“[Qassem] Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today, and no one’s ever heard of him.”
— John Maguire, former CIA officer in Iraq
They call him “Keyser Soze.” That’s the nickname the most influential spy in the Middle East has earned among regional hands and Arab officials—likely because no one, apart from them, has ever heard of him. Like the spectral villain who haunts The Usual Suspects—and is said to have murdered his own wife and children in cold blood just to prove a point—Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani is a lethal international man of mystery, a man perfectly suited to the age of Vladimir Putin, where crime boss and covert operative are denizens and custodians of the same shadow-world. But Suleimani doesn’t concern himself with botched drug deals—or I should say, he doesn’t only concern himself with botched drug deals, given his role in orchestrating a Mexican cartel’s (unsuccessful) assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States in 2011. No, he’s into the fate of nations. And he just so happens to be the hardest-working spook on the planet.
The head of the Quds Force—the CIA-like branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps—is now running four countries all at once: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Depending on the time of day, the particular shit storm, and the media’s attention span, he’ll have been spotted, Pimpernel-like, in Tehran, Beirut, Damascus, Najaf, or Baghdad, where he has lately assumed control of Iraq’s crumbing security edifice and transformed what remains of the Iraqi army into an apparatus for sectarian bloodletting and inevitable ethnic cleansing. Suleimani is perennially burdened by his many bumbling clients and proxies. “He says the man’s an idiot” is how one senior Iraqi politician described Suleimani’s thoughts on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “The Syrian Army is useless!” was Suleimani’s earlier estimation of Bashar al-Assad’s military, which essentially operates now as a semi-defunct contractor of Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and a 150,000-strong consortium of Shi’ite and Alawite militiamen who have been recruited from Afghanistan to Lebanon and financed, armed and trained in Tehran. This massive undertaking, to turn faltering Arab armies into chauvinist counter-insurgents, is named “Operation Suleimani.” It will no doubt be his legacy; it has already kept the Assad regime intact and the kept the chinless dauphin of Damascus’ head attached to his neck.
While the “Keyser Soze” sobriquet gets at the Iranian’s simultaneous omnipresence and elusiveness (“And like that, poof. He’s gone,”) it does nothing to capture Suleimani’s geopolitical centrality, or his savvy in outfoxing a supremely tired superpower. A better archetype for the cunning spoiler of Western designs is another Machiavellian baddie from popular culture: Karla, John le Carré’s Soviet spymaster, whose circumstances in fiction greatly resemble present-day reality.
Nicknamed the Sandman (“Anyone who comes too close to him has a way of falling asleep”), Karla has an entire trilogy devoted to his incessant undermining of British intelligence during the latter half of the Cold War. He’s hated and admired in equal measure by those who have heard of him, which is practically no one outside a rarefied elite. Also, he doesn’t speak. Rather, he is quoted, or his remarks are transmitted, through a series of panicked Russians and the recollections of veteran British spies, bulging with anecdotes about his biography and tradecraft.
Much the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of Suleimani, at least judging by the definitive profile of him by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. Like Karla, the Iranian is rendered as a “write-around,” his character and past constructed from second-hand rumors rather than first-hand interviews. That’s because no Western journalist has ever been able to talk to Suleimani. My friend David Patrikarakos, the author of a highly regarded book on Iran’s nuclear program, told me that he’s tried for years to meet Suleimani. “He was the one I wanted above all others. Frankly, if you’d offered me him or Khamenei, I’d have gone with him. But the reply came back fast and clear: ‘No chance.’”
