Qasem Soleimani’s final interview

Following his death in an American airstrike, Khamenei confidant Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s manifesto sheds light on Iran’s war on Israel.

A MAN displays a picture of Quds Force head Maj.-Gen Qasem Soleimani (right) and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both killed in an air strike at Baghdad Airport last Friday, during their funeral procession in Ahvaz, Iran, on January 5. (photo credit: HOSSEIN MERSADI/FARS NEWS AGENCY/WANA VIA REUTERS)
A MAN displays a picture of Quds Force head Maj.-Gen Qasem Soleimani (right) and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both killed in an air strike at Baghdad Airport last Friday, during their funeral procession in Ahvaz, Iran, on January 5.
The political convulsions shaking the Middle East over the past few months are have been challenging to diagnose, but the symptoms were there for prognosis: Qasem Soleimani, a generator of so much death, had only a short time to live.
In Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of citizens are risking their lives protesting against their governments. But why? The cost of gasoline? Corruption? All of the above and more? And where is it all leading: to the collapse of the Khomeini-ist regime in Iran, to open war with Israel or the US, or to some other outcome involving Iran and its nuclear program?
A clue to the answers to these critical questions can be found in perhaps the last major interview with Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most influential figures and confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The interview is of heightened interest and importance in light of his death on January 3 near Baghdad International Airport by missiles shot by American drones at his convoy .
Soleimani’s manifesto provides a direct window into his beliefs and ambitions as well as those of the regime and yet, has so far gone almost entirely unnoticed in the West.
ONE DAY after anti-government protests erupted in Iraq in October, Soleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, flew to Baghdad and convened Iraqi security leaders in the city’s secure “Green Zone.”
“We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Soleimani reportedly lectured them. “This happened in Iran, and we got it under control.” Or at least, so went the claims in a widely distributed report by the Associated Press.
Some Iraq observers believe it showed signs of being false or exaggerated, perhaps planted by Soleimani himself to reinforce the aura of his power. Whatever the provenance of the report, the day after Soleimani’s alleged meeting, snipers belonging to Iranian-backed militias positioned themselves on Baghdad rooftops and opened fire on demonstrators.
The Tehran regime then turned to suppressing the rioting in Iran itself. At end of December, Iranian officials confirmed to Reuters that Khamenei had instructed his highest security officials, “The Islamic Republic is in danger. Do whatever it takes to end it. You have my order.” As a result, the officials revealed, some 1,500 people were killed in Iran, including 400 women and 17 teenagers.
Soleimani, a one-time bricklayer and Sean Connery look-alike, gained a legendary reputation for his role in orchestrating Iran’s global franchise of paramilitary and terrorist forces. Soleimani directed Iraqi, Houthi, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Afghani militia forces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and along Israel’s borders, imposing the Islamic Republic’s mandate through violence and intimidation.
Where regular paramilitary forces wouldn’t do, Soleimani used another plank of Iranian foreign policy – funding and facilitating terrorist attacks around the world from Buenos Aries to Bulgaria to Thailand. Over the years, the general’s reputation as a warrior, strategist and commander mushroomed to near-mythical dimensions.
Despite his reputation and importance as a geopolitical figure, the recent publication in English of what amounts to a Soleimani manifesto has failed to stir much interest. The English transcript of this unprecedented hour-and-a-half interview appeared on October 1 last year on the Iranian regime’s official website under the headline, “Untold Facts on Israel-Hezbollah War in an Interview with Major General Qasem Soleimani,” and trumpeted with the tagline: “After 20 years, for the first time since being appointed as the Chief Commander of Quds Brigade, General Soleimani was interviewed by”
Heavily promoting the Q&A served several interests for both the country and the general, foremost of which was promoting Soleimani’s image and his close ties to Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei. It raised the question of whether Iran’s ruling religious leadership was grooming Soleimani for higher office, possibly as a candidate for president to replace the so-called “reformist, moderate and centrist” Hassan Rouhani.
The interview provided a thorough insight into Soleimani’s religious faith and deepest convictions, an overview of his thoughts about recent history that spoke directly to his understanding of geopolitics and a clear account of his aims.
SOLEIMANI TAUNTS US President Donald Trump in a ‘Game of Thrones’-inspired tweet from November, in response to a Trump tweet that ‘Sanctions are coming.’ (Twitter)SOLEIMANI TAUNTS US President Donald Trump in a ‘Game of Thrones’-inspired tweet from November, in response to a Trump tweet that ‘Sanctions are coming.’ (Twitter)
Soleimani’s surprising view of Hezbollah’s leadership and vow of revenge
Bragging of his presence in Lebanon throughout the “33 Day War” against the “Zionist regime” [The Second Lebanon War], Soleimani described working with Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah and military commander Imad Mughniyeh. The three supposedly “shared a foxhole” during the 2006 war while hiding from Israeli drones flying over Hezbollah’s Beirut redoubt. Soleimani also acted as the liaison between Nasrallah and Khamenei. He boasted of the Allah-given Hezbollah victories over Israel, protecting the people of Lebanon and restoring Hezbollah’s deterrence from Israeli attack. His mandate was clear, as he explained:
“All of the [Iranian] authorities shared the same view, and unanimously agreed that Iran should support Hezbollah in various aspects, including spiritual and material support [i.e., by providing arms, equipment, facilities], media-related support and all that was in the disposition of the Islamic Republic. Within the system, no one hesitated about it, at least at that time. There was complete unity in the Islamic Republic in terms of supporting Hezbollah and trying to help Hezbollah win the war... because the main advocate of this support was the Supreme Leader and thus there was no hesitation in Iran regarding directing this cause.”
