.
I

n my favorite film of all time, The Hunt for Red October, shortly after Jack Ryan—portrayed by Alec Baldwin—and the U.S.S. Dallas’ captain board the Soviet Typhoon submarine, there is a brief exchange between Sean Connery’s (rest in peace) Marko Ramius and Ryan. When Ryan translates some of Ramius’ Russian for the benefit of the American crew, he quips, “It is wise to study the ways of one’s adversary. Don't you think?” As silly as it may be to quote a Cold War film in a review of a book about Iran and its global ambitions, it is quite fitting.

The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions | Arash Azizi | ONEworld Publications | November 2020.

The first time many Americans likely heard of Qassem Soleimani was upon his death in Baghdad earlier this year—yes, this year, as in 2020. Following escalating tensions in Baghdad that resulted in the death of an American contractor and protests against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Soleimani and nine others including the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Front and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, as they left Baghdad International Airport.

True, the intelligence and national security community was well aware of Soleimani and his activities, but awareness does not necessarily imply understanding, and understanding from an American perspective alone is insufficient to truly “study the ways of one’s adversary.”

Mr. Arash Azizi, a historian at New York University and journalist, provides one of the most fascinating books of 2020 and one of the most insightful—into not just Soleimani, but also Iran’s foreign and security aims in the Middle East. A story that easily could have descended into hagiography, is masterfully told by Mr. Azizi, who weaves one of the richest and most complex tapestries about the region I’ve come across in some time, especially in so short of a book. It is not just a biography of Soleimani, but a biography of modern Iran and its role in the Middle East.

A Rich Iranian Tapestry

Biographies run the risk of being dry recitations of when and where. This individual did this on this date and this is what it meant. While there is certainly a place for such an academic approach, this misses so much of what defines the individual in question. Here, Mr. Azizi recreates, especially early on in the book but also throughout its narrative course, the place and time, providing the reader with a visceral sense of the events that are taking place in Iran and the region.

There are a richness and a vibrancy to this book that I had not expected, but immeasurably appreciate. This is not to say I expected less of the book. Quite the contrary. From the second I read the description, I was hooked—a book about America’s bête noir in the Middle East, Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force? Check. A book about Iran’s ambitions in the region and the execution of its foreign policy aims? Check. I was sold very early on.

Mr. Azizi goes well beyond these already high expectations and weaves together a rich narrative that is worthy of Iran’s famous carpets (if the reader will pardon the cliché). The Shadow Commander goes beyond its title: it is a history of pre-revolutionary Iran; a study of the Iranian revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s consolidation of power; the founding of the IRGC and the Iran-Iraq War; Shia politics and religion; regional dynamics; and much more. That Mr. Azizi pulls these disparate threads together in a magnificent narrative is a testament to his writing, research, and presentation.

Every section of the Shadow Commander is brimming with rich details on the complex mosaic of the region’s politics, personalities, and clashes. He takes us inside the rooms where key decisions were made, such as how the four leaders of revolutionary militias were brought into a room and warned that if they did not reach an agreement, none would walk out alive. The messenger carried a pistol.

This fateful and tense meeting led to the founding of the IRGC. Even the very name of the IRGC—Islamic and not Iranian—was a deliberate choice as many hoped, as do most revolutionaries, to export their revolution beyond their national borders. Further still, Mr. Azizi notes how the IRGC stood as a rival to the Iranian military—forever tainted by association with the Shah—and rapidly grew to become a many-tentacled creature with its reach beyond security into politics, business, education, and more.

The Shadow Commander in the Shadows

There is, perhaps, an irony in The Shadow Commander that the titular figure still looms in the shadows than the center of the book. Mind you, this isn’t a weakness or a shortcoming. Rather, it speaks to the breadth and depth of the story Mr. Azizi crafts, and the diversity of strands he pulls together. This is so much more a story about Iran and its aims, and Soleimani—while being a significant figure—is just one player on this theatre stage.

