saleh believes that since the United States cannot be confronted in a “direct military clash,” the Iranians tried to design the game in such a way that they have something to say.

“Qassem Soleimani highlighted the identity structures of the region and recruited them,” notes Saleh, a lecturer in Iranian Studies at the Australian National University.

Saleh says that these structures existed before Gen. Soleimani, “but his military genius helped him identify these structures and deploy them to create a deterrent power against any potential enemy.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: In the humanities, we have two main approaches towards the subjects: the objective approach, which tries to address its subjects and topics objectively, and the Verstehen School of Understanding that tries to understand in a deep way; in the second approach, when a researcher aims to understand another person's experience, he can try to put himself in the other person's shoes. Different positions were taken when it came to General Soleimani and his regional role and influence. Some pundits have sympathized with Soleimani's causes and thoughts making an effort to look at the events with the general’s view, while another group sought to explain his discourse based on his behavior regardless of his thoughts and understanding. 
On the one hand, the United States and its allies accused General Soleimani of supporting terrorism, while Iran and the axis of resistance considered him a hero of the fight against terrorism. During your research about General Soleimani, which approach was more helpful and insightful?

A: One of the main problems we face in the humanities and political sciences is methodology. We have always had a gap in methodological methods and interdisciplinary topics to study an individual, a region or a country. Many researchers working on the Middle East (West Asia) usually have a fundamental problem with part of their methodological subjects. For example, it is not possible to talk about Qassem Soleimani unless we have enough knowledge on the situation in the Middle East (West Asia).

It is impossible to study Qassem Soleimani without properly analyzing and critically examining the complexities of the multilayered societies of the Middle East (West Asia).

The structures that Soleimani founded are enduring.

Then we will be able to understand and examine to some extent the character and influence of a prominent figure like Qassem Soleimani. 

Since Qassem Soleimani was not a theorist or writer, we did not have enough resources to see how he was thinking as the one of most popular military figures in the world.

 Therefore, not only we need to analyze his political and security attitudes and even his individual behaviors in order to cast a light on Qassem Soleimani’s life, but we must study the events and developments in the Middle East (West Asia).

Qassem Soleimani has created and dealt with the events in the Middle East over the past twenty years and perhaps in the last forty years.

 That is why I always say that we need an interdisciplinary and complex research to study a subject in the Middle East (West Asia).

 None of the researches alone can tell the truth unless we put them together.

If we want to analyze only Gen. Soleimani's biography, our work will be incomplete, or if we concentrate on the IRGC and neglect the situation in the Middle East (West Asia), it will still not reflect the real political-security complexities ruling the region.

What is needed methodologically is a comprehensive study of what is going on in the Middle East (West Asia) and its security challenges, as well as studying societal intertwined layers of the Middle East (West Asia) to understand how Soleimani was thinking and what his security concerns were, or how he tried to tackle this concern and advance his plans.

Q: How do you assess the view of Westerners - politicians and academics- on Qassem Soleimani? It seems they have more a critical approach to Soleimani, or have no motive to understand his goal and causes.

A: In the case of Qassem Soleimani, I can say he was a formidable figure who could gain a great deal of respect especially in Western media and even among some Western figures.

  This respect was for the ideas, behaviors and plans he could implement successfully.

I think what made Soleimani distinguished was his capacity to strike a very good balance between Islamic-nationalistic ideology and pragmatism.  It was basically the Western press that highlighted Qassem Soleimani as a prominent military figure.

It is interesting that Soleimani's enemies and Western generals were praising him as a military and security figure, especially due to his capacities and experiences in handling military conflicts.

That is why when we examine Soleimani without ideological prejudice, we see that he was a very successful commander; it doesn’t need many years of research to figure it out.

Suffice it to recall that dozens of countries over the last twenty years have been directly and indirectly attacked in the region; from Libya to Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, etc. But so far not a single bullet has been fired at Iran. This is a sign of military success.

 It is the mission of a military commander to protect the security.

Soleimani, his think tanks and his fellows have been able to prevent an invasion on Iran for the past twenty years.

Soleimani is someone whose friends and enemies praise him.

