'Thanks to Uncle Donald’: how Trump loses political war with Iran

“For the USA, it is the beginning of its departure from the Near East”

The conflict between Iran and the USA, which exploded after the killing of General Qasem Soleimani last week, and the return blow of the Islamic Republic has entered a smouldering stage. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya’s correspondent, Russian scholar of Iranian studies Ismagil Gibadullin explained who the deceased general was and if Tehran’s missile attack on American bases was a retaliation. In the expert’s opinion, now the Iranian society has consolidated, while American President Donald Trump who has benefactors from Israel behind has hastened his political end.

“Soleimani could have become the next president”

Ismagil, to start with, who is Qasem Soleimani? What is known from this figure’s biography?

Qasem Soleimani, if we pronounce and write his name more accurately. He was a high-ranking general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the commander of its elite subdivision Quds Force, which coordinates all military operations of Iran abroad. It is a representative of the generation of the Islamic Revolution, he was a participant and even an organiser of the anti-Shah demonstration in his native city of Kerman, in one of the most ancient cities of Iran. Though he himself comes from the countryside, by the way, he is a Lur, it is a semi-nomadic people in Iran that speaks a special language that is similar to simultaneously more ancient Middle Persian and Kurdish dialects. The Lurs are considered warlike, there are a lot of Lurs among martyrs and veterans of the Iran–Iraq War (1980-1988), they occupy senior positions in the IRGC. Ex-Commander of the IRGC Mohsen Rezaee is also a Lur.

Soleimani was one of the best representatives of his generation. After the victory of the revolution, he joined the IRGC, the crucible of the Iran–Iraq War at the age of 20, without any military education, commanded a division on the war fronts. He participated in all big operations, most of his battle comrades died. It was a big pain for him. A lot of disabled people who were in the Iran–Iraq War feel guilty toward their died comrades, and Soleimani did too. He worried that he didn’t leave the front as a martyr. After the war, he fought with gangs on the eastern border of Iran where smugglers acted, there was drug traffic, where Baloch tribes lived and there was a strong influence of Afghanistan. In 2000 he chaired the Quds because the key task of the IRGC abroad at that moment was focused in Afghanistan, while nobody had such an experience of interaction with the Afghans as Soleimani did. Then there was Iraq, then Syria, and Soleimani brilliantly performed the tasks the administration of Iran gave him. He led the “hybrid war” against the Americans and Salafi Jihad, which, in fact, were one of the USA’s weapons in the region.

It is a paradox that some consider him as a hero and a brave fighter against terrorists, while others do as a murderer and sadist?

There is a lot of anti-Iranian propaganda now. The voices of the radical part of the Salafi movement are heard especially loudly that express the opinion of some Arab countries, transmit all these myths about evil Rafidas, the revival of the Persian power, Persians’ aspiration to usurp other peoples. Shias in this context are considered in general as not Muslims and even enemies of Islam. There have been enough such people even in Russian social networks. Somebody even wrote in Tatar: “Thanks to Uncle Donald”. Soleimani was a legendary general, a theorist and practitioner of “asymmetric war”. People like him create modern reality in the Near East, they expand horizons by efficiently combining soft and hard power. Soleimani was one of them who managed to turn the mobilisation of Shia masses in the Islamic world into a powerful force against anti-globalism and anti-Americanism.

Was he really considered as Rouhani’s successor, almost the second in command? What was his place in the power hierarchy of Iran?

Soleimani had the highest ratings, he was the second most popular person after the Supreme Leader of Iran. He could probably have become the next president. The IRGC could count on him. Today Iran needs a strong president who is loyal to the Supreme Leader of Iran who can revitalise the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. In 2005, the country was also tired of Khatami’s absurd and impotent policy, Ahmadinejad was tipped for this role, but later, in his second term, he played a trick and disappointed everyone very much. After that, the administration of the country started to seriously think if the country needed a strong president with a high rating and populist charisma in general if this led to incidents. This is why I think that not everybody wanted to see Soleimani as the president. He in general was seen outside politics, even above politics. He was an archetype of that selfless and crystal clear generation of revolutionists who didn’t go into politics but went to war to die. Soleimani will remain such a symbol.

Photo: khamenei.ir
Soleimani had the highest ratings, he was the second most popular person after the Supreme Leader of Iran. He could probably become the next president

What did Soleimani do in Baghdad? Is it true that he had moles in the team who leaked information about the general’s moves to Americans?

I haven’t studied this issue in detail. Soleimani often visited Iraq. In 2007, Americans already tried to catch him in Iraq, but he disappeared under their nose. It goes without saying that later his presence was a part of the Iran-Iraqi cooperation in the fight with ISIS (banned in Russia), he organised a voluntary army of Iraqi Shias, that al-Hashd ash-Shaʿbi, which attacked the American embassy in December. He coordinated several proxy groups that were formed from Shia volunteers from all parts of the Islamic world — from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Lebanon. Thanks to this coalition, it became possible to wallop the ISIS fighters. I think, of course, they couldn’t do without moles. Americans actively recruit Iranians, including militaries and IRGC members. It seems to me that it was not hard to track Soleimani’s moves. Some of my colleagues, scholars of Iranian studies even wrote in social networks they saw him in hotels in Iraq and they even had a chance to get acquainted with him, that’s to say, he didn’t hide from anybody much.

