Meet The Iranian Commander Pulling Strings In Syria's War
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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The commander who's really directing President Assad's war in Syria is an Iranian, Major General Qasem Suleimani, according to an article in the current edition of the New Yorker by my guest Dexter Filkins. 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 describes him as the single-most powerful operative in the Middle East today. Filkins says Suleimani has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, working as a power broker and as a military force, killing 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. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime and for abetting terrorism. Dexter Filkins covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times. In 2009, he was part of a team of reporters who shared a Pulitzer for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. His book "The Forever War" won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So just as I'm thinking maybe there's going to be a breakthrough with Iran - maybe the country's moderating, maybe there's going to be talks between our country and Iran - you publish a story about the leader of the Quds Force and how it's supporting President Assad in Syria and how it's attacked or supported attacks on American interests in Iraq and other countries.
It's like there's two separate narratives going on right now. There's this moderating face, and then there's this story that you're writing about. So how do those two connect, if at all?
DEXTER FILKINS: Well, that's a great question. I mean, that's exactly what's happening right now. You have - I mean, it's happening - it's been happening for quite a long time, that kind of - the bloody narrative, if you will. The Quds Force - run by this guy that was writing about, Qasem Suleimani - have been incredibly aggressive over the years at pursuing not just their own interests, but in sort of challenging the United States, killing Americans, supporting groups that do all the things that you mentioned.
But what's so interesting about what's happening now is that, for many years, the hardliners in Iran have been basically unchallenged. They've cut - they've had the run of the place. And what's happened just, you know, in the last few months, and why everybody's pretty hopeful, is that you've got these kind of relatively moderate people coming to the fore.
Hassan Rouhani was elected president, kind of surprising everyone. And he - 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.
And so I think it's - I think it's a pretty good bet right now that, inside the Iranian government, there's a really intense fight going on over kind of, you know, the future of the country and the direction of the country and its foreign policy, the nuclear program, all this stuff. And these are not subtle questions.
GROSS: And your article is a great backstory for what Iran has been up to in the past few years, and how it's covertly worked against the United States.
FILKINS: It's incredible. I mean, I didn't know any of this when I started looking and started talking to people. And if you just, you know, make a short list of the things that I found out in my story, the Iranians were - and Qasem Suleimani, who is this extraordinarily powerful kind of, you know, man behind the mask, a 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 Rafic Hariri, the president of Lebanon, in 2005. Qasem 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 kind of asserting themselves in the Middle East, often at American expense.
GROSS: So, Suleimani is the head of Iran's Quds Force. What exactly is the force?
FILKINS: Well, it's interesting. There's no equivalent in the United States. If you had to make one, it would be the CIA and the Special Forces together. It's sort of traditional spies collecting information, running agents. And then it's guys who pull the trigger and go after people. And so they, you know, they do assassinations. They have kind of advisers, like Special Forces advisers.
I mean, there's thousands of them in Syria now, Iranian Quds Force advisers helping to prop up the Assad government. And then they have, you know, they have spies around the globe. So it's kind of a - it's a hybrid. I mean, if - but the American equivalent just doesn't exist.
GROSS: You describe the head of the Quds Force, Suleimani, as having a command post in Damascus, Syria, now, with a multinational array of officers, the heads of the Syrian military, a Hezbollah commander, a coordinator of the Iraqi Shiite militias. So give us a sense of what the Quds Force is actually doing in Syria now to support President Assad.
FILKINS: Well, 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 kind of hit the alarm bell.
And you can sort of watch the number of supply flights that were going in, Iranian supply flights, with troops, with ammunition, with money, with everything, just started increasing greatly. So instead of a couple times a week, you now have them kind of every day, all the time. And that's been sort of the decisive factor in solidifying and probably preventing the collapse of the Assad regime.
And so the Iranians are doing - and the Quds Force - are doing a whole array of things. I mean, they're down on the ground, so they have military advisers that are getting killed in the fight. I think they've lost at least 10 people so far. They had a general. A Quds Force general was killed in February.
And then you have a kind of - a whole lot of other things, like they're helping the Assad regime with intelligence. They're helping them with counterintelligence. They're bringing in weapons. They're bringing in ammunition. The Iranian government just gave the Assad government a $7 billion line of credit.
So I think - just to stand back one more time, I think what's extraordinary here is that the Iranian regime is doing this, putting out this extraordinary effort at the very same time that they themselves are under extreme stress, economic stress because of the Western sanctions that are in place to stop them, essentially, from developing a nuclear bomb.
