The Shadow Commander: A Life on the Margins

Excerpts of the book, The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The US, and Iran Global Ambitions, written by the author published by One World.  

by Arash Azizi 

A foreign traveler to Iran once retold the story of an encounter somewhere in the borderlands of the country. Meeting a local villager, he spoke of his love for Iran, whereupon the startled villager asked: “Where is Iran? I know all the villages in this area and we don’t have any with such a name.” We don’t know how much truth there is to this apocryphal tale but it illustrates a point about life on the margins of the Iranian plateau. The great urban jewels of Iran have long seduced many a visitor but the people of its pastoral and rural borderlands have been something of a silent majority, a mystery or a danger: now castigated as disloyal subjects who don’t belong, then lauded as heroic keepers of the marshlands and guardians of the nation. This is tribal Iran.

End of the journey

The tribes of Iran are diverse and changing in their ethnicity, language, religion, and mode of life. Their fortunes rise and fall with the tides of history and events near and far. One event that affected them all was the rise to power, in the 1920s, of an ambitious young monarch named Reza Pahlavi. Backed by many of the country’s modernizing intellectuals who were disillusioned with the chaos that had followed the ups and downs of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–6, Reza wanted a centralized and effective state and had to wage war against anything that stood in his way. The nomadic tribes definitely made the list and many of the nationalist intellectuals, opposing what they perceived as tribal backwardness, were enthusiastic about taking them on. Lacking permanent settlements, the tribes often migrated seasonally, taking their massive tents with them. They were equipped with their own arms, and consequently the state apparatus had limited penetration into the lives of tribal peoples. They spoke a variety of languages: some Persian or a close sibling, Lori, but many Turkic Azeri, Kurdish, Arabic, or Balochi. If Reza Shah wanted to build his centralized state, he had to suppress the tribes. And so he did. Traditional clothes and the black tents were banned, tribal confederations were broken and many tribes were forcibly settled. The process of forced settlement came to be known by a Turkic term, “takhte qapu,” which simply means “building a wooden gate,” seen as the most conspicuous sign of a resettled tribe. The term still disturbs many and tribal histories still speak with fear and trembling of the young monarch’s campaign of terror against them.

Reza had gone on the record describing the tribal peoples as “illiterate, unproductive, abnormal tent-dwelling savages, left in their primitive state for too long.” The young monarch wasn’t alone. Ignorant of the cosmopolitan histories of these tribes, the country’s literati held similar conceptions. In the southern province of Kerman, not far from the waters of the Persian Gulf, the tribes hadn’t played the pivotal role that their counterparts had elsewhere in Iran. They weren’t kingmakers, allies of revolutionaries, or armed accomplices to foreign governments, but they had the most colorful mercantile history. The provincial urban center of Kerman sat not far from Bandar Abbas, the old port on the Persian Gulf which got its current name when the forces of Shah Abbas defeated the Portuguese in 1622, reconquering it after a century of European domination. Kicking out the Portuguese didn’t lead to autarky: English, Dutch, and Portuguese merchants continued to pass through southern Iran and each tribe in Kerman boasts its own stories of interactions with the European merchants and empires.

By 1956, when our story begins, years of central state oppression had taken their toll. The tribes of Kerman province were no longer the international mercantile interlocutors of the past and now languished on the margins of power and wealth in modern Iran. The forced settlement program was to intensify around this time. The province’s most valued commodity, wool, particularly from the soft and fluffy hairs closest to a mammal’s skin (known as down hair, ground hair or undercoat), had seen a drop in price. Successive years of bad droughts had led to animal deaths. The tribes were devastated and struggled to find new avenues for livelihood: Girls would be raised to take part in the intensive and artful labor of producing the famed Kermani carpets for the markets, while young men would learn to drive, to become truckers perhaps, connecting central and southern Iran to the ports on the Persian Gulf via the roads that the new shah of Iran, Reza’s son, Mohammad Reza, was busy building. Not everybody chose such noble callings. Some held on to their rifles, hiding them from the central government, practicing road robbery or engaging in petty crime.

In the county of Rabor, a few hours’ drive away from the city of Kerman, lies the small village of Qanat Molk with a population of a few dozen families. Rabor has something in common with many locales around the world: villages in Jordan hosting forcibly settled Bedouin, hill towns in Southeast Asia home to sedentarized populations whose nomadic lives cannot be tolerated by modern states. The people of Qanat Molk claimed common descent from a particular sub-tribe. They almost all shared the same last name: Soleimani, that is, people of Soleiman (the biblical Solomon), the mythical king of the Jews in whose magical qualities Muslims believed as fervently as their Abrahamic predecessors.

