But Soleimani's already extraordinary personal influence reportedly has taken on mythical proportions, especially in Iraq, where he has been regarded as the man who calls the shots since 2003. The then U.S. commanding officer in the country needed little convincing when he received this famous message in 2008: "General [David] Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan."
Iraq's centrality in the Iranian revolutionary narrative was, as Muhammad Sahimi wrote in Tehran Bureau, the reason that the Qods Force was established in the 1980s: to train Iraq's Kurds (and Shia) against Saddam. Interestingly, noted the same author, Soleimani and his generation of fellow IRGC commanders never got over the fact that the West (and indeed the world) supported Saddam during the war. This is highly significant because it colors the regimes national-security and foreign-policy thinking.
But Iraq is one piece of the puzzle, albeit a crucial one. As the Qods Force’s Ramazan Corps, responsible for Iraq, fills in the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal last December, it continues to expand its theater of operations beyond the familiar near-abroad stretching from Lebanon and Syria to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
The long arm of the Islamic revolution
Nearly two dozen incidents within the past eighteen months (including recent attempts in Azerbaijan, India, Georgia, Thailand, Kenya and Cyprus) have fueled suspicions that Tehran and Hezbollah are trawling farther afield for soft targets. This appears to involve countries with noticeable Israeli civilian or commercial traffic, relatively relaxed security protocols and Iranian diplomatic presence.
Azerbaijan is a compelling case in point. Israel's relationship with the Shiite Muslim-majority country of almost ten million is sand in the eyes for Iran given what it sees as its own "deeply rooted and brotherly" ties with Baku based on history, geography, culture, religion and, to an extent, ethnicity. Then, as now, Iran's leaders reason, independent Azerbaijan should intuitively belong within the orbit of Persian exceptionalism. For the Qods Force, this is even greater cause for involvement.
According to media reports, Iranian spooks have been operating on Azeri soil as far back as the mid-1990s. In 1997, members of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan were tried for spying on behalf of Iran. In 2007, Said Dadasbeyli, an Azeri cleric and alleged leader of a group known as the "Northern Mahdi Army" was accused of receiving assistance from the Qods Force and plotting to overthrow the secular government. In exchange, the authorities believed he had provided Iran with sensitive intelligence on the American and Israeli embassies in Baku.
In October 2009, two Lebanese and four Azerbaijani citizens were charged with plotting to attack the same embassies. In January 2012, three men were accused of planning to assassinate a Chabad rabbi and a teacher working at a Baku Jewish school. In the following two months, just as the heat was being turned up on Iran's nuclear activities, the number of suspects detained and allegedly linked with Iran and Hezbollah increased exponentially.
While it is unclear to what extent these charges were politically motivated, the statistics alone, in addition to Baku's clear interest in maintaining cordial relations with its powerful southern neighbor, belie Iranian skulduggery. Iran has reciprocated by accusing Azerbaijan of harboring individuals spying on behalf of Israel’s Mossad and heckling its neighbor for depravity and ways discordant with “the interests of the Islamic countries and the Muslim world,” as an Iranian committee spokesman put it. By most accounts, this has had the effect of further galvanizing the Azeris’ resolve to chart their own course—away from Iran.
No Silver Lining
A late-year Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure remains a matter of heated speculation, although the truth is known only to the Jewish state's poker-faced premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak. Either way, Israel is unlikely to cease targeting human assets linked to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile-development programs, while Iran and its affiliates are equally unlikely to desist from hurting Jewish interests and Israeli citizens worldwide, whom it regards as extensions of Israel's universally militarized society.
If the current pressures persist, and so long as stalwart resistance to and the ultimate "removal" of the "cancerous Zionist regime" continue to underlie Iran's strategic calculus, this promises to be one long, hard war ahead for both governments and, unfortunately, for both peoples as well.
Kevjn Lim is an independent, Middle East-based writer and contributing analyst at Open Briefing: The Civil Society Intelligence Agency (www.openbriefing.org).