And so, you know, they're embattled on their own, and they've decided, basically, no matter what it takes, no matter the pain, we're going to do this.
GROSS: So, why? What's in it for Iran to prop up Assad in Syria?
FILKINS: Well, I think, you know, that's not a simple answer, but I'll try to answer it concisely. I think Iran has - for the last 30 years, basically, ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq War - has decided that they needed, basically, to have friendly regimes around them. And those regimes which were not friendly, they would subvert, and friends that they could cultivate and develop, and they would expend resources to do that.
And so what you have is what they call the axis of resistance. And it's, essentially, if you have Iran - we're sort of moving from east to west - Iran. You could almost put Iraq in that. It's a Shiite-dominated government. It's very friendly to Iran. It's one of the ironies of the American intervention there. You have the Syrian regime, and then you have Hezbollah.
And Hezbollah is really kind of the key piece of this. You know, Hezbollah is this very strange kind of - another hybrid group. It's a political party, and it's also an army, and it's stronger than the Lebanese state. It's Shiite, like the majority of Iranians. And so if they lost Syria, if the Iranian regime lost Syria, it would be kind of a break in that chain, and it would be catastrophic, I think, for them.
They would lose Hezbollah, because Syria is essentially the supply line for Hezbollah. Hezbollah has - you know, it's extraordinary. They have something on the order of 50,000 missiles and rockets, and most of those are pointed at Israel. The last time they went to war in 2006, Israel and Hezbollah, you know, Lebanon was basically destroyed. And they didn't have - I think they had a 10th of that number of missiles now.
So this is very, very important to Iran, all of this. And Hezbollah is essentially an aircraft carrier parked off the coast of Israel. And they don't want to lose it. And if they lost Assad, I think the whole axis of resistance would - it's a good bet that it would collapse. And I think they know that, and I think one of the generals that's quoted in my story said if we lose Damascus, we can't hold Tehran. That's how important it is to them.
GROSS: The evidence seems to show that President Assad's regime is using chemical weapons against his own people. And, you know, Iran is supporting Syria. Syria is using chemical weapons. Iran was the victim of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. President Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran.
And Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, fought in that war. He knew so many soldiers - or, you know, military men - who were either killed or injured by those chemical weapons, and probably a lot of civilians, too. So where does he stand on Assad's use of chemical weapons?
FILKINS: This is a really fascinating question. You're exactly right. The Syrian regime, of course, I think, 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 was remarkable. And I think...
GROSS: How did they try to stop him from doing it?
FILKINS: Well, there's one incident that I was told about last December. It's extraordinary. It was before this - you know, the dozen or 14 or however many attacks there have been. It was before the first chemical weapons attack. In December, the Assad regime, I think 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. I was told this by a number of American officials. The Americans reached out to the Russians. The Russians reached out to the Iranians - I believe Qasem Suleimani - who reached out to Assad, who said, you know, put them away. And they did, at the time.
And I think the reasons for that are, I think, along the lines you mentioned, but also for other reasons. I mean, one is is that the Iranians, as you say, they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of chemical weapons. They - somebody said to me when I was reporting my piece, you know, this is 30 years later, and you have thousands of former soldiers who are still suffering from the effects of poison gas.
But I think at the same time - I mean, on 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.
And so I think their fear has been if you use chemical weapons, it's going to bring in the United States. And, of course, that appeared to be happening for a while. It's - you know, now we're kind of in this very complicated kind of waiting period to see if Assad, you know, complies and gives up his weapons and all that. So I think the reasons are complex on this, but I think the Iranians are opposed to the use of chemical weapons.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. His article about the leader of Iran's Quds Force is in the current edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Dexter Filkins. He covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times. He's now a staff writer for the New Yorker. He has an article in the current issue of the magazine about Qasem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Force, which Filkins describes as being like a combination of the CIA and the Special Forces.
So you have two top leaders in Iran now. You have the relatively moderate new President Rouhani, and then you have the supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, who everybody says is like the real leader of Iran. So if you look at those two, where does Suleimani fit in? Who does he have the stronger relationship with?
FILKINS: I think this is really one of the essential questions right now, I mean, particularly as, you know, the United States is trying, or, you know, dancing, doing this kind of very complicated dance with Iran over its nuclear program. Essentially, both Rouhani, the - Hassan Rouhani, the recently elected president - and Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, they're basically competing for the ear and for the attention of the supreme leader.