The Soleimanis’ presence in Kerman dated back to the eighteenth century when they had chosen to settle there on their way back from the Indian subcontinent where they had fought under the command of the legendary Persian king Nadir Shah. Or so they claimed. This gave them seniority over the many tribes that had been displaced in the previous few decades or during the tumult of the nineteenth century.

The village boasted beautiful walnut trees which the local lore claimed as the oldest in the world. But there was little to mark it beyond the local level. In 1956, even the county seat of Rabor, less than ten kilometers away from Qanat Molk, was yet to be founded. That would happen only in 1962 by bringing together five smaller locales. There was no industry or factories—nor is there today. No significant site of the kind that brought tourists in droves to the neighboring Fars province, to see beauties such as Persepolis or other ruins of the ancient Persian empires. No grand historical character, no famed Persian poet, no notable scientist of the golden age of Islam had ever emerged from this marginal part of Kerman.

But that mattered little to the many who loved their part of the world. Qolam Ali, who grew up in the 1960s in the nearby village of Nosratabad, just a stone’s throw from Qanat Molk, is full of fond memories. “The harsh winters bothered us but the temperate spring and summer were so heavenly,” he says. “The walnuts were famous but we had so much more. Apples, pears, and even some exotic fruits, believe it or not. We even had our own olives, rumored to have come from Lebanon.”

Qolam well remembers Nosratabad’s village head, Khosrow, or kadkhoda Khosrow, to use the Persian prefix. The retired Khosrow still summers in Nosratabad while living in the nearby town of Jiroft. In the late 1950s, he had a close friend in Qanat Molk, Hassan Soleimani.

Born in 1922 into a small landowning family of peasants, Hassan had worked on his family’s fruit gardens all his life. Kadkhoda Khosrow remembers him as a hardworking and humorous man, just as he appears in a video interview from decades later. He had his first child at a relatively late age, being thirty-three when, in 1955, he and his wife, Fatima, had a daughter. Their first son arrived the following year. Like many Persian Muslims, they picked an Arabic name for him. The boy was to be called Qassem, Arabic for “divider” and the name of a rare son of the Prophet Mohammad (who had many daughters but no son who survived to adulthood). More to the point, Qassem was the name of a great-grandson of the Prophet, born to Imam Hassan, the Second Shia Imam. Hassan of Qanat Molk now had his own Qassem, just like Imam Hassan of 1,400 years before.

It was this son, Qassem, who would change the fate of this little village and much beyond. He would give this part of Kerman its first real celebrity, the first local boy who would make it. He’d be feted and known not only in the provincial center, Kerman, but in Tehran and the ancient Arab capitals that Qanat Molkis had only heard about in stories: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad. He’d even be welcomed and honored in Moscow, then one of the two superpower capitals of the world, and his image would appear on countless magazine covers the world over, causing fear and loathing in lands far from the pleasant walnut trees of central Kerman.

The village saw dividends from this rise to power of the little boy who became Major General Qassem Soleimani. Helped by the general, Qanat Molk would get amenities sooner than other villages. It would boast a workshop to produce herbal medicine and a massive mosque, partially built by the proud father himself. Until his death in 2016 at the age of ninety-five, Hajj Hassan Soleimani was to never leave his small village of 300 families or so. “One feels better in one’s homeland,” he said in a video interview with a Kermani outlet a few years before this death. Qanat Molk, with its pleasant cool breezes and sturdy walnut trees, was as good as one could wish for in a “homeland.” Today he is buried there, next to his wife, who predeceased him by a few years. But the small village has entered the annals of history, due to the deeds of their first son.

The general never lost touch with this corner of the world. He’d visit as often as he could. His career would have been nothing without the sons of the area that flocked to join the military force he built in the 1980s to fight against the Iraqi invasion. One wonders how the family of Ebrahim Araste, for example, thinks of General Soleimani. Born in 1971 in the village of Mohammadabad, Ebrahim went to Qanat Molk, three kilometers away, for part of his schooling. Like many local boys, he worked hard to help his family from an early age. Life in Mohammad Abad was even harder than in the relatively rich Qanat Molk. The Shah’s grandiose development projects were yet to bring running water to the village and Halime, Mohammad’s mother, sometimes accompanied by her daughters, had to walk to a stream nearby, even in the dead of winter, to wash clothes and dishes and bring water back, just like Victor Hugo’s fictional Cosette a century and a half before her. In his early teens Mohammad, who couldn’t bear to see his mother go through this, took action. He managed to find a water pump in Qanat Molk and, not having the means to hire a car or get help, brought back the heavy piece all by himself, walking the three kilometers to Mohammad Abad. Like any good family of farmers, the parents hoped to rely on such a hardworking son for years. But this wasn’t to pass. In 1987, in the fields of Shalamcha, on the Iranian-Iraqi border and not far from the port city of Basra, Ebrahim was killed by an Iraqi bullet, one of the up to 65,000 Iranians who died in the disastrous Iranian siege of Basra. His grave is there in Mohammad Abad today but it is empty as his body has never been found. He was all of fifteen years old.