True, one does wish there were slightly more of Soleimani in the book. The author captures his involvement in Iran’s foreign and security policy exceptionally well. It is rich in detail and incredible to see the extent this one individual, and the organization he headed—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force—both implemented and shaped Iran’s ambitions throughout the Middle East. Yet, one doesn’t fully get a sense of the man himself; perhaps partially by design on Soleimani’s part and partially a function of the mystique that arose around him.

Mr. Azizi offers fascinating insights into his early life, from where he came—a largely tribal area that would later suit his soldier-statesman activities throughout the region—and his early battlefield exploits, including his rapid rise from foot soldier to commander. The anecdote of how he was originally turned down for joining the IRGC for looking, effectively, scruffy, is particularly amusing.

Mr. Azizi’s journalistic reach is impressive, as numerous sources helped offer insights into Soleimani and his deeds. Yet he still comes across as a shadow, a not quite fully-formed figure onto whom many projects their perspectives. We don’t get a full sense of the man himself—his hopes or his fears, his family beyond his early days in Kerman province and at the very end of his life and the rise of his daughter Zeinab, etc.… One wonders what the man himself would say had he been interviewed for this book and reflected on his own life and role in both Iran and the region.

He is certainly portrayed as a man of action, on the frontlines with the soldiers. Earlier in his career, he flew to a restive province near the border with Afghanistan, descending from a helicopter to the scene of a pitched battle with drug traffickers, seemingly turning the tide. Mr. Azizi recounts how he slipped into the besieged country multiple times and later hid below a tree with Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

He is extremely loyal to the Ayatollah, devout in his ways, and exceptionally charismatic, as we’re told by multiple sources. He even has a puckish sense of humor, if that is the right phrase, repeatedly jabbing at then-General David Petraeus, noting that Iraq was increasingly stable because he happened to be focused on Beirut. Interestingly, by the end of the book, it appears he was positioning himself for a possible presidential run, despite often saying he was above politics or impartial.

The elusiveness certainly adds to the mystique. Here is a man whose name was whispered in the capitals of the Arab world, the man believed to be behind the curtain orchestrating this or that, liaising with revolutionaries and terrorists alike, and stymying the efforts of the United States. Mr. Azizi successfully avoids buying into the hype of turning The Shadow Commander into a hagiography and rather presents a nuanced view of contemporary history.

Iranian Pragmatism

The Shadow Commander is all the more enlightening and informative precisely because it is not written from an American-centric policy or political perspective. Of course, America features in the narrative, but it is not written with Washington as the center. This may seem to be an obvious statement, but it is worth highlighting because so much is written precisely from a D.C. point of view.

There are times when this is a strength, such as when a book is about America’s role in the world or interactions with various regions, but it is a weakness when trying to understand the world full stop. As Dr. Hanson said at the outset of my first international relations class some years ago, you can’t understand the world from an American perspective alone. Washington cannot understand Tehran’s policies, politics, or perspective when looking from Foggy Bottom alone.

There is also an interesting pragmatism on display that may make those with less nuanced views of international politics uncomfortable. Iran, for many pundits, is a fanatical regime, hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, setting the Middle East on fire, and bringing about the end of days. Particularly in the early days of the revolution, as Mr. Azizi recounts, there was a hope for many with the Ayatollah’s circle, that the revolution could be exported. While this did not materialize as hoped, it was not fully abandoned as at times Tehran hoped to mobilized Shia Muslims in the region and use their co-religionists as the new vanguard for regional dominance.

Yet the image of Iran portrayed by Mr. Azizi, and in reality, is far more nuanced and complex in its approach to international politics. Like any country, its approach was less about permanent allies and more permanent interests. Its behavior was far more pragmatic than many would like to suggest. It allied with Sunni militias when necessary; received support from its arch-nemeses in Israel and the United States; fought alongside and with the latter against the Islamic State even as it was fomenting violence against Washington in Iraq, and more. One does wish Mr. Azizi went into more detail about Soleimani and his role in recent history, particularly on Syria, but undoubtedly that could be a book alone. As Mr. Azizi demonstrates, the fanatical regime was more interested in pragmatism in the region and ensuring that its interests, position, and security.