It's - and I think that's - you know, the supreme leader is essentially a referee in this extremely complicated, very opaque system that governs Iran. And so, essentially, I think, right now inside the Iranian government, there's basically a struggle now between the hardliners - and I think Suleimani is very much a hardliner - and they want to keep going. They want to hold onto Syria. They want to hold onto the nuclear program. They don't want to give this stuff up.
And I think Rouhani, who appears to be more flexible, and he appears to have - for the moment, he appears to have at least some backing of the supreme leader. So I think they're - I think these two men are struggling for his attention, you know. I think they - they want to prevail on him, on the supreme leader, to rule in their favor. And I think we're kind of in the middle of that right now.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about General Suleimani's attitude toward the U.S. and what he's done to attack U.S. interests?
FILKINS: It's pretty amazing. I think if you want to understand the - Qasem Suleimani's vision of the outside world - and for that matter, probably most of the hardliners in Iran - the way they see the world, I think you have to go back to the Iran-Iraq war, which was this, you know, horrendously bloody - one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century, 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 versus Iran. And they see, if you ask them, they see the gas attacks, and those terrible, terrible moments in that war, as being facilitated by the United States and Europe. And there's some evidence to - I think the evidence is pretty conclusive that, you know, the United States knew about Saddam's preparations to attack Iran.
And remember, this was right after the gigantic Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis and all that. And so Iran, at the time, was just in turmoil. The Americans knew the preparations. And I think it's also pretty clear that they provided targeting information for the Iraqi military when it used poison gas. And I think it's also - I think the evidence is pretty conclusive that Iraq, in building its chemical weapons arsenal, got help from certain European countries.
But, I mean, 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 - I think it's fair to say that's the way Qasem Suleimani sees the United States.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about some of the things he's done to attack U.S. interests. One of those things is after it looked like America was behind, in part, the cyber-attack on the - cyber-attacks on the Iranian nuclear program, he launched some retaliatory attacks. What were those attacks?
FILKINS: Well, it's pretty amazing. If you - nobody admits to any of this. So, on the record off the record. So what you have to do - or there are only pieces of it. So it's useful to look at the timeline here. Essentially, around 2010, you had - a number of things began occurring inside Iran that were pretty clearly the result of, say, Western, American, Israeli efforts to either stop or slow down the Iranian nuclear program.
You had nuclear scientists being killed. You had the big Stuxnet computer virus, pretty sophisticated virus that, you know, caused great damage to some of their centrifuges. Pretty much right after those attacks began, pretty much at the same time, the Iranians - and it looks like in coordination with Hezbollah - decided basically to kind of step up a campaign, basically a terrorist campaign against the United States and Israeli targets around the globe.
So you have something like - you have something like 24 attacks over the past three years all over the place - I mean, Tbilisi, Georgia, Nigeria, Thailand, New Delhi. The most spectacular of these was - it was a plot that was broken up, but it was an attack - it was a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington.
And the only reason this was discovered and the only way that it was foiled, is that one of the Quds Force guys - or one of the Iranians who was drafted by the Quds Force guys, he contacted a Mexican drug cartel member and said, you know, can you help me do this? Can you help me blow up the Saudi ambassador in this cafe in Washington?
And it turned out he was an informer to the DEA. And so they - but they broke the plot up. But, yeah. So, since 2010, the Iranians have been very, very aggressive in kind of launching these retaliatory strikes, because they see - and I think they see correctly - that their nuclear program is under attack.
GROSS: Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. His article about Qasem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Force, is in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dexter Filkins. We're talking about his article in the current issue of The New Yorker called "The Shadow Commander," about Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds force, which Filkins describes as a combination of the CIA and the Special Forces. Filkins says Suleimani's mission is to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, killing rivals and arming allies. He's helping direct Assad's war in Syria.
When we left off, we were talking about attacks Suleimani's launched against American interests in retaliation against America's alleged cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear program.
Another example of how Iran is working against American interests is Iraq, where, you know, Iran has, you know, funded militias that attacked American interest during the war and they're still working against American interests in Iraq now. But one of the fascinating things about your piece is you write about the early days of the war in Iraq and how Iran and America actually had like covert deals working on the same side.
