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Dexter Filkins On Qassem Suleimani, The Secret Commander

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HH: I want to call your attention to a truly extraordinary piece in last week’s New Yorker, The Shadow Commander, by our friend, Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War. I was engrossed by this over the weekend, posted it. It’s linked over at And Dexter Filkins joins me. Dexter, welcome back. How are you?

DF: Hey, I’m good. Thank you so much for having me.

HH: Well, this is remarkable. I did not know anything about…how do you say his name the right way?

DF: Qassem Suleimani, but you know, I could be wrong, too.

HH: Okay, give people the overview, because The Shadow Commander leaves that last week’s phone call between the President and the new president of Iran in a distinctly different light for me.

DF: I think that’s right. Qassem Suleimani is the head of something called the Quds Force, which you know, in Arabic, and also in Persian, means Jerusalem. It is a part of the Revolutionary Guards, and essentially, Suleimani is an extremely powerful man, one of the most powerful men in Iran, and probably in the Middle East. The Quds Force is essentially responsible for basically all of the activities in the region for Iran. And it’s kind of, as I described in the piece, the Quds Force is kind of a hybrid CIA plus Special Forces. You know, they do everything from intelligence to kill people. And so if you just kind of stand back and look at their map, Quds Force is sustaining Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are propping up Assad in Syria, they are deeply entwined in the government in Iraq. They are all over the region, and they’re very, very aggressive. And I think you just mentioned, I think there’s a big struggle going on inside Iran for the soul of that government.

HH: Now let’s go back and take people through sort of the history of post-revolutionary Iran, because he’s been there every step of the way as a young fighter in the war with Iraq, all the way through the most recent maneuvers in Syria, where he sent one of his best friends to his death. This guy is a survivor. He’s my age, and so he’s been basically at war since the time he was 18.

DF: That’s exactly right, and I think he looks at the world like a warrior does. You know, he was, I think, about 18 or so when the Iranian revolution, when the Shah was overthrown, and the current government, or the current regime sort of, the Islamic Republic took root in 1979. And he’s been fighting ever since. And I think the formative experience for him was probably the Iran-Iraq war, which is one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th Century. And they look at that war, the Iranians do, but particularly Suleimani, as not so much the Iran-Iraq war, but kind of the Iran being encircled by the West. And the lesson they took away from that war was we’ve got to go after people. We’ve got to go get them before they come and get us. And he’s been fighting that fight ever since.

HH: I’m talking with Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker, whose profile of the enforcer in Iran, Suleimani, is one of the most amazing pieces I’ve read in a long time. I’m going to read just two paragraphs from here. “In 2010, according to Western officials, the Quds Force and Hezbollah launched a new campaign against American and Israeli targets—in apparent retaliation for the covert effort to slow down the Iranian nuclear program, which has included cyber attacks and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Since then, Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone. The most notorious was a scheme, in 2011, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the United States as he sat down to eat at a restaurant a few miles from the White House. The cartel member approached by Suleimani’s agent turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (The Quds Force appears to be more effective close to home, and a number of the remote plans have gone awry.) Still, after the plot collapsed, two former American officials told a congressional committee that Suleimani should be assassinated. “Suleimani travels a lot,” one said. “He is all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him.” In Iran, more than two hundred dignitaries signed an outraged letter in his defense; a social-media campaign proclaimed, “We are all Qassem Suleimani.” Our friends in Israel must have his picture on the wall, Dexter Filkins.

DF: Yeah, they do. They do. They know who he is. And that’s the thing. I didn’t know any of this when I started reading, when I started reporting the piece, either. And it was one of these stories, very rare like this, but as soon as I started asking the question, and basically asking about Qassem Suleimani in Iran and the Quds Force. Everybody had a story to tell. And so it was, for me, it was just kind of a, I don’t know, it turned out to be the secret history. But I didn’t know that going in. I just knew, I kept, everywhere I went in the Middle East, I kept hearing his name, and so I was sort of scratching my head one day, and I said I’ve got to figure out who this guy is.

HH: Again, your analogy that most struck me, and I’ll read here, “Among spies in the West, he appears to exist in a special category, an enemy both hated and admired: a Middle Eastern equivalent of Karla, the elusive Soviet master spy in John le Carré’s novels. When I called Dagan, the former Mossad chief, and mentioned Suleimani’s name, there was a long pause on the line. “Ah,” he said, in a tone of weary irony, “a very good friend.” And my radio friend, Daniel Silva, has certain archetypal characters. And I think he must be familiar with Suleimani, because there’s one in the Iran series of the novels which, you know, they’re lifelong antagonists in the way that the old CIA guys were with their Soviet counterparts.

DF: Yes. I mean, that is so true, and I found, I mean, really, he is Karla. You know, for all you le Carre devotees out there, they’ll, that rings a bell, I’m sure. Karla is this deeply mysterious Soviet master spy who we don’t meet until the end of a thousand pages of three novels. Suleimani is the same way. I mean, he kind of, he doesn’t really advertise his presence, he doesn’t announce what he’s doing, but boy, when you go to the Middle East and you start asking questions about him, you really get people’s attention.

HH: Now Dexter, he must know you now. You must be a card, an index card on his desk, because I’m not sure he welcomes or doesn’t welcome this kind of…I’ve been profiled by the New Yorker, but it was a nice piece by Nick Lemann. It wasn’t a Dexter Filkins – here’s the world’s master killer piece. Were you at all intimidated by this assignment?

DF: No, I was, well, let me put it this way. Maybe, but I mean, nothing came up along the way, although I should say I went to Iran, I’ve been to Iran once, and I went there in 2005. It was an amazing trip. It was right after the hard line government, it was right after Ahmadinejad’s government came in. And it was one of these miraculous things. I got a visa, which you know, they don’t give them out very often, and I went in, and I was just there for a few days. But I got an email after my piece ran from somebody who was instrumental in getting me that visa back in 2005. And he said you know, Qassem Suleimani personally approved your visa, so he knows you.

HH: Wow.

DF: So I was a little tickled by that. I tried to get to him, and I sent messages to him to try to interview him, which I would love to do. And I just, you know, I haven’t heard back, yet.

HH: So how long did it take, this is a little inside baseball. How long did it take to write this piece?

DF: It took me a long time. It really did. It took, I mean, it took longer. I mean, it took a long time to report it, just to gather all the information. I mean, you can kind of tell by reading the piece, because there’s all these, I mean, I went to Israel, I went to Jordan, I went to Iraq, I was in Kurdistan, I went to Saudi Arabia. I live in New York. I went to Washington several times. It took a long time, because the information was all there, and I felt like I could find it, but it was very, very scattered. And so it took, boy, three months.

HH: Has it begun to penetrate into people’s consciousness, because the timing of it, concurrent with the phone call between President Obama and Rouhani, it’s eerie.

DF: Yeah, you know, timing is everything in life. And the timing’s been great. I mean, the piece landed at precisely the right time. People were thinking about Iran, and they wanted to know more about it. There’s a lot of news out of there. There’s some, you know, there appears to be some hope that a deal can be made over nuclear weapons or possibly Syria. And so you know, yeah, the reaction I’ve been getting is gigantic.

HH: Not with, the idea of a rapprochement with Iran with this kind of a guy at the controls of the Quds Force, simply hard for me to believe. Dexter Filkins, my hat is off to you again, terrific piece. Thanks for joining me. I’ll just, I just Tweeted it out earlier, America. Go and read it, or go to, or simply Google Dexter Filkins and Iran, and it will come up in your browser. Dexter, thank you, look forward to talking to you again soon.

End of interview.


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