Here, readers may be forgiven for not recalling that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a brief rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. The Iranian leadership was well-positioned to help, Soleimani in particular, given his ties with the Northern Alliance and presence in western Afghanistan. As Mr. Azizi recounts, Ambassador Ryan Crocker had developed close ties with his Iranian counterparts and it appeared, perhaps optimistically, that a breakthrough could have been reached. In the end, President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” turn of phrase closed that door. Yet it is interesting to wonder what could have been.

Understanding One’s Adversary

Iran is one of the most challenging and thorniest foreign problems facing the United States. The leadership in Tehran is theocratic and authoritarian, repressive at home and aggressive abroad, and its actions have led directly to the deaths of American service members. Its pursuit of nuclear arms has been and continues to be destabilizing. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently said that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is 12 times the limit imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Just this week, news emerged that President Trump had considered military action to stop the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, only to be dissuaded by defense officials. The fact that the solution to the challenge is either action or sanctions illustrates the paucity of good options (and perhaps the absence of innovative thinking) in Iran.

One wonders why there aren’t more books like Mr. Azizi’s Shadow Commander or accessible books about Iran, given the foreign policy challenge it represents and the way it has loomed over recent American history. The debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s role in Iraq’s instability, the recent drone and cruise missile strikes against Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, all would suggest that greater understanding of Tehran is warranted. Iran seems to be an outlier.

While there are a good number of excellent books on North Korea—Dr. Jung Pak’s Becoming Kim Jong Un (reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) springs to mind—and on Putin’s Russia—Putin’s People by Catherine Belton (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) for example—there are fewer still that are accessible or in wide circulation about Iran or its leaders. It would be welcome if Mr. Azizi picks up his pen and dives into any number of the subjects he weaves into the Shadow Commander.

As a new administration enters office in 2021, a reevaluation of America’s role in the Middle East will almost certainly be undertaken. Key to the region’s stability will be how Washington interacts with Tehran—confrontation, conflict, or cooperation, or even some blend of all three. One hopes that the new occupant of the Oval Office will have a nuanced view of Iran, its role in the region, and design a policy based on Iran as it is, not as one wishes it would be.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Shadow Commander

November 21, 2020

The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions | Arash Azizi | ONEworld Publications | November 2020.

I

n my favorite film of all time, The Hunt for Red October, shortly after Jack Ryan—portrayed by Alec Baldwin—and the U.S.S. Dallas’ captain board the Soviet Typhoon submarine, there is a brief exchange between Sean Connery’s (rest in peace) Marko Ramius and Ryan. When Ryan translates some of Ramius’ Russian for the benefit of the American crew, he quips, “It is wise to study the ways of one’s adversary. Don't you think?” As silly as it may be to quote a Cold War film in a review of a book about Iran and its global ambitions, it is quite fitting.

The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The U.S. and Iran’s Global Ambitions | Arash Azizi | ONEworld Publications | November 2020.

The first time many Americans likely heard of Qassem Soleimani was upon his death in Baghdad earlier this year—yes, this year, as in 2020. Following escalating tensions in Baghdad that resulted in the death of an American contractor and protests against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Soleimani and nine others including the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Front and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, as they left Baghdad International Airport.

True, the intelligence and national security community was well aware of Soleimani and his activities, but awareness does not necessarily imply understanding, and understanding from an American perspective alone is insufficient to truly “study the ways of one’s adversary.”

Mr. Arash Azizi, a historian at New York University and journalist, provides one of the most fascinating books of 2020 and one of the most insightful—into not just Soleimani, but also Iran’s foreign and security aims in the Middle East. A story that easily could have descended into hagiography, is masterfully told by Mr. Azizi, who weaves one of the richest and most complex tapestries about the region I’ve come across in some time, especially in so short of a book. It is not just a biography of Soleimani, but a biography of modern Iran and its role in the Middle East.

A Rich Iranian Tapestry

Biographies run the risk of being dry recitations of when and where. This individual did this on this date and this is what it meant. While there is certainly a place for such an academic approach, this misses so much of what defines the individual in question. Here, Mr. Azizi recreates, especially early on in the book but also throughout its narrative course, the place and time, providing the reader with a visceral sense of the events that are taking place in Iran and the region.

