Iran's Most Dangerous General

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No. 4, July 2011

This is the third in a series of Middle Eastern Outlooks about Qassem Suleimani.[1]


On May 18, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Major General Qassem Suleimani, chief of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who is identified as "the conduit for Iranian material support" to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate. To counter Suleimani and the Quds Force, US strategists need to understand his history of overconfident behavior and military successes. A survey of the open-source literature pertaining to Suleimani reveals a man who became a successful general without much formal training. Though a shrewd tactical leader, Suleimani is not a strategist.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • In May, President Barack Obama issued sanctions against Major General Qassem Suleimani, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, for providing Iranian material support to Syria.
  • To counter Suleimani and the Quds Force in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, US strategists need to understand his history of overconfident behavior and military successes.
  • Suleimani's military record shows that he is an accomplished tactical leader, but not an adept strategist.
  • Suleimani's strategic deficiencies not only affected military operations, but also earned him powerful enemies in the politics of the IRGC in the past.

Addressing students at the Haqqani Theological Seminary in Qom on May 22, 2011, Suleimani declared that the social revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa "provide our revolution with the greatest opportunities." He continued, "Today, Iran's victory or defeat no longer takes place in Mehran and Khorramshahr. Our boundaries have expanded and we must witness victory in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This is the fruit of the Islamic revolution."[2]

Suleimani's statements confirm earlier press reports that the Islamic Republic has actively -supported its ally Syria in deadly crackdowns on protesters and, more specifically, charges that Suleimani's Quds Force has been exploiting the Arab Spring in Tehran's favor.[3] This is also why, on May 18, Obama imposed sanctions not only against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and six senior aides, but also Suleimani, who is identified as "the conduit for Iranian material support" to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate.[4]

Despite Suleimani's prominence, little is known about him personally; he remains something of an enigma. This Outlook addresses this problem by analyzing open-source Persian-language materials to help provide some insight into Suleimani's leadership style, his military career, and his recent ideological rhetoric in support of exporting the Iranian revolution. These sources include Suleimani's speeches, references to Suleimani's war record in the Tehran-based IRGC Center of War Research and Studies' Iran/Iraq War Chronology, and biographical materials from Suleimani's fellow war veterans.

Admittedly, the IRGC and Quds Force operations that must be dealt with today differ considerably from the operations conducted during the 1980-88 Iran/Iraq war. However, as the generation of war-era IRGC commanders such as Suleimani rises to prominence in Iran, a study of their past behavior can provide valuable insights into their behavior today. This is especially true for Suleimani, whose familiarity with contemporary military literature was minimal preceding the war,[5] and whose leadership style was shaped by formative battlefield experiences and military staff deliberations.

Personal Motives

Suleimani is a war hero and a genuine patriot who joined the IRGC following the revolution, as Iran grappled with the likelihood of civil war and the challenges of Iraq's invasion.[6] During the war, Suleimani risked his own life on reconnaissance missions to minimize casualties among his men. At least one credible report describes an event on July 2, 1986, when Suleimani was nearly taken prisoner by Iraqi forces.[7] The incident illustrates both Suleimani's valor and his inclination toward risky behavior.

The young Suleimani's bravery, however, also exposed his division to considerable risk. On August 8, 1985, the impatient Suleimani brought "three loaders, three bulldozers, three trucks, and three Nissan vans to the al-Faw operation zone to engage in engineering activities" in broad daylight.[8] Suleimani was attempting to build a road that would expedite Iranian advances toward Iraqi positions, while the IRGC was preparing a surprise attack against Iraqi forces. The Khatam al-Anbia Base criticized Suleimani heavily for his brazen initiative.[9]

Values, Ideology, and Charismatic Leadership

Open-source materials depict Suleimani as a man with a warrior ethos (javanmard), but not an altogether politically savvy character. As a construction worker in Kerman, Suleimani spent most of his leisure time at the Ataei and Jahan zourkhanehs (gymnasiums),[10] which, in addition to teaching physical education, seek to instill Iranian youth with a warrior ethos.[11]