The biggest difference between Suleimani and Karla is that the latter has a nemesis equal to the task of defeating him in the form of George Smiley, the professionally un-retired counterintelligence master of the Circus, le Carré’s shorthand for MI6, in which the author (real name: David Cornwell) served from 1959 to 1964. More civil servant than Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Smiley is described in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), the first installment in the Karla trilogy, as “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” He is a pudgy, bespectacled, homburg-wearing cuckold of a Sherlock in those fish-grey postwar years of 1970s England. Early on, Smiley predicts the form that his Moriarty’s eventual undoing will take, even though this assessment later proves incorrect: “Karla is not fireproof because he’s a fanatic,” he says. “And one day, if I have anything to do with it, that lack of moderation will be his downfall.” Another friend of mine, a former U.S. military intelligence analyst in Iraq, thinks Suleimani is also far from fireproof: “He is not perfect. He’s just uncontested. Every now and then he and his guys show their Keystone Kops side. Whenever we actually make an effort, their weakness is exposed and they are easily defeated. They are not all they’re cracked up to be.” In 2012, Suleimani’s agents showed their Keystone Kops side by blowing off their own legs in Thailand instead of blowing up the Israeli diplomats they’d been targeting.
But Karla isn’t perfect either, and, as with Suleimani, victories tend to follow setbacks.
Technically the head of the Independent Thirteenth Intelligence Directorate, which is answerable to the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Karla works autonomously, unfettered by apparatchiks or nomenklatura. He recruits military officers and dispatches them abroad under the cover of embassy attaches. He’s been in the gulag before, following the Second World War, through no fault of his own. “He simply happened to be in one of those sections of Red Army intelligence which in some purge or other ceased to exist.” Yet he remained loyal after his release and worked his way up the ranks until, in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, he orchestrated a compromised spy operation out of San Francisco. “Moscow Centre was in pieces on the floor” in the mid-1950s and the Circus was hoovering up blown or defecting Soviet spies from Singapore to Washington. Karla is informed in India by his contact, a Tass correspondent, that he is wanted back home immediately, which means that prison or a bullet to the back of the head almost certainly awaits him. The British arrange to have the Indian police arrest Karla, and Smiley is sent to Delhi to try to recruit him before he’s devoured by his own people:
“…Karla was the proverbial Cold War orphan [Smiley tells his protégé Peter Guillam]. He had left home to do a job abroad. The job had blown up in his face, but he couldn’t go back: home was more hostile than abroad. We had no powers of permanent arrest, so it was up to Karla to ask us for protection. I don’t think I had ever come across a clearer case for defection. I had only to convince him of the arrest of the San Francisco network—wave the press photographs and cuttings from my briefcase at home—talk to him a little about the unfriendly conspiracies of brother Rudnev in Moscow, and cable the somewhat overworked inquisitors in Sarratt, and with any luck I’d make London by the weekend.”
Except that Smiley makes London by the weekend without Karla, who avoids the bullet after all (brother Rudnev, his KGB superior, gets it instead, while Karla gets his job). All that is exchanged between the two spies is Smiley’s cigarette lighter, given to him by his cheating wife, bearing the inscription: “To George from Ann with all my love.” Karla will use that lighter—and that inscription—in the years to come. His trap has already been lain in advance, lying dormant, so that now he gives the impression of a man who “would rather die than disown the political system to which he was committed.”
Iran’s own Karla joined the Revolutionary Guard in the early days of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and his first notable accomplishment foreshadowed his career ever since: Suleimani helped suppress an ethnic Kurdish rebellion in Iran’s northwest, using the same means in totalitarian counterinsurgency that would come in handy 30 years later when he helped Assad reclaim Qusayr and Homs from the Free Syrian Army. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, Suleimani joined the Iranian army and quickly gained a reputation for bravery, repeatedly smuggling himself behind enemy lines into Iraq on reconnaissance missions. Sometimes he’d return to camp from these incursions clutching a live goat—food for his beleaguered men. Even the Iraqis respected him.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer based in Istanbul, and now an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was responsible for turning Revolutionary Guardsmen fleeing the Islamic Republic during the tide of human devastation that was the Iran-Iraq War. The Guard might not have been in pieces on the floor in the early ’80s, but its personnel were open to U.S. advances. While there is no indication that any Western intelligence operative ever had the chance to persuade the young Suleimani to switch sides, according to the New Yorker profile, Gerecht did at least assign him an identifiable personality type, along the lines of the Karla mould: “You’d get a whole variety of guardsmen. You’d get clerics, you’d get people who came to breathe and whore and drink. There were the broken and the burned out, the hollow-eyed—the guys who had been destroyed,” he told Filkins. “And then there were the bright-eyed guys who just couldn’t wait to get back to the front. I’d put Suleimani in the latter category.”