Notably, Soleimani referred to Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah almost exclusively by the honorific title “Sayyid Hassan,” recognizing Nasrallah’s religious credentials. In context, the interview suggests that Nasrallah was a public figurehead used and protected by Soleimani and Mughniyeh, the group’s military leader. Nasrallah had no military training, nor is there evidence that he ever took up arms.
On the other hand, Soleimani had no religious training. His military career began in 1980 as a commander in the Iran-Iraq war, in which he was wounded. Mughniyeh’s career got started when he joined Yasser Arafat’s elite Force 17 in the 1970s; he later fought with Fatah in the 1982 Lebanon War and in 1984 joined the new Shi’ite Hezbollah organization.
There is an interesting duality set up in the interview: Soleimani goes out of the way to stress his own religious credentials, but when it comes to his descriptions of Hezbollah’s leadership, his highest praise goes not to the political-religious leader Nasrallah, but to the group’s military commander Mughniyeh. Soleimani is effusive in his admiration for Mughniyeh, one of the most notorious terrorist masterminds of the last half-century, responsible for the murder of hundreds of Americans in terrorist bombings of the American embassy and US Marine barracks in Beirut, the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the US Air Force barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and more. Mughniyeh, Soleimani told his interviewer, was too great even for the title “general.”
“The 2006 war was commanded by someone named martyr Imad Mughniyeh. He was a general with the most similar features to Malik Ashtar on the battlefield.” [Malik Al-Ashtar was a loyal companion of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Malik is described as a “brave” and “fearless” warrior by numerous Shi’ite sources.]
Returning from his Islamic history lesson to the modern battlefield, Soleimani stated, “One of the characteristics of Imad Mughniyeh was his careful attention to details. Because he usually managed everything himself; the designing and the executing were all done by him. So he had done all the different steps consisting of entering the occupied lands, taking hostages, taking them out on the carrier and transferring them rapidly to a safe place, out of reach of the enemy.”
Mughniyeh was assassinated in a car bomb in 2008, attributed to the CIA and Israeli intelligence, stoking a desire by Hezbollah and Iran for revenge that has only grown since the death of Mughniyeh’s son, Jihad. Killed at the age of 25 in a 2015 Israeli bombing attack, Jihad was involved in an Iranian/Hezbollah team planning a new front on the Golan Heights, where he was supposed to play a leadership role. Photographs of the young Mughniyeh with Soleimani and Khamenei suggest Jihad did not lack for godfathers and mentors.
During Hezbollah’s worst wartime days, Soleimani revealed two crucial aspects of the war – Mughniyeh pulling Nasrallah’s strings and Soleimani’s deep religious beliefs behind the Iranian-Hezbollah war:
“Imad made an important improvisation. It was very effective: a letter by the warriors at the battlefronts fighting the enemy, and under fire, to Sayyid Hassan [Nasrallah]. It was an amazing letter. The day it was being read, Imad, who had improvised it himself, was crying loudly. I didn’t see anyone listening to this letter who did not cry.
“Even more important was Sayyid’s [Nasrallah’s] reply to that letter. It was like the poems recited by the [seventh-century] companions of Imam Hussein in Karbala, supporting him against the enemy. And Sayyid’s answer in praise of his warriors was like Imam Hussein’s speech in praise of his own companions on the eve of Ashura [holiday]. These two talks – that is, the warriors’ letter to Sayyid, and Sayyid’s reply to it – were both very influential and divine.”
Last year, Soleimani vowed revenge for the Mugniyehs:
“The blood of Imad will not be avenged by the killing of one person. The revenge for the blood of Imad, and all the others like him who were martyred in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iran and elsewhere, by means of a plot of the Zionist regime... The blood of Imad will be avenged by the removal and uprooting of the child-killing Zionist regime.”
Soleimani’s absolute loyalties
From the outside, the structure of Iranian society can appear in certain aspects to mirror the political institutions of the West, but this is an illusion. In fact, there are no independent institutions of social justice or government accountability that operate outside the authority of Iran’s ayatollahs. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced the “Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (Vilayat-e Faqih)” in 1970, and enshrined it in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the supreme leader retains total custodianship over the people and the country. By law, the supreme leader and his assembly of experts must be clerics and that they are all authorities on Shari’a (Islamic law), the law of the land.
The absolute power exercised by Iran’s mullahs has created conflicts with Iraqi religious authorities. In Iraq, leading clerics such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Moqtada Sadr oppose the absolute guardianship doctrine and argue for limited guardianship. But there are no such conflicts for Soleimani, who has shown little regard for Tehran’s nominal political rulers compared to his total deference toward Khamenei’s absolute rule. It appears to be no coincidence that Soleimani’s much-touted interview contains not a single reference to the Rouhani government in Iran.
