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Perhaps the most important military commander in Syria's civil war is not Syrian at all. He's Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, and he's the subject of an article by Dexter Filkins in the current edition of The New Yorker.
For the past 15 years, Suleimani has been the chief of the Quds Force, a small but powerful branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. He's not a familiar name to Americans, but one former CIA officer described him to Filkins as "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today."
Filkins writes that Suleimani "has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism."
Filkins covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times. In 2009, he was part of a team of Times reporters who shared a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross to discuss Iran's involvement in Syria.
On the political changes happening in Iran
What's so interesting about what's happening now is that for many years the hard-liners in Iran have been basically unchallenged — they've had the run of the place. What's happened just in the last few months and why everybody is pretty hopeful is that you've got these kind of relatively moderate people coming to the fore. Hassan Rouhani was elected president, surprising everyone.
By Iranian standards, he's a pretty moderate guy, and he appears to have the blessing of the all-powerful Ayatollah Khamenei to pursue a deal with the United States over their nuclear program, possibly over Syria, we don't really know. So I think it's a pretty good bet right now that inside the Iranian government there's a really intense fight going on over the future of the country, the direction of the country and its foreign policy, the nuclear program, all this stuff. And these are not settled questions.
On what the Iranian Quds Force does
There's no equivalent in the United States. If you had to make one, it would be the CIA and the special forces together. So it's traditional spies collecting information, running agents; and then it's guys that pull the trigger and go after people. So they do assassinations, they have advisers like special forces advisers. There [are] thousands of them in Syria now, Iranian Quds Force advisers helping to prop up the Assad government. And then they have spies around the globe. So it's a hybrid.
On how the Quds Force began propping up the Assad regime
If you stand back a little bit, if you remember, say, December/January of this year, Assad was on the ropes, he was teetering, it looked like he was going to collapse. His government was steadily losing ground to the rebels, and I think what happened — it's pretty clear by the evidence that the Iranian regime, which values their friendship with Assad very greatly, for many reasons, woke up and hit the alarm bell.
You can sort of watch the number of [Iranian] supply flights that were going in with troops, with ammunition, with money, with everything, just started increasing greatly. So instead of a couple days a week it became every day, all the time, and that has been the decisive factor in solidifying and probably preventing the collapse of the Assad regime. So the Iranians and the Quds Force are doing a whole array of things. They're down on the ground, so they have military advisers that are getting killed in the fight.
On Qassem Suleimani's history of aggression
Qassem Suleimani — who is this extraordinarily powerful man behind the mask, very mysterious guy, very powerful guy — he was instrumental in 2010 in making sure that the Americans left no troops behind in Iraq. During the Iraq War, he supervised and directed militias which were responsible for hundreds of American deaths.
It appears, by the evidence, that the Iranians, and the Quds Force in particular, were behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the president of Lebanon, in 2005. Qassem Suleimani appears to be running or directing or at least playing a very large part in the war in Syria on behalf of the Assad government. So he's everywhere, and, again, the Iranians have been extraordinarily aggressive over the past 15 years in asserting themselves in the Middle East, often at American expense.
On Iran's opposition to chemical weapons, which was shaped by the Iran-Iraq War
The Syrian regime, of course, by all available evidence — there's not much debate — used chemical weapons against their own people. They've done it more than a dozen times at least. And the Iranians, of course, have been supporting that government wholeheartedly. However, I think the evidence is pretty persuasive that the Iranians do not want Assad to use chemical weapons, and they've tried to stop him from doing it, which is remarkable. ...
[Last December], before the first chemical weapons attack, ... American intelligence detected that the regime was loading sarin gas onto bombs, basically, to be put on airplanes and then used. And it appeared that they were preparing for a pretty large-scale attack. ...
The Americans reached out to the Russians, the Russians reached out to the Iranians — I believe Qassem Suleimani — who reached out to Assad, [and] said, "Put 'em away." And they did at the time. And I think the reasons for that are ... the Iranians are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of chemical weapons [because of how they were used during the Iran-Iraq War]. ...
On the one hand, there's a great reluctance on the part of the Iranians to see chemical weapons being used because they were so traumatized by it. But on the other hand, I think ... they have a very specific interest in preventing Assad from using chemical weapons, and that is they don't want the West to be involved in this war. So I think their fear has been, "If you use chemical weapons, it's going to bring in the United States."
On how Iranian hard-liners like Qassem Suleimani view the U.S.
If you want to understand Qassem Suleimani's vision for the outside world and, for that matter, probably most of the hard-liners in Iran, the way they see the world, I think you have to go back to the Iran-Iraq War, which was ... one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century. [It left] probably a million people dead; it lasted eight years; poison gas was used against the Iranians.
The Iranians don't really see that war as the Iran-Iraq War; they see it as the West vs. Iran. And they see, if you ask them, the gas attacks and those terrible, terrible moments in that war as being facilitated by the United States and Europe. And I think the evidence is pretty conclusive that the United States knew about Saddam [Hussein]'s preparations to attack Iran. And remember, this is right after the gigantic Iranian Revolution and the  hostage crisis. ...
I think it's also pretty clear that [the U.S.] provided targeting information for the Iraqi military when it used poison gas, and I think the evidence is also pretty conclusive that Iraq, in building its chemical weapons arsenal, got help from certain European countries. Nonetheless, I think the Iranian view is that this was essentially a Western conspiracy. "We are surrounded by enemies near and far," and that is the way Qassem Suleimani sees the United States.
On whether an agreement between Iran and the U.S. is possible
What the Iranians want is a lifting of the sanctions ... and what we want is for them to give up their nuclear program. And they want that nuclear program very badly. So can we make a deal on that? I'm skeptical. ... The Iranians have been extremely patient in the way that they've pursued their nuclear program, particularly in the past decade.
There aren't any fixed timetables about when they have to get it done, and they are willing to proceed at a very deliberate pace as long as they are still moving forward. It's impossible to define their motives or even their objectives, but I think what's troubling to me is that where they appear to be heading ... is essentially [to] have the capability of building a bomb very quickly.