While shaping Suleimani's values and ideology, the Iran/Iraq war also gave him the opportunity to display the warrior ethos he had acquired from the zourkhaneh. This wartime environment doubtless helped Suleimani develop into a charismatic leader. Footage of Suleimani's speeches before and after wartime offensives shows him motivating men under his command by praising martyred comrades, crying, and requesting the martyrs' forgiveness for not having been martyred himself.[12] Before each offensive, Suleimani embraced his men one by one and bid them farewell while weeping.[13] Consciously or subconsciously, he used emotions to boost morale. However, the fact that most IRGC members whom Suleimani embraced ultimately died in battle must have had a significant impact on him. Since the end of the war, almost all of his public appearances have commemorated the martyrs.[14]

More recently, however, Suleimani's speeches have emphasized abstract ideological issues such as "Islamic unity," "unification of the community of the believers [in one state]," and the issue of the "liberation of Palestine,"[15] which stand in marked contrast to Suleimani's wartime patriotic persona that revolved around defending Iran in the face of Iraqi aggression. He has also begun making broad statements about the Iran/Iraq war as an "inexpensive war,"[16] and about Israel being within reach of Iranian missiles.[17]

Given the paucity of information on Suleimani, determining whether and to what extent there has been a genuine shift in his thinking remains problematic. In the past, he may not have been in a position to express such viewpoints or, alternately, his broad ideological statements may have gone unnoticed. In any case, his recent use of ideological platitudes may reveal that Suleimani the tactical leader has not managed to develop strategic thinking since his appointment as IRGC Quds Force chief. In this context, ideology would serve as a cover for deficient strategic thought.

Early Tactical Insights

Suleimani is a practical man with proven problem-solving skills characteristic of a tactical leader. Open-source materials also depict him as a commander who developed tactical military skills early based on his own experiences, which he seems to place more faith in than the orders of his superiors. On July 17, 1985, Suleimani opposed the IRGC leadership's plan to deploy forces to two islands in western Arvandroud (Shatt al-Arab).[18] Suleimani argued, "Taking the islands would be easy, but remaining there would be impossible. In addition to this, during retreat we will be leaving large troops behind."[19] While other equally critical commanders retracted their positions,[20] Suleimani maintained his stance and the plan was abandoned. This incident may have been a formative moment in his career, which reinforced his stubbornness and nurtured an unwillingness to take others' views into consideration.

“We must witness victory in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. This is the fruit of the Islamic revolution.” –Suleimani

Suleimani is not a cautious commander. He believes that offense is the best defense.[21] On June 26, 1987, Iraqi forces had almost succeeded in encircling the Forty-First Tharallah Division.[22] Despite constant Iraqi advances and pressure, Suleimani proposed a counteroffensive, which was ultimately rejected by the higher command.[23] Iran was defeated, which, at least in part, can be attributed to the unwillingness of the IRGC leadership to implement Suleimani's advice.[24]

On June 21, 1987, Suleimani participated in the Nasr IV operation, aimed at wresting several strategically important heights from Iraqi forces.[25] Interestingly, Suleimani seems to have acted against his personal inclination and instead followed the orders of the Najaf Base.[26] When the Hamzeh Battalion of the Twenty-Fifth Karbala Division experienced problems and could not take positions as planned, Suleimani, to the disbelief of the IRGC leadership,[27] swiftly directed the Forty-First Tharallah Division to take these positions in its place.[28] On the same day, Suleimani's unit and other units present were attacked with chemical mortars that wounded 110 of his men.[29] Discussing setbacks in the war and international support for Iraq on October 16, 1987, Suleimani aggressively called for better planning, cohesion, and deployment of investigative groups to examine previous tactical blunders and lessons learned.[30] Later that month, he also complained of the lack of cadres to train the draftees, as well as the lack of cooperation between IRGC headquarters and frontline IRGC regiments.[31]

Suleimani understands the benefit of deception and knows how to deceive effectively on the battle-field. While planning the battles of Shalamcheh on October 5, 1987, for example, he asserted, "Deception is impossible without skirmishes. We must engage and fight for two to three nights before the enemy believes it."[32] On October 28, 1987, Suleimani further stressed the need for deception, declaring, "Our training of the expedited forces reveals our maneuvers. We must instruct the forces in various fields so no one finds out what our maneuver is and where our operational area will be."[33] He made these suggestions at a time when the political leadership in Tehran was placing ever-greater pressure on Iranian forces to repel Iraq's advances and little attention was paid to deception.