Filkins first proposed the Karla analogy for Suleimani, who became the head of the Quds Force almost 16 years ago. The commander, we’re told, “carries himself inconspicuously and rarely raises his voice, exhibiting a trait that Arabs call khilib, or understated charisma.” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq—and unfortunately what the United States has got instead of a Smiley of its own—told Filkins: “He attends mosque periodically. Religion doesn’t drive him. Nationalism drives him, and the love of the fight.” In other words, Suleimani’s a fanatic, but his lack of moderation doesn’t derive from Islamic fervor; it derives from wanting to expand Iran’s regional hegemony, from Persia to Gaza, and put an end to the 80-year Pax Americana that has reigned in the Middle East.
Suleimani and Karla even look a little bit alike. In that fetid Delhi prison cell where he’s gone to find the Soviet, Smiley is underwhelmed by a figure he describes as “[a]vuncular. Modest, and avuncular. He would have looked very well as a priest: the shabby, gnomic variety one sees in small Italian towns. Little wiry chap, with silvery hair, bright brown eyes and plenty of wrinkles. Or a schoolmaster, he could have been a schoolmaster: tough, whatever that means, and sagacious within the limits of his experience: but the small canvas all the same.”
Suleimani’s got the grey hair, the wrinkles, and a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard to boot. He’s also quite short. There’s a famous photograph of him with his head cocked slightly to the left; remove the green fatigues and this could be a professor or imam assessing an exquisitely gifted or idiotic pupil.
In Tinker Tailor, Smiley has to uncover a Karla-run double agent, or “mole,” code-named “Gerald,” who has infiltrated the central nervous system of the Circus. Since you’ll have likely seen either the magnificent seven-part BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley and a young, scruffy-looking Patrick Stewart as Karla, or the more recent film adaptation with Gary Oldman in the homburg and thick-rimmed specs, there’s no use being coy. Gerald is Bill Haydon, whom Karla has kept hidden within the inner sanctum of the Circus the better to paralyze it when the time is right. A privileged Oxford graduate with a taste for women and boys and (perhaps not coincidentally) a fondness for Orientalist art, Haydon has been passing British secrets onto the Soviets for decades while arranging to have his unsuspecting colleagues in London fed Karla-ground “chickenfeed”—worthless intelligence—which they believe to be “gold.” He has thus converted most of the Circus, with the notable exception of its suspicious but ailing chief, a man known only as Control, to the belief that it is they who have infiltrated Moscow Centre, not the other way about. Control sniffs a mole and tasks Smiley with excavating it, assigning his own code names lifted from an English nursery rhyme (“Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier,” “Beggarman”) to the four possible suspects. The better to cloud Smiley’s mole-hunting judgment, Karla arranges for Haydon to bed Smiley’s wife, Ann (“All my love”), transforming counterintelligence into connubial discord.
Haydon (“Tailor”) eventually confesses that he went over to the Russians because he understands Britain’s importance in the world as finally trivial, and its former glory, especially after the Suez fiasco in ’56, reduced to gauzy guildhall reminiscences. “He had often wondered which side he would be on if the test ever came,” le Carré writes of his traitor, “[and] after prolonged reflection he had finally to admit that if either monolith had to win the day, he would prefer it to be the East.” Connie Sachs, one of the Circus’s ablest counterintelligence analysts (and one of its few women), puts it best to Smiley, when he comes to tap her encyclopedic memory about Karla. Connie, a sort of Wendy figure to the Circus’s Lost Boys, reflects mournfully: “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye world. You’re the last, George, you and Bill.”