FILKINS: Well, actually, the cooperation between the United States and Iran, which was extensive, began right after 9/11. And it's amazing. It's an amazing story and it's a chunk my piece. It's kind of a chapter in my piece. Absolutely amazing. So right after 9/11, and days after 9/11, before the war in Afghanistan began, an American diplomat named Ryan Crocker, who is one of the most experienced and very sophisticated and capable diplomats that America has, flew to Geneva to meet with a number of Iranian diplomats. And they were eager to cooperate and to help the United States destroy the Taliban - which they, for various reasons, they detest and loath. And they did and there's an extraordinary moment where Ryan Crocker, the diplomat meeting with these Iranian diplomats, one of them puts a map on the table of Afghanistan. He says, look, this is the disposition of all the Taliban military positions and when - if it were up to us, we'd hit them here, we'd hit them here and we'd hit them there.
And Crocker said to them - he was stunned, of course, and he said, do you mind if I take notes? And they said, you know, you can keep the map. And so that continued. There was a lot of cooperation between the Iranians and the Americans in the early days after 9/11. And you know, if you remember from that time, the Afghan war in the early days, you had a lot of al-Qaida people that were fleeing into Iran. There was some cooperation, the Iranians turned over some al-Qaida guys to the United States. So there was a lot of cooperation. And then this very dramatic moment, January 2002, so the war at this point is, you know, five months old or so, four months old. Crocker is - Ryan Crocker is - he's awoken in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, where he is in the embassy at the time, and he is told that President Bush has just given a speech in which he has named Iran as a member of something called the Axis of Evil. And Crocker told me, he said, you know, none of us had any idea that this was happening. And so, you know, the next day, a couple days later, he saw his Iranian counterparts. After months of cooperation and getting along and, you know, and they were furious. And they said you totally screwed us. You know, we trusted you. We took great political risk to, you know, we stuck our necks out and said let's try to cooperate with the United States. A lot of people back in Tehran didn't want to do this and you've completely damaged us. We feel betrayed.
And they didn't quite end the talks but they effectively ended. I mean they kind of carried on but the negotiating team was changed. Basically, everything kind of collapsed after that. Amazing moment.
GROSS: Nevertheless, at the very start, in the very early days of the war in Iraq, another relationship formed, a covert cooperative relationship between Iran and the U.S. Iran hated Saddam Hussein because Saddam Hussein had fought a long war against Iran. Saddam Hussein gassed the Iranians. So what did Iran do to cooperate with the U.S. in those early days of the Iraq war?
FILKINS: Yeah. It's another, another amazing moment, which I think is largely unknown. I certainly didn't know anything about it. But yes, so if you remember, March 2003, the United States is invading - the United States is invading Iraq to take down Saddam Hussein. There's 165,000 troops in Iraq. We've just taken, you know, a year and a half before we just took down the Taliban, which is on Iran's eastern border. And so I think the first, the initial reaction of the Iranian regime was fear that they were next. And they were happy, of course, that the United States was going to take down their arch enemy, Saddam Hussein. But they were terrified that we were going to keep going. And so one of the, it's a former CIA official said to me that in the beginning of the war, as the American Special Forces were kind of the first units that were going into the country, the Iranians were sending guys over the border with notes saying we want to cooperate. No problem. We don't want any problem at all, you know, everything is on the up and up. They were terrified.
And I think, and then right in the beginning of the occupation, Saddam was taken down in April 2003, and then for the next three or four months, you had this American effort to form a kind of Iraqi government, and it was called the Iraqi Governing Council. And it was an American occupation, but you had these, this kind of panel of Iraqis who were kind of empowered to run things. And it was a very complicated process to put this panel together, with Shiites and Kurds and Sunnis and all that. And apparently, according to Ryan Crocker, the American diplomat, who was at this time was in Baghdad, the composition of this, of the Iraqi government, was essentially the product of a joint negotiation - secret negotiation - between the Americans and Qassem Suleimani in Iran. And so I think, I can't speak for Ambassador Crocker, but I think his feeling was, look, Iran is very pragmatic. Iran is on the border. It's a big country. They can cause a lot of problems for us and this is going to be a very difficult endeavor. And so let's try to cooperate with them. We have a common interest here. Let's see what we can do together.
And so they together, they kind of - and they used intermediaries - Iraqi politicians who were traveling to Iran - to basically vet the candidates. So it's an amazing story. So one of, you know, one of the great hardliners in Iran - and he still is, he's the face of the hardliners, Qassem Suleimani, was more than happy to engage in negotiations with the United States.
GROSS: But not long after, Suleimani starts a campaign of sabotage against the United States. What changed?
