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'Throughline': The Origins Of Iran's Gen. Qassem Soleimani


We have the story of the most influential years of Qassem Soleimani. The United States had him killed in an airstrike in Iraq just after the new year. He was an Iranian general, arguably the most important member of the Revolutionary Guard, a military arm of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has been fighting direct and proxy wars in the Middle East for 40 years. A bit of recent history reveals why Soleimani was so important and why the U.S. considered him so dangerous.

Here to talk about this is one of the co-hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline - Ramtin Arablouei. Hey. Welcome back.


INSKEEP: So I guess this goes back to 1979, when Iran's Islamic Revolution began, and there's this organization called the Revolutionary Guard. Did it even then include a young man named Qassem Soleimani?

ARABLOUEI: Yes. Qassem Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guards in his early 20s, right after the revolution. When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980, that organization dramatically expanded, and Soleimani made a name for himself as a war hero. After the war ended in 1988, he climbed the ranks and eventually led the Revolutionary Guard's foreign military operations. And when 9/11 happened, he was thrust into the middle of an incredibly tough foreign policy challenge for Iran.

INSKEEP: Because the United States was striking back after 9/11 and had other plans.

ARABLOUEI: Exactly. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida and the Taliban government, there was fear in Iran. So in a secret meeting in Geneva, Iranian diplomats actually handed over military intelligence about the Taliban to U.S. officials as kind of an olive branch. And it seemed for a brief moment that Iran-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan might actually be possible. My co-host Rund Abdelfatah and I pick up the story from there.


GEORGE W BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

ARABLOUEI: In 2002, months after Iran and the U.S. began cooperating in Afghanistan, President Bush delivered a speech in which he grouped Iran, North Korea and Iraq together as a part of one "axis of evil."

KARIM SADJADPOUR: That only confirmed the already very cynical worldview of Iran's hard-liners - that cooperation with the United States is futile.

ALI ALFONEH: The Iranian side and the Revolutionary Guard, they felt betrayed.

SADJADPOUR: They felt they had played a constructive role in helping to get rid of the Taliban.

ALFONEH: In their own opinion, they had helped the United States.

SADJADPOUR: And they were rewarded by being placed in the axis of evil.

ARABLOUEI: That was Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute, and Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: When the Taliban government collapsed, a strange opportunity presented itself. Many members of al-Qaida fled Afghanistan and crossed the border into Iran.

SADJADPOUR: You know, there were bin Laden family members. There was a guy who later went on to become the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq - Zarqawi.

ABDELFATAH: They were quickly arrested and interrogated by Iranian intelligence.

SADJADPOUR: And at that time, there was a debate within Iran about whether these Sunni jihadists were a threat to Shiite Iran or whether they were an asset. And I think Qassem Soleimani was unique. That was kind of his sinister genius in thinking - you know what? - we can potentially use these folks. And Soleimani assigned two Revolutionary Guard commanders to essentially tend to their needs.


ABDELFATAH: Now that Soleimani had these al-Qaida fighters on his side, he had to figure out exactly how to use them.

ARABLOUEI: And when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, he saw his opening.

SADJADPOUR: If you're Qassem Soleimani, you think to yourself - we will do everything in our power to make sure that the U.S. war in Iraq is a colossal failure.

ARABLOUEI: He unleashed the al-Qaida fighters into Iraq.

SADJADPOUR: With the understanding that you guys, go do what you do. Go after the United States - car bombings, suicide bombings. And just a few months into the war, August of 2003...


SADJADPOUR: ...Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian al-Qaida leader, he sets off these three major bombs which essentially destroys the American experiment in Iraq in its infancy.

ABDELFATAH: One bomb hit the Jordanian Embassy; another hit the United Nations.

SADJADPOUR: And lastly, Zarqawi conducted this car bombing against the major Shiite shrine Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

SADJADPOUR: This was unheard of at the time, that someone would go set off a car bombing at a mosque during Friday prayers.


SADJADPOUR: This totally radicalized the Shiite community in Iraq. And it essentially pushed them into the arms of Iran and Qassem Soleimani, who said to the Shiites of Iraq, we can protect you.

ALFONEH: It served the interests of the Islamic Republic to maintain Iraq in a state of controlled chaos and anarchy.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

ARABLOUEI: One of Qassem Soleimani's most deadly tactics was teaching Shia fighters how to use IEDs.

SADJADPOUR: Improvised explosive devices.


SADJADPOUR: Which proved to be very effective in getting through, you know, metal tanks.

ALFONEH: At the very minimum, 600 American servicemen were killed, you know, in those years.

SADJADPOUR: And that's why you have, you know, one, if not two, generations of American military forces whom if you were to ask them, who is your worst adversary in the world, the person you see as the greatest threat to the United States? Even when Osama bin Laden was living and Baghdadi was living, they would have still said Qassem Soleimani.

ARABLOUEI: Slowly, American public support for the war in Iraq waned. By 2011, the number of American soldiers there was a fraction of what it had been five or six years earlier. The Revolutionary Guard has become arguably the most powerful institution in Iran. And although Soleimani is dead, their mission lives on.


INSKEEP: Ramtin Arablouei of NPR's history podcast Throughline. Thanks for coming by, as always, sir.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for having us, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.