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Mohammad was one of the many Kermanis mobilized by General Soleimani to fill the ranks of the Islamic Republic, a regime built in the name of the people of the margins. Before giving these people anything, the republic needed them to perform that age-old duty: dying for the nation. This is one thing Qassem would turn out to be very good at: mobilizing people to fight and die. What he started with the tribal Kermanis, he’d repeat with astonishing success in lands far from his marginal home village. But before he could get there, he had to get out of Qanat Molk.

* * *

Qassem was born into an Iran run by a man around the age of his father. Born in 1919, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was the first son of Reza, that very ambitious monarch who had brutalized the Iranian tribes to build his modernizing state. Reza’s project and ambitions were typical of the statesmen of the region. He followed the lead of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey and Amanallah Khan of Afghanistan, heads of states which, like Iran, had the rare distinction of being non-European realms never to be colonized. Reza particularly cherished the reform model of Atatürk. The two had met in Reza’s first and only foreign trip during his reign, a state visit in 1934 to Turkey. In time away from interpreters, Reza had tried to converse with Atatürk in what he knew of the Turkic dialects of his native northern Persia but didn’t have much success as Atatürk’s Anatolian Turkish, soon to become a standardized language, shorn of its Arabic and Persian loanwords, was quite different. This symbolized the distance between the two men. Atatürk had been a general in the armed forces of a grand empire, the Ottomans; had fought in a world war; had defeated the British and French (under the leadership of the UK’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill) on the hills of Gallipoli. He had lived in Bulgaria and had seen something of the world. Reza had had to build his military career during Iran’s worst times of chaos, following the dying days of the Qajar dynasty when the country was falling prey to Russia and Britain’s “Great Game” in the region. The intrigues of London and Moscow called the shots in Iran before Reza rose to power thanks to a UK-backed coup in 1921. The British had liked his military discipline—the only field in which he had some talent. Iran’s new strongman flirted with republicanism before helping to replace the Qajars with a new dynasty with himself as the founding king. Taking the ancient Persian name Pahlavi, the uncouth general from a humble background sought entry into the annals of the Iranian dynasties.

Atatürk had inherited something of the impressive Ottoman state and traditions whereas all Reza got was the remnants of the weak Qajar regime. He also had the support of at least some of the intellectual and political elites of the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–6, ranging from liberals to social democrats, but he was quick to suppress them. Like many a military man, Reza soon grew tired of his intellectual supporters. By 1941, when he was overthrown by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran due to Allied worries about the country falling to Hitler’s Germany, much of what the Iranian historian Touraj Atabaki was to call “authoritarian modernization” had failed to stick. Compared to Atatürk’s Turkey, Reza created much more chaos and disharmony with far fewer results to show for it.

In 1941, as he departed Iran for a fatal exile in British-held realms (Mauritius, then South Africa), Reza gave the reins to his Swiss-educated 21-year-old son, Mohammad Reza. The young Shah was initially overshadowed by the country’s raucous tribes, skilled politicians, and political parties, chiefly the communist Tudeh Party, in the only democratic period in Iran’s history. The democratically elected parliament occasionally returned communist MPs and cabinet ministers. It also became the base of power for Iran’s progressive prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. Backed by communists and a mass movement on the streets, Mossadeq took on the most powerful empire of his world, the British, but ended up becoming the first casualty of the world’s newest imperial power. In 1953, the United States helped the British organize a coup, overthrow Mossadeq, crush the communists and all other political parties, and put an end to Iran’s twelve-year experience of democracy. The young Shah, now thirty-three years of age, had a new lease on life. No longer an overshadowed monarch, he was well on his way to becoming an all-powerful autocrat like his father. In 1958, after a communist-backed revolution overthrew the young monarchy in his neighboring Iraq, the Shah’s fears grew and he cracked down further. The once vibrant parliament became a pliant rubber-stamp assembly, divided into two groups famously known as the “Yes” and “Yes, Sir” parties. The Shah emerged to become a seminal figure in the colorful tapestry of the global Cold War.