FILKINS: I think what changed is - again, it's fascinating. I think what changed is that the fear went away. And the Americans took down the Taliban and, you know, 16 months later they rolled into Baghdad and they took down Saddam and I think the Iranians regime thought they were next. Then the occupation in Iraq turned into chaos; the Americans were overwhelmed, and I think the Iranians correctly perceived that they were not going to be invaded by the United States anytime soon, and so they turned. And they concluded that this is a great opportunity to bleed our arch-enemy and to make them hurt and suffer. And they did. And I think, again, this is one of the great little-known stories of the Iraq war, is that, you know, we were at war in Iraq, but it's absolutely clear that we were also at war with the Iranians - or at the very least they were at war with us. And it's just amazing when you look at how extensive and how aggressive the involvement of the Iranians was. And they funded these militias that - and they set up very sophisticated bomb factories, particularly a very particular sort of bomb called an EFP - an Explosively Formed Penetrator, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.
And so in an interview I asked an American general, I mean - and he sort of, you know, he, this is a story he knows very well. And he said, you know, the Iranians, they killed hundreds of Americans. And I think most people don't know that. And this went on right until the end, right until the Americans finally left in 2011. And there were very intense debates in the White House, I think in the Obama White House as well as the Bush White House, to go across into Iran to take out some of these bomb factories, to attack some of these training centers for the militias, to do something, basically. They decided always in the and not to do it. But we were basically at war with Iran for eight years.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. His article about the leader of Iran's Quds forces in the current issue of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Dexter Filkins. In the current issue of The New Yorker, he writes about Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds force, which Filkins compares to a combination of the CIA and the Special Forces. The Quds force kills rivals, arms allies and directed a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq during the war.
So another way that we can see Suleimani's influence in Iraq is in the leadership of Iraq. And the leaders he wanted and that Iran wanted are the leaders, as opposed to the leaders that the Americans wanted in Iraq. So can you give us an example of that?
FILKINS: Yeah. It's pretty amazing. It's a pretty amazing story. If you go back to 2010, there were still nearly 100,000 American troops in Iraq. And we were preparing to leave but the composition of this Iraqi government would be very important, because we wanted to leave in an orderly way and we wanted to leave several thousand troops in the country to kind of maintain our influence there. And so there was a nationwide parliamentary election in 2010, it was in March, and there was a total deadlock. The Iraqis couldn't pick a prime minister. And essentially it was a deadlock between a couple of the main parties. One was Nouri al-Maliki, who had been prime minister before, and then Ayad Allawi, who was a kind of pro-American secular leader who had also been prime minister before. And it was completely deadlocked. It went on for nine months. And what happened and the story of what happened is extraordinary.
Nouri al-Maliki became the prime minister of Iraq, he is the prime minister today. And that deal to make him prime minister was not made in Baghdad, it was not made by the Americans. It wasn't made even, really, by the Iraqis. It was made by Qassem Suleimani in his office in Tehran. And I've had this meeting described to me - I mean there were several meetings, but there was one kind of very decisive one at the end. And Suleimani, who through the course of the war, exercised enormous political influence over Iraqi politics. He brought in the Iraqi - the main Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish leaders and he basically brokered the deal in his office.
And he sat down one main condition for them. And he said I want - the main condition here as you all shake hands on this deal is that there will be no American troops left in Iraq after 2011. And that is, of course, exactly what happened. The Americans went down to zero. And there's a lot of ways to kind of interpret that, you know, the Americans wanted to leave anyway and it wasn't clear. But Suleimani got what he wanted. He got the government that he wanted and he got the Americans out.
GROSS: So meanwhile, now Iran is using Iraq to help support the Assad regime. How are they doing that?
FILKINS: It's amazing. I mean it's amazing when you think that, you know, the United States was at war in Iraq for 10 years. And now, you know, two years after the last American left there - not even two years - Iraq is essentially the linchpin in propping up Assad - the Assad regime in Syria. And it's basically being done a whole different, a whole bunch of different ways. But the main way is that the Iraqis are allowing this ceaseless procession of Iranian transport planes to fly - to overfly their territory and into Damascus.
And it's not really clear that Maliki, you know, who ostensibly is an American ally, but it's not really clear how enthusiastic he is about allowing the Iranians to do this, but he is. The Iranians have gone to him. They have tried to open an overland route across Iraq and into Syria to supply their friends in Damascus. And they've leaned on him very hard to allow these overflights to carry on, and Maliki has done that. And so again, it's one of these great historical ironies that it turns out that Iraq is actually the pivotal country in helping the Iranians to sustain the Assad regime.