As Iran's fortunes were turning from bad to worse, the political leadership in Tehran, especially Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, parliamentary speaker and deputy commander-in-chief, demanded a tactical victory from IRGC chief Mohsen Rezai that would create the conditions for Iran to negotiate peace with Iraq.[34] With his back against the wall, on December 6, 1987, Rezai proposed a plan to take the al-Faw Peninsula. Suleimani voiced his opposition to Rezai's proposal, which ignited a clash between him and the IRGC leadership. According to the IRGC's Iran/Iraq War Chronology, Suleimani argued that the al-Faw offensive, in addition to resulting in considerable casualties, was further away from the strategically important city of Basra than Shalamcheh. He maintained that the IRGC should attempt to take Shalamcheh instead. Facing criticism from Suleimani, Rezai emphasized that victory in al-Faw could be achieved through a rapid surprise attack. An operation in Shalamcheh, Rezai argued, would be difficult to execute because the Iraqi enemy was expecting Iranian advances in the area.[35]

According to Rafsanjani's memoirs, he and Suleimani discussed "future operations" on December 3, 1987, when Suleimani probably expressed opposition to Rezai's al-Faw invasion plans.[36] This may explain why Rafsanjani, during his December 17, 1987, meeting with IRGC commanders, asked for alternatives to al-Faw. "You know the aim and strategy of the war. Are you aware of a more valuable and better soil in the southern region than al-Faw?" Rafsanjani asked. "We want to know if you have other things on your mind."[37]

By raising the issue, Rafsanjani was likely inviting Suleimani to voice his criticism of Rezai's plan. But Suleimani, contrary to his earlier pattern of behavior, did not do so in the presence of the highest civilian authority in the day-to-day affairs of the war.[38] The meeting concluded with a clash between the IRGC commanders and Rafsanjani, while Suleimani kept silent. Open-source materials fail to provide any insight into why Suleimani opted not to support Rafsanjani. Several possibilities exist: Suleimani may have had an easy time criticizing the plan but difficulties defending his suggested alternative; he may have wanted to avoid a confrontation with his fellow guardsmen in the presence of the civilian leadership; he may have found it contrary to the ethos of the IRGC to have civilians meddling in its decision making; or he may have feared for his career within the IRGC. At any rate, Suleimani's failure to support Rafsanjani at this meeting may explain why Suleimani disappeared from the limelight during Rafsanjani's presidency (1989-97).

Persuading the IRGC leadership to change its tactic in July 1985 reinforced Suleimani’s stubbornness and nurtured an unwillingness to take others’ views into consideration.

Remarkably, following his failure to support Rafsanjani, Suleimani continued his criticism of Rezai, which likely made him an enemy of both. Suleimani participated in the reconnaissance mission before the al-Faw offensive on December 26, 1987,[39] and on January 1, 1988, Suleimani and Rezai argued about the proposed operation. "We don't have any plan for the war! After [the] Karbala V [operation], I really did not know what the purpose was and what we wanted to do in the future. We don't have a clear plan for the next six months,"[40] Suleimani said. He also suggested that the IRGC units attack as soon as possible before the arrival of Iraqi reinforcements, which in Suleimani's view would complete the stalemate in the southern front preceding the Valfajr X operation.[41] Suleimani's statements must have made a deep impression on other commanders because they prompted IRGC ground forces deputy Yahya-Rahim Safavi to say, "God forbid, Satan must not infiltrate you! There is nowhere else than here [al-Faw] in which one can conduct operations."[42] Safavi must have considered Suleimani's statements deeply demoralizing.

Frequent clashes between Suleimani and his superiors-- especially Rezai--inevitably made him powerful enemies within the IRGC, and among the civilian leadership. This may explain why Suleimani was appointed Quds Force chief immediately after Rezai's fall from grace in 1997, which coincided with Rafsanjani's last year in office as president. In sum, Suleimani's experiences during the Iran/Iraq war most certainly made him into a tactical general, but he has never managed to become a strategist.

Opposition to Meaningless Death

Suleimani's conduct has endeared him to his men. On August 2, 1986, during a rare visit to his native Kerman, Suleimani accused the local health authorities of not saving the lives of his wounded soldiers who were returning there for medical treatment.[43] There is also evidence that Suleimani--despite his praise for martyrdom and martyrs--was reluctant to send men under his command to meaningless death, and that he was prepared to openly oppose his military superiors if he thought their plans would cause needless casualties.

