Major General Qassem Soleimani was part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) senior leadership echelon, which is comprised of commanders that have served together since the Iran-Iraq War. Soleimani became the commander of the IRGC Quds Force since 1998, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed him. He was deployed to Mahabad in West Azerbaijan province to suppress the Kurdish uprising after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was appointed the IRGC commander in Kerman province after the Iran-Iraq War and was promoted to major general in 2011.
Soleimani enjoyed expansive authority and latitude to execute critical operations and campaigns as the head of the Quds Force. The Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force is an elite branch of the IRGC that is tasked with exporting the revolutionary ideals of the Islamic Republic and serving as the external action arm for the regime. As the head of this force, Soleimani supported, developed, and directed proxy groups and other political allies in the region in order to strengthen deterrence, pursue Iran’s offensive objectives, gain the upper hand against Sunni Arab states, and drive the US out of the Middle East.
Soleimani and the Quds Force have been a critical component in Bashar al Assad’s effort to survive in Syria and to reestablish control over a majority of the country involved in the civil war. It is unlikely that Assad would have survived without the assistance of Iran’s military, including the Quds Force and Quds Force-directed Hezbollah. Soleimani and Hezbollah’s leadership also have strong ties due to years of cooperation in carrying out missions in Lebanon and Syria. Soleimani become a larger-than-life figure in the recent Iraq and Syria conflicts, hailed by political and military figures alike for his role in various military successes in those theaters.
Qassem Soleimani directly answered to the supreme leader, who has given the Quds Force Commander a free hand in implementing Khamenei’s strategic goals regionally. Soleimani therefore enjoyed a direct line of communication to the supreme leader, even though the Quds Force is nominally under the auspices of the IRGC chain of command. Soleimani likely also worked in close cooperation with IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, however. Soleimani thus had a much more robust role in shaping Iran’s foreign policy than President Hassan Rouhani or Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Soleimani nonetheless managed to stay largely aloof of domestic political squabbles in Iran.
A US strike killed Soleimani near the Baghdad International Airport along with Abu Mehdi al Muhandis, the leader of Iran’s most loyal proxy in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, on January 3, 2020.