This is an important point in understanding the late Soleimani’s loyalties and his understanding of the true purpose of Iranian political actions, as he emphasized in a recent speech evincing his own zealous adherence to the Iranian Shi’ite doctrine:
“Since the beginning of the [1979 Iranian] revolution, our victories on all fronts were guaranteed by adherence to the culture of Imam Hussein [ibn Ali, Mohammed’s grandson], and we have won many victories as a result of this path [of Shiism]. This front is founded on the reliance on Imam Hussein [626-680 CE], the Prophet’s family, and the imams and their companions.
“You can witness it being reborn every day. Yesterday, it had a branch only in Iran. Today, it has branches in many [locations] as a result of this reliance. Today, Ansar Allah [Houthis] in Yemen are following the path of Imam Hussein and his household. Today, the [Iraqi] Popular Mobilization Force [PMF, Hashd ash Sha’bi] is also getting inspiration and the power of resistance from this valuable position.”
Iran’s 30-year-old strategy: Push the US Out of the Middle East and destroy Israel
The US’s involvement in the 1990-1991 Gulf War and Desert Storm and the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan in 2001 threatened Iranian hegemonic strategies in the region. The American war effort, which stationed tens of thousands of troops in the region along with air force bases and other logistics hubs, had the dual effect, according to Soleimani, of frustrating Syrian and Iranian efforts while providing openings for Israel to exploit.
“The US had extensively developed the presence of its armed forces in our region, as much as was the case during World War II. In 1991, when the first US attack happened following Saddam’s military action against Kuwait, the American invasion and Saddam’s defeat left military remainders in our region.”
“But after 9/11, about 40% of the armed forces of the US entered our region. There was a dense presence in a limited area: in Iraq alone, there were more than 150,000 troops, and over 30,000 US troops were present in Afghanistan.”
“Thus, a 200,000 specialized and trained force was present in our region next to Palestine. This presence naturally provided opportunities for the Zionist regime. That is, the presence of the US in Iraq was an obstacle to the dynamism of the Syrians in Syria, as well as a threat to the Syrian government and a threat to Iran. The Zionist regime wanted to take advantage of this, thinking it was the best opportunity for a war; because the Israeli regime had suffered a defeat [withdrawing from southern Lebanon in 2000].”
At the end of the 2006 Lebanon War, Israeli military and political leaders insisted that the heavy Israeli counter-attack and assault on Hezbollah secured deterrence from further attack by the Iranian proxy. It appears, however, that Soleimani took a different message from the war. In the October interview, he reported that an Arab envoy insisted that after 33 days, the “war had to cease immediately. I asked why? They said, if the war is not put to an end, the Israeli army would implode and fall apart.”
“Consequently,” Soleimani stated, “Israel had to forgo all their conditions and accept those of Hezbollah and a ceasefire, and that was a great victory for Hezbollah. In fact, it was not only a victory in that war, but a turning point and an end to the fear of Israeli aggression toward Lebanon, and this has lasted until today. Not only did Hezbollah impact the fear of an Israeli assault on Lebanon, it also affected the assumption of the Zionist regime for any aggression. I can confirm that after the 33-day war, the Zionist regime’s strategy changed from the Ben-Gurion strategy of a preemptive and offensive strike and gradually gave way to a defensive strategy.”
ONE WEEK after his Khameini.IR interview on October 7, Soleimani spoke to a conference of senior IRGC officers in Tehran and delivered a message that provides some illuminating context for the real purpose behind his sudden desire to pontificate about the 2006 war.
“The IRGC has expanded the resistance in terms of both quantity and quality. It has expanded the resistance from a geographical territory of 2,000 sq. km. in southern Lebanon to a territory of half-a-million America and the Zionist regime concentrate their efforts on stopping this qualitative expansion. The second point is that the IRGC has created territorial continuity for [the different parts] of the resistance. It has connected Iran to Iraq, Iraq to Syria, and Syria to Lebanon.”
For Soleimani, it appears that neither the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 nor the 1979 Khomeini revolution that created Iran’s Islamic Republic and its plans for regional hegemony has ever truly ended. Soleimani may have been an able tactician and operational strategist, but he viewed events through the lens of a preordained divine plan guided by the ultimate authority of Iran’s religious leadership. This leaves only so much room for accommodation to political realities, like the mass protest movements now sweeping across the Middle East, the desire of the people participating in those protests to live free of Iranian domination, or the existence of the State of Israel.
There is a version of Iran peddled by influential officials in the US and elsewhere in the West that Iran has a “moderate” political leadership waiting to emerge as the country’s true face while exerting a countervailing pressure on its fanatical clerics. This delusion is belied by the government’s actions and by the public statements of its true power brokers like Soleimani, who left no question about the absolutism of his loyalties and the zealotry of his murderous ambitions.
The elimination of Soleimani restored an element of American and Israeli deterrence power, but it could further stoke tensions in the region and have far-reaching security implications.
The writer is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.