Iran had been central to the Cold War since day one. Historian Bruce R. Kuniholm even claimed that the “war” had started in the Near East, with the Soviet-US face-off in Iran being a big part of the story. Iran was to be a theater of the Cold War throughout its entire duration and though they might not have known it, the lives of the people of Qanat Molk, too, were deeply affected by the ebbs and flows of that global conflict. The Cold War made lives of people around the world interconnected but in deeply unequal waves. The decisions of a relatively few people in the swing states of the United States could change the lives of millions around the world, including the unsuspecting farmers of Qanat Molk. In the 1960 US presidential elections, John F. Kennedy, a young senator from the state of Massachusetts, surprised the world by defeating the Republican governor of California, Richard Nixon. Who would have known that the people of the Midwestern state of Missouri would vote for a yuppie Boston Catholic? Although Barack Obama came close in 2008, to this day no other northern Democrat has ever carried Missouri. But on that fateful day of November 8, 1960, decisions by people like the farmers in the almost all-white Osage County of Missouri affected the fate of the world. The Soleimanis of Qanat Molk, Kerman might not have known of Frankenstein, Missouri but such small communities were interconnected in the context of the global Cold War.

President Kennedy had promised to change the way the US fought the Cold War. In 1958, a political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer symbolized Kennedy’s problem with the Cold War policies of his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, the man who had approved the 1953 coup that ended democracy in Iran, three years before our Qassem was born. Burdick and Lederer had both served in the navy during the Second World War, with the latter rising to become an important captain in the Pacific theater. They were now both disillusioned with the US backing of tinpot dictators in the Southeast Asia they had so valiantly fought to free from fascist Japanese aggression in the war. The novel was called The Ugly American. It was set in the imaginary country of Sarkhan, described as somewhere akin to Thailand or Burma and obviously meant to represent that festering sore of the Cold War, Vietnam. Senator Kennedy loved the book so much that he sent a copy to all his colleagues in the Senate. The cinematic version, starring Marlon Brando, had to wait until 1963 but the book was already a phenomenon, ultimately selling four million copies, and might have had something to do with average Americans in places like Missouri turning to Kennedy. Americans don’t usually care much about foreign policy. Did they want the “Quiet American” the world knew to turn so quickly to an “Ugly American”?

Kennedy’s message was clear. If the US wanted to reduce communism’s popularity in the Third World, it had to stop backing repressive dictators and instead give the people what the communists were promising them: development and jobs. In office, President Kennedy would make this something of a priority. In 1961, he launched the Peace Corps, a significant volunteer program which sent young Americans around the world. The Peace Corps Americans were to be the ultimate counterimage of the “Ugly American” Brando portrayed in 1963: ambassadors of economic development and even justice.

Early in his post-coup rule, the Shah was more pliant to Kennedy than he would be to his successors. Thus when the liberal president pressured him to be more democratic and progressive, he gave in. But, like other liberal presidents before him, the young Bostonian was quick to find out that grandiose visions outlined on the pages of the New York journal Foreign Affairs were not always easy to translate into policy, least of all in the rocky waters of the Cold War. In 1961, under pressure from Kennedy, the Shah appointed the reform-leaning, American-educated Ali Amini as prime minister. As ambassador to the US in the post-coup years of 1955 to 1958, Amini had been so close to Washington as to irk the insecure Shah, who recalled him home. As a prime minister enforcing Kennedy’s agenda, he was never to have the full cooperation of the Shah and the imperial court. Amini also failed to get any backing from the supporters of Mossadeq and the Iranian opposition, who considered any collaboration with the US-installed Shah as political suicide, a sin they were not prepared to commit. Amini’s premiership failed miserably and, a year later, he was replaced by Asadollah Alam, his opposite in every imaginable way. Alam was a grand landowner from northeastern Iran who considered himself a humble and obedient servant of the Shah. With Alam at the helm, and Kennedy out of the reckoning after his tragic assassination in 1963, the Shah had the chance to offer his own version of state-led development — one more attempt to bring happiness to people and stave off a communist revolution.

Arash Azizi

What would this all mean for the people of Qanat Molk and Qassem’s family? How would lives change in this corner of Kerman province? Although his opponents would come to caricature him in that way, the Shah was no corrupt and nasty Cold War dictator like François Duvalier or Ferdinand Marcos. He saw himself not as a hidebound reactionary but as a revolutionary and even a socialist who knew his people’s interests better than the communists . . . and better even than his people themselves. And therein lay the problem. Writing sweepingly about different regimes around the world, anthropologist James Scott would come to criticize “seeing like a state,” in other words implementing state-led plans from above that were well-meaning but rarely took into account the priorities of the people they wanted to help.