Iraqi officials have always said that Baghdad would have fallen without Suleimani. If Soleimani did not supply weapons to the Kurds in Erbil, the city would fall. If Damascus did not fall into the hands of ISIS, it was all due to the success of Qassem Soleimani.

Q: Could you brief us about your book and what attracted you to Qassem Soleimani’s character?

A: First of all, we started the idea of writing the book a year before Soleimani's assassination, and even our contract with the University of Manchester was signed several months before the assassination.

Indeed, we had presented our idea in several international conferences.

It is interesting that Soleimani's enemies and Western generals were praising him as a military and security figure.The project was based on examining how Soleimani used his charismatic personality to advance political and military goals. How did he manage to legitimize Tehran's regional policies and how could he mobilize popular groups, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, and what methods did he use?

We also wanted to see to what extent Soleimani's charismatic, mysterious and successful personality has been able to attract various groups and classes inside Iran who may not necessarily be satisfied with the policies of the Islamic Republic.

How could Soleimani spread a sense of nationalism via his charismatic personality? We were going to look at these issues until the assassination in January 2020, when I suggested that we focus our research on his policies and military-defense doctrine in the Middle East (West Asia) to see how successful his political and military behavior has been. 

Q: What methods did you apply in your book? Have you suggested a specific methodology?

A: We started the project based on nation branding theory; how a country can promote itself and its policies by a key person.

This phenomenon first emerged in the Middle East (West Asia) by Soleimani. Iran was known in the region and among the foreign politicians by Soleimani.

  The teenagers and youth, even the secular and middle classes, were interested in Soleimani along with the religious folks. We wanted to see how Soleimani was successful in attracting various classes and spectrum.

Q: Could you mention a distinctive feature of Soleimani that caught your eye?

A: As a researcher in security studies, I was interested in his military achievements. His special and unique personality, which could be mysterious and simple at the same time, had provided a special potential in his political behavior.  His personal characteristics; friendly and sincere treatment of his subordinates and abandonment of classical hierarchies were his prominent features.

  According to American generals, Soleimani was a military genius and was well aware of the region and its people. He knew how to impress the influential figures in the region.

Q: Modern military doctrines emphasize order and hierarchy. How could General Soleimani, who grew up in a religious and traditional atmosphere, establish a balance between religious teachings and modern military doctrines?

A: I think what made Soleimani distinguished was his capacity to strike a very good balance between Islamic-nationalistic ideology and pragmatism.

 Wherever necessary, he could think beyond the ideological scope and go beyond the geographical borders of Iran in his missions.

 Although Soleimani was deeply religious, he was eventually allowed to pursue his policies pragmatically wherever necessary, and this was one of the factors in his success in the region.

 We are faced here with two contradictory concepts: Iranian nationalism and Islamism. Iranian nationalism has a certain definition based on Iran’s historical borders, while Islamism has no border and aims to form Ummah. Therefore, Soleimani was able to redress the balance between the two.

Qassem Soleimani's slogan was that if we did not fight in Syria, we had to fight in the streets of Tehran. Here the cause of Iranian nationalism intersects with Islamic values.

Soleimani engineered this new approach in an effort to converge Islamism and Iranian nationalism based on a good understanding of Iran and its rivals, especially the United States.

I have already said that the experience of classical wars, along with the experience of irregular wars, with his precise knowledge of the region besides the vast authorities given to him, created a special position for Soleimani in so far as he was known as the second most important policy-maker of Iran when it comes to regional policies. 

Q: Your specialty is identity. Is Iranian identity necessarily in conflict with Islamic identity? Did Soleimani reconcile these two things?

A: Epistemologically, there are contradictions between Islamism and nationalism.

But in practice, it was possible to reconcile the two with a greater focus on Shia identity as Shiism has turned to a part of the Iranian national identity. As orthodox, it is a part of the Russian identity. 

This conflict does not mean that religious and national identity cannot be used simultaneously. Perhaps when nationalism and Islamism are aligned with one another, as two engines drive identity-based conflicts, they can have a very high mobilizing power. Nationalism will be stronger if it is mixed by religion.

 Of course, it should be noted that Soleimani's discourse outside Iran was different from what was inside.

It was said inside Iran that we are defending the country's national interests in Syria and abroad.

This raises the issue of strategic depth. Iran has historically always controlled and managed the geography of the region.

