April 11, 2008 9:11 p.m.
When Iran's Brigadier Gen. Qassem Suleimani was leaving on a foreign mission a few years ago, his daughters begged him to bring back designer jeans.
It must have been a dispiriting request for Iran's terrorist chief, head of the Quds Force, or The Jerusalem Brigade, Iran's supersecret overseas intelligence and sabotage unit.
As an elite of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Suleimani's daughters would be expected to be role models for Iran's brand of militant Shiite Islam, right down to their Calvins.
Under the mullahs' puritanical dress code, jeans are verboten, though commonly worn under the head-to-toe black cloaks women have to wear until they're safely indoors.
"It's kind of ironic, isn't it?" says a longtime close observer of Iran, chuckling. "It shows he has the ordinary pressures of a normal dad."
But otherwise, the general is anything but normal.
If Washington ever attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, it will fall to Suleimani to coordinate terrorist retaliation against U.S. targets abroad, from Beirut to Buenos Aires.
The Quds Force is the tip of the spear.
Suleimani reports directly to Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, analysts say.
"He is an extremely important and influential guy," says Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.
"Qassem Suleimani is a key figure in the Iranian regime," says Clare M. Lopez, a retired CIA operations veteran and author of a paper presented at an intelligence conference last year, "Radical Shi'ism Ascendant: Iran's Terrorist Theocracy on the March Again."
"Suleimani has the lead on Tehran's relations with a host of other terrorist organizations," she told me, "including Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, as well as a variety of both Sunni and Shiite militia groups inside Iraq."
The general is the mastermind behind Iran's covert support for its favored Shiite forces in Iran.
He has been "providing logistics, training, and weapons, including IEDs [improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs], EFPs [explosively formed penetrators, which can pierce armor], for terrorist militias and by orchestrating infiltration, supply, and attack operations against U.S. and Iraqi national forces."
But Suleimani seems destined for something bigger.
Many observers were astonished when the shadow warrior emerged in southern Iraq to broker a cease-fire among clashing Shiite militias and the Iraqi army two weeks ago.
Grenier, now head of security consulting for Kroll Associates, called Suleimani's role as a negotiator there "very, very significant," signaling "Iran's irreducible role" in Iraq.
Past sightings have placed him in Lebanon, intriguing with Iran-backed Hezbollah, which fought the Israel Defense Force to a standstill in 2006.
But he was still pretty much unknown to U.S. intelligence until very recently, says former CIA officer Philip Giraldi.
"I was chasing Iranians back in the 1980s and he was not even on the screen at that time, even though the Pasdaran [another name for Revolutionary Guard cadre] were whacking dissidents all over Europe and the Middle East," Giraldi said. "Presumably he was one of them but was not known by name or position to the best of my knowledge."
Giraldi added, "Most of my contemporaries who were at the Counterterrorism Center were also more or less unaware of him, though one officer dimly recalls that there was a file on him that was pretty much empty."
But Suleimani's back-door diplomatic mission to Iraq wasn't entirely unprecedented, said a former U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The general had had previous forays as a covert envoy in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan and Afghanistan, said the official, where he was a liaison to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban long before the CIA arrived after Sept. 11, 2001.
"He got a lot of experience in Afghanistan building cells," or covert intelligence units, said the former official. "On the ground experience."
After the Taliban was routed by U.S.-led forces in 2002, Suleimani also accompanied President Mohammad Khatami to Kabul for a summit with the new Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, the source said.
It was then that U.S. officials really began to take notice.
Some sources, particularly Iranian exiles, tend to see Suleimani as a "thug," a skilled terrorist with barely a high school education, typical of the Iranian youth who flocked to the Revolutionary Guard after the 1979 revolution.
But after 2002, American observers began to draw a different portrait.
One called him "adaptable and adroit."
His beard and brushed-backed hair turned steel gray, "he is relatively cautious now," said the former official.
But not much else is known about him, beyond his military service.
During the devastating Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, he quickly rose from a green lieutenant to commander of the 41st Tharallah Division. He was still in his early 20s.
Suleimani was famous for a mission behind enemy lines, said a former Revolutionary Guard officer and contemporary of Suleimani's, who would allow himself to be quoted only as "Nash," his American nickname.
The general-to-be led a team that completely circled an Iraqi army division while gathering intelligence, Nash related over heaping plates of kabob at a Washington-area restaurant on Friday. "The Iraqis were so embarrassed they announced on Baghdad radio that they 'followed his every step' and 'knew all about him and his mission.'"
Iran's then-president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, took the war hero under his wing, observers said. They were both from the same region, although from vastly different social strata, Rafsanjani being scion to a pistachio-growing fortune in southeast Iran.
Suleimani was appointed the Revolutionary Guard's military commander of the area, centered on the city of Kerman, adjacent to Afghanistan's poppy-growing region.
"The drugs have to go through there to Europe," Nash said. "Officials took their cut."
Like a lot of soldiers who had sacrificed an education for military service, Suleimani was then sent to college in Tehran.
He studied management, Nash said.
In 2000, he was made chief of the Quds Force.
"In addition to his position, he is Khamenei's adviser on Afghanistan and Iraqi affairs, and the Supreme National Security Council counts on his viewpoints about [them]," says Walid Phares, a former Beirut lawyer and specialist on global terrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish group in Washington, D.C.
Phares said his Iranian sources told him that Suleimani is responsible for "coordinating and commanding the regime's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan."
But Suleimani's activities in Afghanistan go beyond that, Phares said. He is a "main shareholder" in a company with "economic and road-construction projects in Afghanistan," he alleged. "The other shareholders of the company [include] the senior officer from the IRGC's 41st Tharallah Division."
The allegation could not be independently verified.
Other than that, Suleimani remains pretty much an enigma among Iran experts in Washington including in U.S. intelligence agencies, some say. (The CIA would not comment or aid in the preparation of this piece.)
"Suleimani is a bit of a mystery," admits Mike Connell, an analyst on the Iran Project at the Center for Naval Analysis.
Connell compared the Iranian to the notorious, recently deceased Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyah, "another important figure, often talked about, but about whom there was very little known."
Tehran would like to keep it that way at least as long as Suleimani heads Quds, he said.
"The regime in Tehran has always sought to downplay its links to terrorists and other proxies so it can assume a stance of plausible deniability," Connell said. "The Quds Force is the equivalent of Delta Force its members don't publish their bios on the Web."
But others say that's no excuse.
"I don't think we've done a good job on Iran intelligence for, oh, 30-plus years," says Michael Ledeen, who's been in the thick of many a backstage drama between Iran and the United States, including the Iran-contra, arms-for-hostages scandal of the Reagan administration, in which he played a key role as a White House national security official.
"We are utterly clueless about the governmental structure and decision-making apparatus in Tehran," declares Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East specialist in the Clinton White House and author of "The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America."
"It is why I begin every answer I give to questions about 'What do the Iranians think about X?' by saying that 'We don't know,' and why I get very nervous when people start asserting that they know what the Iranians think," he said.
"I think we know less about Iran's decision-making process than we did about the old Soviet Union," Pollack added. "They are completely opaque and their decision-making is so complex and convoluted as to be virtually impossible to predict."
But there's a bright spot in the darkness, he thinks.
"The only good news," he said, "is that their system is so Byzantine that I think that the Iranians themselves find it equally difficult to predict how the regime will behave."
Jeff Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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