There are a richness and a vibrancy to this book that I had not expected, but immeasurably appreciate. This is not to say I expected less of the book. Quite the contrary. From the second I read the description, I was hooked—a book about America’s bête noir in the Middle East, Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force? Check. A book about Iran’s ambitions in the region and the execution of its foreign policy aims? Check. I was sold very early on.

Mr. Azizi goes well beyond these already high expectations and weaves together a rich narrative that is worthy of Iran’s famous carpets (if the reader will pardon the cliché). The Shadow Commander goes beyond its title: it is a history of pre-revolutionary Iran; a study of the Iranian revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s consolidation of power; the founding of the IRGC and the Iran-Iraq War; Shia politics and religion; regional dynamics; and much more. That Mr. Azizi pulls these disparate threads together in a magnificent narrative is a testament to his writing, research, and presentation.

Every section of the Shadow Commander is brimming with rich details on the complex mosaic of the region’s politics, personalities, and clashes. He takes us inside the rooms where key decisions were made, such as how the four leaders of revolutionary militias were brought into a room and warned that if they did not reach an agreement, none would walk out alive. The messenger carried a pistol.

This fateful and tense meeting led to the founding of the IRGC. Even the very name of the IRGC—Islamic and not Iranian—was a deliberate choice as many hoped, as do most revolutionaries, to export their revolution beyond their national borders. Further still, Mr. Azizi notes how the IRGC stood as a rival to the Iranian military—forever tainted by association with the Shah—and rapidly grew to become a many-tentacled creature with its reach beyond security into politics, business, education, and more.

The Shadow Commander in the Shadows

There is, perhaps, an irony in The Shadow Commander that the titular figure still looms in the shadows than the center of the book. Mind you, this isn’t a weakness or a shortcoming. Rather, it speaks to the breadth and depth of the story Mr. Azizi crafts, and the diversity of strands he pulls together. This is so much more a story about Iran and its aims, and Soleimani—while being a significant figure—is just one player on this theatre stage.

True, one does wish there were slightly more of Soleimani in the book. The author captures his involvement in Iran’s foreign and security policy exceptionally well. It is rich in detail and incredible to see the extent this one individual, and the organization he headed—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force—both implemented and shaped Iran’s ambitions throughout the Middle East. Yet, one doesn’t fully get a sense of the man himself; perhaps partially by design on Soleimani’s part and partially a function of the mystique that arose around him.

Mr. Azizi offers fascinating insights into his early life, from where he came—a largely tribal area that would later suit his soldier-statesman activities throughout the region—and his early battlefield exploits, including his rapid rise from foot soldier to commander. The anecdote of how he was originally turned down for joining the IRGC for looking, effectively, scruffy, is particularly amusing.

Mr. Azizi’s journalistic reach is impressive, as numerous sources helped offer insights into Soleimani and his deeds. Yet he still comes across as a shadow, a not quite fully-formed figure onto whom many projects their perspectives. We don’t get a full sense of the man himself—his hopes or his fears, his family beyond his early days in Kerman province and at the very end of his life and the rise of his daughter Zeinab, etc.… One wonders what the man himself would say had he been interviewed for this book and reflected on his own life and role in both Iran and the region.

He is certainly portrayed as a man of action, on the frontlines with the soldiers. Earlier in his career, he flew to a restive province near the border with Afghanistan, descending from a helicopter to the scene of a pitched battle with drug traffickers, seemingly turning the tide. Mr. Azizi recounts how he slipped into the besieged country multiple times and later hid below a tree with Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

He is extremely loyal to the Ayatollah, devout in his ways, and exceptionally charismatic, as we’re told by multiple sources. He even has a puckish sense of humor, if that is the right phrase, repeatedly jabbing at then-General David Petraeus, noting that Iraq was increasingly stable because he happened to be focused on Beirut. Interestingly, by the end of the book, it appears he was positioning himself for a possible presidential run, despite often saying he was above politics or impartial.

The elusiveness certainly adds to the mystique. Here is a man whose name was whispered in the capitals of the Arab world, the man believed to be behind the curtain orchestrating this or that, liaising with revolutionaries and terrorists alike, and stymying the efforts of the United States. Mr. Azizi successfully avoids buying into the hype of turning The Shadow Commander into a hagiography and rather presents a nuanced view of contemporary history.

