Why is this interesting? - The Iran Edition
On Iran, Solemeini, and Quds Force
Brady Moore is a longtime friend of WITI and a previous contributor. He’s a former Green Beret (US Army Special Forces) officer turned business consultant who writes the excellent Quartermaster newsletter on planning, strategy and military history. While we don’t chase news cycles too closely here by design, we thought some depth and nuance on the Solemeini killing was necessary. We found Brady’s piece insightful in a sea of hot #natsec takes and speculation. It is the type of writing and clarity we aspire to with the newsletter. Also, don’t miss the Dexter Filkins piece he cites for further reading. - Colin (CJN)
Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen next in the US’s confrontation with Iran in Iraq. That uncertainty will continue, but in the meantime, you can dig a little deeper into the history of Quds Force and the US’s involvement with a complex, far-reaching and deadly organization. You might come out the other end realizing that this conflict has been going on a long time, and simply got escalated significantly on January 3rd.
Brady here.Given the events of the past few days, it's a good idea to review the context of the US's situation with Iran and all the other associated groups involved in Iraq today. There's a lot swirling around out there that's hype designed to get clicks (crazy, I know) and if we at The Quartermaster are being responsible, we'll use a few minutes today to provide you with some context you didn't already have.
In a real small nutshell, the US forces still operating in Iraq—reported to be as few as 5,000 in number—have been under attack by Kata'ib Hezbollah (a Shia militia under the control of Iran) under the direction of Iran’s Quds Force for the past few months. There’d been a reported 11 different attacks by Kata'ib Hezbollah on US forces since October, and on 27 December, Kata'ib Hezbollah launched a rocket attack on the US base in Kirkuk, killing one contractor and wounding 4 American servicemembers and 2 Iraqis. It was later revealed that Soleimani personally ordered the attacks, which were then executed by Kata'ib Hezbollah’s commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The US responded by striking Kata'ib Hezbollah locations in Iraq and Syria two days later, reportedly killing 25 and wounding 55. Shortly thereafter on 31 December, Kata'ib Hezbollah and other PMF forces attempted to breach the gates of the US Embassy in Baghdad during a mob attack, and made it through the initial security checkpoints and within 200 meters of the main embassy building and set fire to buildings along the outer wall of the embassy complex. On 3 January, Qassem Solemeini arrived via jet at Baghdad International Airport, meeting with al-Muhandis. Both were killed by a US drone strike as they were departing the airfield.
First, who was Qassem Solemeini? Lieutenant General Solemeini was an Iranian military commander considered by many to be the second most powerful man in Iran. He undisputedly controlled all Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria, and many considered him also in charge of all diplomacy relating to both areas. For details, Dexter Filkins’s profile of him in The New Yorker six years ago is about as good as you're going to get right now.
Why is this interesting?
Examining the organization Solemeini led is where things get muddled. Quds Force is unique: It exists today without many peers in the world as it relates to mission or capability. Created during the Iran–Iraq War as a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it includes a rare form of unconventional special operations forces (SOF)—what Green Berets often call "teaching SOF"—who, like Green Berets, have the mission to train, advise and assist foreign militaries. In Quds Force's case, this means it trains, advises and leads forces that are allied with Iran, and have included Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, Ansar Allah (Yemeni Houthis), and three Iraqi Shia militias that comprise the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) (these include Kata'ib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada). For this reason, Quds Force has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. At this point in history, many believe that Quds Force doesn't just advise Hezbollah—it is Hezbollah—meaning that it controls Hezbollah’s actions almost indefinitely. So the US didn’t just kill a senior leader of the Iranian state—it killed the leader of one of the most far-reaching and capable terrorist organizations in the world.
So what - what does this mean to us? If you've been a member of the US military in the past 20 years you may have already had at least one friend injured or killed by Quds Force efforts. Starting in 2004, Quds Force provided Iraqi insurgents with explosively formed penetrator explosives and training on how to use them against Americans—something they'd tested and proven against Israeli forces in Lebanon as early as 1997. Quds Force efforts at attacking Americans got so bad by 2007 that, according to another article in The New Yorker, US forces began to consider steps like attacking Iran directly to deal with the threat.
What happens next? Truthfully, there’s still a lot we don’t know about what’s been going on out of public view. At a minimum, I’d expect at least some new maritime confrontations in the Strait of Hormuz, potentially disrupting the international oil market. US forces will continue to get rocketed in Iraq—but that’s nothing new. If Quds Force is operating at the full extent of its powers, I would expect terror attacks from proxies like Hezbollah, which could occur anywhere in the world. Since its formation in the early 1980s, Hezbollah’s executed terror attacks all over the world from the Middle East to London and South America. In 1994, Hezbollah members bombed a Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and wounding hundreds. Most recently, Quds Force is suspected to be behind the drone attacks on Saudi oil fields, using Yemen’s Houthi rebels as proxies. Using Quds Force abilities, Iran’s reach is far, and it’s very capable.
One thing I still find interesting days later is the fact that Solemeini flew to a spot just 20 minutes drive from where his forces were leading a series of attacks on a US Embassy—that's not something you ever see from a senior leader of a large nation. It serves as a reminder to me that there’s a lot of information we—meaning consumers of western news media—don't have about everything that's going on. The best thing to do, I think, is to take a measured view of all the news that comes out and remember that you don’t have all the info and likely won’t for a long time. The better to get informed on historical context in order to make sense of your world. (BJM)
Map of the Day:
On the spread of stuffed and boiled dumplings from the Mongol Empire. Taken from Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan which I now want to read. Found via @ykomska and WITI Slack. (NRB)
For a great, timely read on Iran’s strategy in dominating Iraq and Syria, check out the Foundation for Defense of Democracies report Burning Bridge: The Iranian Land Corridor to the Mediterranean with a foreword by Lieutenant General (Retired) H.R. McMaster. It’s strong and revelatory analysis like this that’ll allow you to connect the scattered dots in the news. (BJM)
From the comic issue of the New Yorker: Coyote v. Acme. “Mr. Coyote seeks compensation for personal injuries, loss of business income, and mental suffering caused as a direct result of the actions and/or gross negligence of said company, under Title 15 of the United States Code, Chapter 47, section 2072, subsection (a), relating to product liability.” (NRB)
An aside in this 2018 story about tasmanian devils dying of contagious cancer made me Google HeLa cells, the most commonly used cell line in scientific research. The search led me to Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I finished over the Christmas break. It’s an amazing dive into both the controversial history of an important tool in medicine and Lacks’ family, who are still dealing with the consequences of the spread of Henrietta’s cells around the world without her permission. (NRB)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Brady (BJM)
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