In 1963, the benevolent autocrat of Iran declared the principles of his “Revolution of Monarch and the People,” nicknamed the White Revolution to differentiate it from the Red Revolution it was meant to prevent. Not for the first time the establishment decided to counter the opposition by adopting its agenda. Didn’t the old Prussian Otto von Bismarck introduce social reforms to stem the rise of German Social Democrats, the party meant to work for the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels? The Shah’s “revolution” had nineteen principles which read like the agenda of a progressive party. It planned to nationalize the jungles and waterways of the country, give workers a share in factories, introduce female suffrage (a proposal of the communist Tudeh in the 1940s), bring about free education and social insurance for all, and  send young teachers and doctors around the country as part of “the Knowledge Corps” and “the Health Corps.” Most consequential for our story and for the course of Iranian history was the very first item on the agenda. The White Revolution pledged to bring about “land reform and annulment of the master-subject relationship.” The Shah hadn’t declared his revolution from a farmers’ congress for nothing. He knew that his agenda for change would live or die according to how it touched the lives of farmers, the majority of Iranians.

Land reform had long been the bugbear of progressives and reactionaries alike. The plans that the Shah introduced were even more far-reaching than those of his socialist arch-nemesis in the region, President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. Large landowners held more than fifty percent of Iranian land at the time. They often controlled the lives of “their” peasants, calling the economic and political shots in the country. Just a few years before, an attempt by the Shah’s agriculture minister, Jamshid Amoozegar, to bring a land reform bill to the parliament had been defeated by strong representation from the landed interests there. This time around, the Shah brought back Hassan Arsanjani, the most dynamic minister of Amini’s cabinet. The forty-year-old Arsanjani had translated Montesquieu’s Persian Letters in his teen years and had been elected as a MP by the people of Gilan, located on the Caspian coast and perhaps Iran’s most progressive-leaning province. His appointment was alarming to the landowning class and a most obvious sign that the Shah was serious about land reform. In the power struggle that ensued, Arsanjani was forced to shelve his radical plans and found that most familiar fate of those who lose in politics: He was quietly dispatched to be Iran’s ambassador to Rome.

The half-hearted land reform that followed brought more chaos than relief. The episode has been a heated subject of debate in Iran and an inspiration to many novelists who have chronicled the lives from below, missed by those who “saw like a state.”

Hassan Soleimani lived one of those lives. When Qassem was born in 1956, his family barely owned any land. The White Revolution was to give them land and could have made them lifelong devotees of the Shah, Light of the Aryans, the successor to Cyrus the Great, a man who had come to help those on the margins. But its botched implementation meant that the Soleimanis went from being a landless family to one that was heavily indebted, a sign of deep shame and trouble in their surroundings. Reza Shah had caused the tribal make-up of the area to collapse with his forced resettlements. Shah the son had created another round of chaos, despite his best intentions. The old habits of villagers, disdain and suspicion toward the city and the center, had been doubly vindicated.

Qassem grew up with a father who had to live with debt and could not provide for his family the way he wanted. A bright kid by all accounts, he was intelligent enough to continue his studies and even go to a university. But like many a poor man’s son, he needed to work. He did odd construction jobs from his early teens, sojourning around the province in the summers. In 1970, at the age of fourteen, he finished primary school. He was able to go to Rabor to finish high school and get the desired diploma, a rarity known to open many doors. The White Revolution hadn’t helped his father become a sustainable farmer but the massive state built by the Shah would find Qassem a reliable source of income. The high school diploma was to prove useful. The Iranian state kept expanding as the Shah, drunk on the astronomically high oil prices in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, grew more confident about his grandiose plans. He now claimed to have sighted the gates of the Great Civilization soon to be reached by Iran. For the teenage Qassem, the Great Civilization meant a steady job. In 1975, at the age of eighteen, he found employment with the Kerman water organization as an aide in the public relations department. The new job necessitated a move to the city of Kerman, center of the province and several hundred kilometers away from home.

Like many villagers before him, Qassem was taking the first step in broadening his horizons: a move to the city.

Arash Azizi is a historian at New York University where he researches the transnational links that tied Iran and the Arab world during the Cold War. He has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and Vanity Fair, and several of his book-length translations have appeared in Iran and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. @arash_tehran

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