Tinker Tailor is as much an artifact of a great nation in decline as it is a spy thriller, which is why it ranks as literature instead of as pulpy travel reading. Le Carré’s England is drab, stagnant and purposeless, the England of Philip Larkin’s wonderful poem “Going Going”: “First slum of Europe: a role / It won’t be hard to win, / With a cast of crooks and tarts.” Not unlike the America of the present, you might say, or so the great powers filling the column-inches have been saying. With moral and political compasses spinning wildly in the Karla trilogy, by which we mean Harold Wilson’s Britain, we are invited to sympathize with fifth columnists and turncoats as much as with reluctant patriots. Haydon is a typical English reactionary, resentful of who and what has come to take his Empire’s place in the world—in this case, a lumbering colossus called America, which he hates “very deeply,” and which is now ruling the waves and much else besides. Savile Row makes more of an impression on him than Lefortovo. “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,” he tells Smiley after he’s caught and awaiting deportation to Moscow, where he adds without a whisper of irony, the “tailors are unspeakable. Dress you up like a bloody beadle.” Moral equivalence and malaise, rather than red-hot ideology, motivates Haydon. And while the parallel to draw here with a certain former contractor of the National Security Agency may be irresistible, Haydon is actually the more dangerous exponent of national self-hatred. He is the greatest presenter PressTV never had.
Through Haydon, Karla manages to manipulate Britain’s Cold War policies, while setting his sights on the even bigger game across the ocean. The United States has been badly disillusioned with the Circus over its spate of botched operations, leaks, and lousy intelligence. The fool’s gold the Circus intends to present to the CIA to resuscitate a faltering transatlantic relationship is meant to change all that. Karla knows it, Haydon is loath to know it, and so le Carré renders a further insult upon his country’s stature in global affairs by transforming it into a means to an ignominious end: the British are an introduction to the Americans.
Suleimani’s portfolio in Iraq can be seen in similar terms. Although his reach in Baghdad is both more extensive and transparent than Karla’s was in London, the net effect—manipulating U.S. policy—is more or less the same. Iran has been disrupting or shaping American plans for the Middle East for the last 10 years; now it seeks to more decisively determine those plans for the next 10. There is a reason that we are hearing the case being made—from John Kerry to Lindsey Graham to David Ignatius—that the proper course of action for Washington is to pursue an entente cordiale with Tehran to defeat the terrorist network formerly known as ISIS. Superpower exhaustion, war-weariness and isolationism have done their part to get us here, but Suleimani has catalyzed these sentiments deftly. He has bribed, cajoled, murdered, deceived, and flattered his way into turning America into the Islamic Republic’s security contractor in the Levant and Mesopotamia. If he gets his way, U.S. drones may soon be providing air cover to his sectarian armies in Mosul and Tikrit.
Smiley at one point identifies “two Karlas.” The first is “the professional, so self-possessed that he could allow, if need be, ten years for an operation to bear fruit: in Bill Haydon’s case, twenty; Karla the old spy, the pragmatist, ready to trade a dozen losses for one great win.” Years before the first U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad in 2003, Suleimani already had his own network of agents and proxies in the country, chiefly in the Badr Brigade, the “armed wing” of a suppressed Shi’ite political party. These groups initially contented themselves with killing off the remnants of the Ba’ath regime which had suppressed their majoritarian will for far too long, rather than the U.S. soldiers, who had unlocked that will. But then their focus shifted in 2004, after coalition forces confronted two prominent Shi’ite militias, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the first a wholly owned subsidiary of the Revolutionary Guard, the second a more fitful and difficult-to-manage accomplice. It was then that Suleimani’s Quds Force began targeting the foreigners in Iraq, mainly by importing roadside bombs, or “explosively formed projects [EFPs],” which could pierce battle armor and inflicted some of the worst casualties sustained by U.S. troops in Iraq. Twenty percent of American combat deaths were Iranian-made. And 100 percent of U.S. Central Command wanted to do something about it. “We knew where all the factories were in Iran,” General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of the Joint Special Operations Command, told Filkins. “The EFPs killed hundreds of Americans.” But the pacification of Iraq would come without addressing Suleimani or his destructiveness. Amazingly, this fact is universally absent in the articles now advocating America’s rapprochement with its former killers.