Iranian Pragmatism

The Shadow Commander is all the more enlightening and informative precisely because it is not written from an American-centric policy or political perspective. Of course, America features in the narrative, but it is not written with Washington as the center. This may seem to be an obvious statement, but it is worth highlighting because so much is written precisely from a D.C. point of view.

There are times when this is a strength, such as when a book is about America’s role in the world or interactions with various regions, but it is a weakness when trying to understand the world full stop. As Dr. Hanson said at the outset of my first international relations class some years ago, you can’t understand the world from an American perspective alone. Washington cannot understand Tehran’s policies, politics, or perspective when looking from Foggy Bottom alone.

There is also an interesting pragmatism on display that may make those with less nuanced views of international politics uncomfortable. Iran, for many pundits, is a fanatical regime, hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, setting the Middle East on fire, and bringing about the end of days. Particularly in the early days of the revolution, as Mr. Azizi recounts, there was a hope for many with the Ayatollah’s circle, that the revolution could be exported. While this did not materialize as hoped, it was not fully abandoned as at times Tehran hoped to mobilized Shia Muslims in the region and use their co-religionists as the new vanguard for regional dominance.

Yet the image of Iran portrayed by Mr. Azizi, and in reality, is far more nuanced and complex in its approach to international politics. Like any country, its approach was less about permanent allies and more permanent interests. Its behavior was far more pragmatic than many would like to suggest. It allied with Sunni militias when necessary; received support from its arch-nemeses in Israel and the United States; fought alongside and with the latter against the Islamic State even as it was fomenting violence against Washington in Iraq, and more. One does wish Mr. Azizi went into more detail about Soleimani and his role in recent history, particularly on Syria, but undoubtedly that could be a book alone. As Mr. Azizi demonstrates, the fanatical regime was more interested in pragmatism in the region and ensuring that its interests, position, and security.

Here, readers may be forgiven for not recalling that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a brief rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. The Iranian leadership was well-positioned to help, Soleimani in particular, given his ties with the Northern Alliance and presence in western Afghanistan. As Mr. Azizi recounts, Ambassador Ryan Crocker had developed close ties with his Iranian counterparts and it appeared, perhaps optimistically, that a breakthrough could have been reached. In the end, President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” turn of phrase closed that door. Yet it is interesting to wonder what could have been.

Understanding One’s Adversary

Iran is one of the most challenging and thorniest foreign problems facing the United States. The leadership in Tehran is theocratic and authoritarian, repressive at home and aggressive abroad, and its actions have led directly to the deaths of American service members. Its pursuit of nuclear arms has been and continues to be destabilizing. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently said that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is 12 times the limit imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Just this week, news emerged that President Trump had considered military action to stop the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, only to be dissuaded by defense officials. The fact that the solution to the challenge is either action or sanctions illustrates the paucity of good options (and perhaps the absence of innovative thinking) in Iran.

One wonders why there aren’t more books like Mr. Azizi’s Shadow Commander or accessible books about Iran, given the foreign policy challenge it represents and the way it has loomed over recent American history. The debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s role in Iraq’s instability, the recent drone and cruise missile strikes against Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, all would suggest that greater understanding of Tehran is warranted. Iran seems to be an outlier.

While there are a good number of excellent books on North Korea—Dr. Jung Pak’s Becoming Kim Jong Un (reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) springs to mind—and on Putin’s Russia—Putin’s People by Catherine Belton (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) for example—there are fewer still that are accessible or in wide circulation about Iran or its leaders. It would be welcome if Mr. Azizi picks up his pen and dives into any number of the subjects he weaves into the Shadow Commander.

As a new administration enters office in 2021, a reevaluation of America’s role in the Middle East will almost certainly be undertaken. Key to the region’s stability will be how Washington interacts with Tehran—confrontation, conflict, or cooperation, or even some blend of all three. One hopes that the new occupant of the Oval Office will have a nuanced view of Iran, its role in the region, and design a policy based on Iran as it is, not as one wishes it would be.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.