As noted above, Suleimani vigorously resisted Rezai's plans to take the al-Faw Peninsula on the grounds that it would produce considerable casualties with few gains.[44] More broadly, Suleimani was likely expressing his opposition to the "human wave" tactics that entailed sending thousands of guardsmen--including Suleimani's own men--to certain death. These tactics were employed by the IRGC to overcome the technological and organizational superiority of the Iraqi army. Suleimani was doubtless distraught knowing that his soldiers were dying meaninglessly.


A survey of open-source materials shows Suleimani's strengths but also reveals his weaknesses. His skills, both rhetorical and military, have brought him fame. But he has also made enemies along the way within the IRGC and among the political leadership, which, at least for a time, delayed his promotion. More recently, his use of ideological platitudes in major speeches may indicate that he remains a tactical leader and not a strategist--a quality that undermines his effectiveness as head of the IRGC Quds Force.

The author thanks his colleagues Frederick W. Kagan and Gary J. Schmitt for their valuable comments.

Ali Alfoneh ([email protected]) is a resident fellow at AEI.

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1. For the previous Outlooks in this series, see Ali Alfoneh, "Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani: A Biography," AEI Middle Eastern Outlook (January 2011),; and Ali Alfoneh: "Iran's Secret Network: Major General Qassem Suleimani's Inner Circle," AEI Middle Eastern Outlook (March 2011),

2. "Pirouzi-ye Hezbollah Dar Jang-e 33 Rouzeh Samareh-ye Khoun-ha-ye Rikhteh-shodeh Dar 8 Sal Defa-e Moqaddas Boud" [Hezbollah's Victory at the Thirty-Three-Day War Was the Result of Blood Sacrificed during Eight Years of Sacred Defense], Rasa News (Tehran), May 23, 2011, (accessed May 31, 2011). Suleimani's words were reminiscent of the late Hojjat al-Eslam Mohammad Montazeri, former chief of the Office of the Liberation Movements of the IRGC, who believed that "keeping the enemy busy abroad" by means of "exporting the revolution" was the most effective method for "keeping the enemy away from Iran's borders." While Suleimani and Montazeri shared a common outlook on the need to export Iran's revolution, both on ideological and pragmatic grounds, there is no evidence to suggest a relationship between the two men. See "Emam Va Sepah Az Badv-e Tashkil Ta Hal. Mosahebeh Ba Seyyed Ahmad Khomeini" [The Imam and the Guards from Establishment to Now: Interview with Seyyed Ahmad Khomeini], Payam-e Enqelab (Tehran), May 29, 1982, 10.

3. "Syria Pledges End to 'Emergency' Law . . . after 48 Years," Sunday Times (London), April 17, 2011.

4. US Department of the Treasury, "Administration Takes Additional Steps to Hold the Government of Syria Accountable for Violent Repression against the Syrian People," news release, May 18, 2011.

5. Majid Malek, "Aya Ostoureh-ye Ma Bar Bad Rafteh?" [Is Our Myth Busted?] Inja Kerman blog, October 15, 2009, (accessed June 20, 2011); and "Khaterat-e Shahid Ali-Reza Mohammad-Hosseini Az Avvalin Hozourash Dar Mahabad" [Martyr Ali-Reza Mohammad-Hosseini's Memoirs from His First Time in Mahabad], Akbar 313 blog, December 31, 2007, (accessed June 20, 2011).

6. Majid Malek, "Aya Ostoureh-ye Ma Bar Bad Rafteh?" [Is Our Myth Busted?]

7. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karnameh va Khaterat-e Hashemi Rafsanjani Sal-e 1365 [Record and Memoirs of Hashemi Rafsanjani 1986-87] (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Maaref-e Enghelab, 2009), 453.

8. Hadi Nokhi and Hamidreza Farahani, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 37, 2d ed. (Tehran: Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, 2008), 443, 649.