Why was he inconvenient for Washington?

It is hard to say what was the real reason for his killing. Here we can’t discard that it was a banal mistake. Perhaps they wanted to strike on al-Hashd ash-Shaʿbi but hit Soleimani. Why not? Washington could have some reasons we aren’t aware of. It could be a gift to Israel, and I am inclined to this version for some reason. Soleimani already had had tens of attempts on his life in the last years, and almost all of them were staged by Israeli special services if we believe the Iranian side’s statements. The next attempt on his life was in autumn. Then the Supreme Leader of Iran in his address to the IRGC urged them to get ready for serious challenges and talked about the beginning of a new stage in the opposition to imperialism. All this probably began then. We will unlikely learn the real reasons soon. Trump’s statement saying that the killing of Soleimani was connected with a threat to American diplomats is a baby talk that even senators didn’t believe.

Will Tehran keep bombing the American bases?

This will depend on the USA itself. Generally speaking, the precedent was amazing. No country hasn’t managed to afford anything similar for a long time. And there wasn’t almost any reaction from the USA. It is an important psychological tipping point. It means Akela isn’t that strong.

Ismagil, what are the possible consequences for Iran and the USA?

I think, for the USA, it is the beginning of its departure from the Near East. This won’t happen under Trump but will happen. They want less and can’t carry the costs of their presence in this region. For Iran, it is a new level in posing themselves as a regional power. It is a serious claim. The Americans can do nothing with it, this is why they will keep imposing economic sanctions. Trump claimed this at his press conference not without sadist pleasure. Iran will be looking for new ways to bypass sanctions. It doesn’t have reliable allies in this respect. It can’t rely on China and Russia. It will have to closely deal with the economy, count on itself. The mass union of Iranians around the symbol of Soleimani showed that there are things that matter more than the economy for them and they could tolerate more.

Russian and the international community — the UN — have an unclear standpoint. Why is everyone getting off with vague formulations?

Everyone is adopting a wait-and-see attitude, probing the situation. It is fine. It would be worse if everybody made rigid and clear statements. World wars begin this way. But one should note that there is more uncertainty in world politics. More situations are requiring political hypocrisy, double standards and so on. Some see signs of the next change in the political landscape in the world in this escalation and try to understand how to act further. The Anglo-Saxon world gave to understand quickly that it was ready to be with the USA till the end. Other countries aren’t so unambiguous. Russia is looking into it with narrowed eyes.

It is also claimed that with this conflict Trump wants to earn political points on the threshold of the presidential election and against the backdrop of impeachment. Do the Americans need such a president?

Trump has now certainly become a stepping down figure in American politics. A defeat likely awaits him in the election or even impeachment. He probably did want to earn political points. Though it was early to judge in general. He has perhaps made up something like new 11 September for America. I think he has a great temptation to follow Bush’s recipe. To bring the Americans together, he will need a tragedy.

Photo: Fars News Agency
To tell the truth, I didn’t take this seriously in general. It was a figure of speech of one of the speakers at Soleimani’s burial. He offered all Iranians to chip in a dollar

It was announced Iran was ready to pay $80 million for Trump’s murder. Have there been found hunters for Donald’s head?

To tell the truth, I didn’t take this seriously in general. It was a figure of speech of one of the speakers at Soleimani’s burial. He offered all Iranians to chip in a dollar. Nobody has made official statements in this respect. But this doesn’t mean that Trump won’t face revenge. There will be a lot of people who want to take revenge for Soleimani, while he won’t be a president forever, though he will be provided lifelong security, this is for sure. The funniest thing is that one of the latest popular requests in Russian Google has been “$80 million in rubles”.

The relationships of the Islamic Republic and the United States have had hard times for 40 years already. Why has the threat of a hot phase arisen only now?

This threat has been looming ahead of Iran as early as since 1978. The Americans had a plan for a military invasion to Iran during the mass demonstrations against the shah. General Heiser arrived in Iran for this purpose. Losing their key ally in the Near East, their gendarme, they were ready to participate in forced suppression of the revolution. But Democrat Carter was in power then who didn’t support the “eagles” from the Pentagon. The Americans didn’t need the hot phase in the 1980s because they acted with Saddam Hussein’s hands. Today there is such a threat for one specific reason — an irresponsible politico thinking of himself as a super businessman in politics, a master of “hard-line talks” and a “near miss game” sits in the Oval Office. But it doesn’t make him less coward. He categorically claims that he is ready to strike Iranian historical and cultural sites by using a $2-trillion weapon. He believes just in the magic of numbers, ten-digit accounts.

By Timur Rakhmatullin