Nor was Suleimani ever shy about showing the United States who was boss in Baghdad. In 2008, he sent a text message to Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, intended for General David Petraeus, then leading the U.S. war effort in Iraq. It read: “Dear General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.” Two years earlier, after the Second Lebanon War between Israeli and Hezbollah drew to a close, Suleimani is said to have sent a similar message to the Americans, in the Green Zone, who were then witnessing a lull in carnage: “I hope you have been enjoying the peace and quiet in Baghdad. I’ve been busy in Beirut!”
Maliki is the prime minister of Iraq today because Suleimani made him so in 2010, after the White House took credit for ending a nine-month, post-election deadlock that prevented a government from forming in Baghdad. This is a great joke among Iraqis and Iranians alike. “I have yet to see one Shia political party not taking money from Qassem Suleimani,” a former Iraqi official told Filkins. “He is the most powerful man in Iraq, without question.”
He has also used Iraq to finance his fieldwork. The Quds Force’s budget is off-the-books to evade Western sanctions, a job Maliki has made easy for Tehran. He sets aside around 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day—the equivalent of $20 million—to underwrite Suleimani’s operations abroad, from Buenos Aires to Bangkok. Iraqi banks are seconded to commit fraudulent transactions and sell currency at inflated prices. Banks that don’t comply are reportedly shuttered. The United States spent trillions of dollars on a war that has resulted in a steady revenue stream for the Revolutionary Guard. Karla would have envied the tradecraft.
At least one attempt to capture Suleimani as he crossed into Iraq from Iran went awry as, at the last moment, he peeled off from the convoy in which he was traveling and sought protection in a safe house provided by Masoud Barzani, the president of the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, which is now poised to establish full independence thanks to ISIS. The Kurds are mostly Sunnis, but that hasn’t stopped Iran from using them whenever convenient. Indeed, for all the talk of a great Sunni-Shi’ite divide, Iran has exploited both sects to its advantage. Suleimani was the one responsible, according to Filkins, for persuading Assad’s intelligence service to run “rat-lines” of Sunni jihadists into Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation, in order to keep the country from being rebuilt from the ground up, and to keep U.S. troops from establishing the necessary security preconditions to allow that to happen. Many of these jihadists joined al-Qaeda in Iraq—the forerunner to ISIS—and later returned to Syria, where they were locked up by the very mukhabarat that had facilitated their migration westward.
Based on the testimony of countless Syrian rebels, defectors from the Assad regime, and U.S. military and intelligence personnel, many of these militants were detained in the notorious Sednaya prison, north of Damascus, until they were released in 2011, at the start of the Syrian uprising. Their “amnesty” was designed to further Assad’s disinformation and propaganda campaign, which is based on the premise that he faces “terrorists” rather than peaceful protesters or armed nationalists. It was probably Suleimani who also persuaded Assad to let these jihadists go, knowing that they’d quickly return to car bombings, suicide bombings and otherwise complicate any Western response to the Syrian depravity. The “narrative” cooked up in Tehran, and sold by Damascus, is that Iran and Syria have a “common interest” with the United States in prosecuting the War on Terror. And now the United States is returning the compliment.
Before President Obama referred to Syrian rebels as “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists”—rebels he now seeks $500 million to train and arm against ISIS—his administration professed not to know who they were. The disparagement of them, and the claim of ignorance as to their identities, were both falsehoods, as Robert Ford, the former State Department point-person on Syria, has lately disclosed following his resignation over the White House’s Syria policy. But they are the kinds of falsehoods designed to distract from or mask America’s more ambitious goal in the Middle East. The truth is, Obama never wanted to see the Assad regime fall because this would have antagonized its patron in Tehran, and it is that patron with whom the president is seeking to reconcile after a 30-year cold war. Suleimani’s plans have profited from avogue realpolitik. So did Karla’s.