Q: Has this sense penetrated the collective subconscious of Iranians that they should manage the region and have strategic depth? Do you think the religious people in Iran have such a sense?

A: It is said that one of the reasons why the Sassanid Empire were defeated by the Muslim Arabs was that the Sassanid alliance with The Lakhmids, who controlled the buffer zone between present-day Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, collapsed and the balance of power changed and Iran was defeated. (The Lakhmids was an Arab kingdom in Southern Iraq and Eastern Arabia from about 300 to 602 CE. They were generally but intermittently the allies and clients of the Sasanian Empire.)

Therefore, Iran's strategic depth has always been beyond its borders.

No country likes to have rivals and enemies along its borders.

This comes at a time when the balance of power in the region has shifted in the last twenty years, especially since 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Soleimani and his military fellows and theorists were worried about the U.S. presence as one of the most powerful military forces of history in the eastern, western and southern borders of the country.

Undoubtedly, the United States cannot be confronted in a direct military clash, so Iran decided to change the rules of the game in the region.

  They tried to design the game in such a way that they have something to say.

  Here, Qassem Soleimani highlighted the identity structures of the region and recruited them.

  Neither the Iraqi Shia was made by Soleimani, nor the Syrian Alawites were brought to power by him, as the Lebanese Hezbollah was not founded by Soleimani.

So these structures existed before Soleimani, but his military genius helped him identify these structures and deploy them to create a deterrent power against any potential enemy.

Q: What circumstances produced a character like Qassem Soleimani? Do you expect Iran’s history to reproduce such a commander soon?

A: In order to study Soleimani, one must know himself first, and look through the history of Iran and its security concerns, but at another level the researcher needs to study the region, and finally the United States.

 Soleimani cannot be judged without knowing the United States and taking a position towards its policies. If you believe that America is a democracy that aims to help others, the story changes completely.

 But if we have a realistic view that says the United States is a country like the rest of the world, you would face a totally different narrative in which America is a country with its own ideology and is prone to use force to advance its policies. For instance, its military invasion of Iraq was based on unfounded pretexts. In that case we would deal with a state that invaded Afghanistan under the pretext of fighting the Taliban, but eventually reached conciliation with them.

In such an atmosphere and within the hectic pace of developments that disrupt the shape of the region, we must see where Qassem Soleimani stood and how he could make the best use of his capacities to advance Iran's military-political and security goals.

Undoubtedly, history has witnessed the emergence of charismatic personalities who we did not expect would have an alternative. For instance, after Imam Khomeini or after the assassination of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas Mousavi.

  Although the emergence of a figure with Soleimani's characteristics in the region takes time, the structures that Soleimani founded are enduring and can be worked on.

The importance of these structures has been greater than the physical presence of Soleimani.

Q: Some consider Qassem Soleimani an icon of successful diplomacy? Did he also use diplomatic means to advance his military goals?

A: We have a term in international relations called “military diplomacy.” Diplomacy means the power to bargain and persuade others without using force or violence. This does not mean that you do not need military power whereas it helps you to have more bargaining power at the negotiating table and make more concessions.  The concessions are extracted when the other party knows that he is forced to make them.  Undoubtedly, military power is one of the trump cards of any country in diplomacy especially in conflict areas such as West Asia.  Undoubtedly, the new security engineering presented by Soleimani had increased Iran's bargaining power in the region. That the U.S. insists that Iran should reconsider its regional policies has been the success of these policies.

Q: Will the differences between Iran and the United States eventually reach a balance point where both sides recognize each other's position and power? Or should we wait for a clash?

A: Unlike those who think that the Iran-U.S. problem is an ideological problem, I think the Iran-U.S. conflict is over power, and I look at it from the perspective of international relations.

 The United States does not tolerate the existence of any powerful country in the Middle East (West Asia).  This is not a strange thing. This is a realistic approach. Certainly a country like Iran that has the potential for being a regional superpower is intolerable by the United States.  Regardless of all the slogans of the different parties, I think this conflict is based on an equation of power. Iran has the potential to be a regional superpower, and this is something that countries in the region, and perhaps even friendly countries, do not accept, and the United States opposes because it wants the region to be under its control.

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