9. Ibid., 649.

10. Elahe Beheshti, Del-e Daryaei. Khaterat-e Zendegi-ye Sardar-e Shahid Mohammad Gerami, Janeshin-e Reis-e Setad-e Lashkar-e 41 Sarallah [A Heart as Wide as the Sea: Memoirs of the Martyred Commander Mohammad Gerami, Forty-First Tharallah Division Headquarters Deputy] (Kerman: Lashkar-e 41 Sarallah, 1997), 23.

11. Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. "ZUR-KANA," by Houshang E. Chehabi, last modified August 15, 2006, accessed May 31, 2011,

12. Morteza Aviny, "Amaliat-e Karabala-ye V" [Karbala V Operation], 4shared video, 14:54, posted by "omidhosseini80," January 25, 2011, (accessed June 5, 2011).

13. Photo is available at (accessed June 5, 2011).

14. For Suleimani's latest speech commemorating the martyrs, see "Sarlashgar Suleimani: Shahed-e Zohour-e Sokhanan-e Emam Khomeini Dar Sath-e Donya Hastim" [Major General Suleimani: We Are Witnessing the Realization of the Words of Imam Khomeini at a Global Level], Fars News (Tehran), March 4, 2011, (accessed July 2, 2011).

15. "Mardom-e Felestin Joz-e Ideh-ha-ye Emam Dar Zaman-e Tab'id Boud" [A Palestinian Nation Was among the Imam's Ideas during His Exile], ISCA News (Tehran), September 27, 2008, (accessed June 20, 2011).

16. "Jang-e Ma Yeki Az Arzan-Tarin Jangha-ye Donya Boud" [Our War Was among the Most Inexpensive Wars of the World], Sobh-e Sadeq (Tehran), November 22, 2010, www.sobhesadegh .ir/1389/0476/M05.HTM (accessed June 14, 2011).

17. "Sardar Suleimani: Esraeil Dar Hal-e Ejra-ye Holocaust-e Vaqei Ast" [Commander Suleimani: Israel Is Engaged in Conducting the Real Holocaust], Basirat website (Tehran), September 27, 2008, (accessed June 20, 2011).

18. "Entesab-e Riasat-e Markaz-e Tahghighat-e Rahbordi-ye Defaei va Moaven-e Bazresi-ye Setad-e Koll-e Nirou-ha-ye Mossallah" [Appointment of the Heads of the Strategic Defense Studies Center and Deputy Inspector at the Armed Forces General Staff], Daftar-e Hefz va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Ayatollah al-Ozma Khamenei website (Tehran), September 26, 2005, (accessed December 20, 2010).

19. Hadi Nokhi and Hamidreza Farahani, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 37, 443.

20. Ibid., 444.

21. Yahya Fowzi and Ali-Reza Lotfollahzadegan, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 43, 2d ed. (Tehran: Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, 2008), 216.

22. Ali-Reza Lotfollahzadegan, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 49 (Tehran: Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, 2008), 324.

23. Ibid., 326.

24. Ibid., 340.

25. Ibid., 262-63.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 272.

28. Ibid., 264.

29. Ibid., 276.

30. Mehdi Ansari and Mahmoud Yazdanfam, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 51 (Tehran: Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, 2008), 256.

31. Ibid., 607.

32. Ibid., 236.

33. Ibid., 644.

34. Sadegh Zibakalam and Fereshteh Sadat Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush [Hashemi without Alteration] (Tehran: Rowzaneh, 2008), 289.

35. Hossein Ardestani, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 52 (Tehran: Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, 2003), 257.

36. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Defae va Siasat: Karnameh va Khaterat-e Hashemi Rafsanjani Sal-e 1366 [Defense and Politics: Record and Memoirs of Hashemi Rafsanjani 1987-88], ed. Alireza Hashemi (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Maaref-e Enghelab, 2009), 383.

37. Hossein Ardestani, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 52, 358.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., 449.

40. Ibid., 507.

41. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Defae va Siasat-Karnameh va Khaterat-e Hashemi Rafsanjani Sal-e 1366 [Defense and Politics: Record and Memoirs of Hashemi Rafsanjani 1987-88], 552.

42. Ibid., 434.

43. Yahya Fowzi and Ali-Reza Lotfollahzadegan, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 43, 284.

44. Hossein Ardestani, Rouzshomar-e Jang-e Iran va Eragh [Iran/Iraq War Chronology], vol. 52, 257.

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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