In Smiley’s People (1979), the third and final installment in the Karla trilogy, the new head of the Circus is an establishment toff called Saul Enderby who nevertheless makes one salient observation about his government, then keen on a policy of detente with the Soviets. Smiley has presented Enderby with a painstakingly formulated scheme to snare Karla, only to find that strategies for success in counterintelligence are no longer in fashion. Smiley will have to mount this operation alone, with a handpicked team and plausible deniability in case the whole thing goes sideways—and because the Soviet enemy is now a prospective partner in world peace. Enderby could be the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page on P5+1 talks in Geneva:
“Brother Lacon told you the facts of life, I suppose? The stalemate and all?” Enderby asked. “Young, idealistic Cabinet, mustard for detente, preaching open government, all that balls? Ending the conditioned reflexes of the Cold War? Sniffing Tory conspiracies under every Whitehall bed, ours specially? Did he? Did he tell you they’re proposing to launch a damn great Anglo-Bolshie peace initiative, yet another, which will duly fall on its arse around Christmas next?”
Enderby concludes: “Mind you, the very chaps who go hammering the peace-drums are the ones who scream like hell when we don’t deliver the goods.” Someone should ask James Clapper how he feels lately.
In the end, Smiley is shown to be wrong about Karla. It isn’t fanaticism that destroys him, it was his second self, “this other Karla, Karla of the human heart after all, of the one great love, the Karla flawed by humanity. I should not be deterred if, in order to defend his weakness, he resorts to the methods of his trade.” Karla has a daughter in extremity.
He had made a mistress of a girl he rescued from some blasted-out village conquered by the Red Army at the end of the war. But she didn’t hew to the Party line; she kept mixing with “bloody intellectuals,” Connie Sachs tells Smiley. “Wanting the State to wither away. Asking the big ‘Why?’ and the big ‘Why not?’. He told her to shut up. She wouldn’t. She had a devil in her. He had her shoved into the slammer. Made her worse.” Then Karla had her killed. Their child, Tatiana, bore more of her mother’s deviancy—“raising hell over town”—than her father’s self-discipline. She may also be schizophrenic. It was only because of Karla’s untouchability that Tatiana was first indulged at home and had her messes quietly cleaned up. But then she needed to be taken care of and rather than do the Party-approved thing and shoot her too, Karla devises a scheme whereby he has a “legend” created for Tatiana. She assumes the identity of Alexandra Ostrokova, the daughter of a dead Soviet defector whose wife still lives in Paris, and who provides Smiley with the first clue as to how to catch Karla. Tatiana/Alexandra is smuggled into the West where, or so her father believes, she can receive the proper psychiatric care in a Swiss clinic.
In a mirror-image of the gotcha fait accompli that Suleimani sent to David Petraeus, Smiley writes to Karla announcing the denouement. Because Karla had siphoned off state funds to care for his “daughter by a dead mistress of manifest anti-Soviet tendencies,” and because he had organized at least two murders to cover his tracks, he was now a man without a country, and his daughter’s “future in the West—where she [is] residing under false pretenses—would be uncertain, to say the least.”
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In the end, Karla’s filial sentimentality smashes Moscow Centre into pieces again.
And what of Haji Qassem’s household? Filkins quotes a regional security official who says that he is “respectful” of his wife, whom he sometimes ferries abroad with him on Quds Force business. He’s got five children, three sons and two daughters, one of whom, Nargis, lives in Malaysia, and is causing problems. “She is deviating from the ways of Islam.” A Tatiana in the making? Maybe. But it’s easier to envisage Suleimani accidentally killed by a Hellfire missile intended for ISIS.
“It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton,” le Carré writes. “It was a man; and one whose downfall… [was] caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself from his own tangled life was eminently familiar.” Smiley’s achievement, in other words, is one of human intelligence, which ends up counting for more than broken codes, dead letters, or intercepted phone calls, let alone metadata. It’s precisely what the United States lacks most of all in the contemporary Middle East.
Top Iran Spy Is a John Le Carré Villain