Shadow Commander

Manichaeism is an ancient religion that according to my Wikipedia source “taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.” I know little more about the religion than that it has become a metaphor for a naive belief that the world is separated into two opposing forces of good and evil. Manichaeism, coincidentally originating in Persia (Iran), came to mind as I listened to an American diplomat at the beginning of a BBC documentary describe Qassem Suleimani as a ‘diabolically evil human being’ as ‘the Darth Vader of Middle East politics’ and at the end call him ‘dastardly’ and the ‘quintessence of evil’.

It was US President Bush who dubbed Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ missing an opportunity at reconciliation after 9/11 and giving the Iranians real cause for existential fear.

Suleimani was a remarkable leader whose assassination on the second day of this year was a barbaric act. Not so much because he was killed but because of the manner and timing of his killing since we learn from the current Iraqi PM that he had been invited to take part in peace talks. It may not be wrong to kill an enemy in battle but to kill an enemy who has been invited to negotiate for peace is is contrary to all rules of diplomacy.

The BBC documentary, ‘Shadow Commander: Iran’s Military Mastermind’ is quite fascinating and surprisingly balanced. It gives a useful background on Suleimani.

The US occupation of Iraq was a matter of concern to its neighbour Iran which had fought a long war with an Iraq led by Saddam Hussain who was at that time supported by the US. It was of interest to them that a future Iraq should be secured as an ally rather than an enemy. The overthrow of Sadaam’s hostile regime offered Iran the opportunity to build relationships with sympathetic Shia factions in Iraq. Their vying for influence with the US and the consequent ‘shadow war’ in Iraq was inevitable. The Iranians supported armed opposition to the US led occupation by Shia militias; this included providing arms that were used against US and UK forces.

With the end of the formal occupation Nouri al-Maliki, the leader of a Shia party, became Iraqi Prime Minister in 2006. The US led coalition maintained a smaller presence in Iraq but were competing with the Iranians for influence.  As I understand it, there was also ongoing conflict between Shia and Sunni militias at this time. The rise of Daesh (Isis) in 2014 caught the US off guard according to the documentary, and the quick response of Iranian forces under Suleimani at the request of al-Maliki saved Iraq from being overrun.

Suleimani and the Americans found themselves on the same side fighting against Daesh. But it is noted in the documentary that although both parties were working with the Iraqi government, the US would not assist with airstrikes against Daesh when their old enemies Suliemani or the Shia militias were involved.

The contribution of Suleimani to beating Daesh was recognised even by the American media.

Later Suleimani supported the Assad government in Syria in their fight against Daesh and other Jihadi elements. Incredibly, one of the accusations made against Suleiman by some American commentators has been that he helped prop up the Assad regime. It is almost as though they wanted the country to be overrun by extermists.

Clearly Suleimani was not a hero to the US coalition who identified him as a ‘terrorist’. Israel also identified him as a terrorist and the documentary, made in March 2019, makes clear that both the Israelis and the Americans considered him a legitimate target for assassination. These ongoing motivations suggest that it is naive to consider Trump the prime initiator of the action against Suleimani; it is perhaps naive to consider Trump the prime initiator of anything.

In his speech commemorating Suleimani, Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, offers a perspective from the other side of a cultural and perceptual divide and shows us how wide that divide is. Nasrallah frames Suleimani’s death in terms of faith and in terms of the decades long conflict between what he terms the ‘American-Israeli hegemony’ and the ‘Axis of Resistance’. Suleimani is presented as a man of faith whose death as a ‘martyr’ is to be accepted and celebrated as something he himself desired.

“Let me say that I knew Hajj Qassem, Hajj Abu Mahdi and the brothers who accompanied them very well, and I know that Soleimani (ardently) desired martyrdom. But maybe what happened to him exceeded his expectations. He ended up headless, like Imam Hussein, and without arms, like Abbas (brother of Imam Hussein), and his body was completely torn to pieces, like Ali Akbar (son of Imam Hussein, all killed in Karbala ). I don’t know if that’s what Hajj Qassem and Hajj Abu Mahdi had in mind.

“So they all became shredded and burnt corpses to the point where it was very difficult to put the body pieces back together.”

Suleiman is presented not only an Iranian leader but also as the military leader of the ‘Axis of Resistance’.

“The question of Hajj Soleimani is very different (from any other). If for example the United States had struck a particular Iranian objective, like installations, an organization, even a personality other than Hajj Qasem Soleimani, that is to say not responsible for all the actions of the Resistance Axis, we could all consider that it is ‘only’ an aggression against Iran and that it is Iran’s business to retaliate (on its own). But Qassem Soleimani is not just an Iranian affair. Qassem Soleimani concerns the whole Axis of Resistance. Qassem Soleimani, concerns all the forces of the Resistance. Qassem Soleimani concerns Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and any country in which there are noble Resistants, supporters and lovers of the Resistance. Qassem Soleimani concerns the whole (Arab-Muslim) Nation. It is not a simple Iranian affair in which the Iranians would be the only ones to determine where, how and when they will strike back, and where (we could wash our hands of it by saying that) it is their business, and that it is up to them to make the decision they deem appropriate. Whatever Iran does, (the other factions of) the Resistance will not be exempt from their responsibility.”

As Suleimani is presented as a Darth Vader figure by some in the West, he appears to be widely regarded as a holy warrior, a Luke Skywalker figure by Shia Muslims.

Nasrallah says that :

“The truth is that that there are two rival projects in competition: … There is a project of American-Israeli hegemony over our entire region, our holy places, oil and gas, water, our choices, etc. ….. Against them, the opposing project is that of Resistance, independence, sovereignty, liberation and freedom, self-determination of peoples, the re-appropriation of our holy places by our (Arab-Muslim) Nation.”

Of course “independence, sovereignty, liberation and freedom, self-determination of peoples” are the very things that the West claims to be fighting for. You would think that the two side would have no problems whatsoever. But then there is the matter of the execution of men for homosexuality and the suppression of cultural and political dissent on the Iranian side and the bombings and invasions and political undermining etc. of a myriad of countries on the US side.

As Nasrallah’s speech highlights the cultural divide so does the response of his followers who clearly see him not just as a respected political leader but as a revered prophetic figure. Like Suleimani, Nasrallah comes across as an intensely charismatic figure but we cannot miss his absolute authority over his followers and their, apparent, absolute submission to his authority.

That there is clash of cultures or civilisations that Nasrallah describes is obvious. Each side may seem the better to those who stand with them but predatory oligarchy and religious totalitarianism are both antithetical to and have worked against human freedom, life and dignity.

Suleimani was a towering figure he was an enemy of ‘our side’, the side of UK and US. His forces and decisions killed UK and US military personnel who were part of an occupation resisted by his allies. That, in itself, cannot be characterised as ‘evil’ except in the sense that all killing in war is evil.

In the BBC documentary American general Stanley McChrystal offers a more rational assessment, saying that he did not believe that Suliemani was evil but that he was, like himself, doing what he had to in order to advance the aims of his nation. ‘I believe in my country, he believes in his country’ said McCrystal.

Thcartoon by Gavin Coates makes the point neatly.