GROSS: And just to rub it in a little bit more, Iraq is also helping Iran survive the sanctions.
FILKINS: Yes. Again, another, you know, little known but remarkable story. You know, the sanctions are really hurting the Iranian regime. And if you, any number of people that you talk to will say the reason why we're seeing the moderation now from the Iranian regime, the reason why we're seeing Rouhani, Hassan Rouhani, at the U.N. and the reason why we're seeing this kind of diplomatic offensive by them is because of the pain that they're suffering from the Western sanctions. And I think that pain is real. I think it's decimated the Iranian middle class. It's really, really hurt them.
And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to conclude that that's conditioned some of the behavior of the Iranian regime. But I think what isn't as widely known is that the Maliki government is doing any number of things to help the Iranians evade those sanctions and basically to get them currency. And one is through various ways of oil smuggling, or they set aside Iraqi oil and they give the revenues to the Iranians.
Or there's a lot of gasoline smuggling that goes on. And other ways that the Iraqi banks are essentially - have been made available for the Iranians to buy and sell currency at a pretty substantial profit. They're very covert means but in the end hundreds of millions of dollars a year, possibly more, to help the Iranian regime evade the sanctions.
GROSS: My head is spinning hearing about all these like...
FILKINS: Mine too.
GROSS: ...cover agreements. You know, you read in the newspaper, you think you know something, and then you find out that there's a whole kind of secret history. You covered the war in Iraq for the New York Times. You won awards for your coverage. Like you were one of the most informed people in the world about what was going on there, and now you've just learned all this stuff that you didn't know.
So how does it change the story of that war in your mind? Or the story of that region in your mind?
FILKINS: Well, it's completely true though. I mean this is the Middle East. You think you know something and then it just spins off into infinity or just dissolves into the shadows. So what you thought you knew is suddenly something else a few seconds later. I was actually - I was having this long conversation in Bagdad with a Western - unnamed Western ambassador who was kind of laying out some very tangled history for me, and I was kind of stupefied.
You know, I was drinking my tea and scratching my head and he looked at me and he said, hey, you know, he said welcome to the Middle East. It's always turning and it's like that for everybody. I mean even, you know, I've been going there for years and it never changes. But to answer your question about what does this say about what's happened there in the past 10 years, I think, you know, the United States invaded Iraq and we spent, you know, a trillion dollars and many, many lives and many wounded to try to, you know, first to take down the regime and then essentially try to install a kind of democratic government. But frankly, I think what came out of that is basically a government which is beholden to the Iranians and it's essentially a pro-Iranian regime.
We have very little influence there. We certainly don't have - we don't have any troops there anymore. And so that's how it turned out, I think, and that's not a happy story. But I - and it's a little bracing, but I think that's the truth.
GROSS: Why are you writing about this story now, this story of Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds force and along with that you're writing about all these covert deals and covert attacks that the, you know, the Quds force and Suleimani are behind? Are people starting to, like, leak information about that now? What's going on?
FILKINS: No. I think the reason why I chose the moment to write about this now is because what's happening in Iran right now is really extraordinary and I think it's a decisive moment in modern Iran. We don't know what's going to happen. But essentially there's two really enormous things that are happening inside Iran right now. One is the diplomacy over its nuclear weapons program.
The Iranians have and are very determined to build a nuclear weapon. I think the evidence of that is overwhelming. And the West has been trying very, very hard, and I think has been very, very effective in some ways, at either slowing down that program and stopping it. And they're causing such, I think, pain on the Iranian society and the Iranian regime that they may be forcing them to change their behavior. We don't know yet.
And we won't know for some time, I think. And that's - I think that's a pivotal moment. And I think the other one is Syria. Syria is in - it's a very - you know, it's a powerful - it's an Iranian ally. It's in the middle of the Middle East and it's coming apart. And, in fact, you could say there's a sectarian divide that runs basically from the Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean and the whole Middle East is cracking up along that fissure.
We don't know how that's going to turn out either. And so both of these things, I think, which will greatly determine the future shape of the Middle East for good or bad, are hanging in the balance. And I think that that's why I wanted to take a look and kind of get a sense of the true nature of the Iranian regime.
GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. His article about the leader of Iran's Quds force is in the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is journalist Dexter Filkins. In the current issue of the New Yorker, he writes about Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds force, which Filkins compares to a combination of the CIA and the Special Forces. The Quds force kills rivals, arms allies, and directed a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq during the war. But Suleimani cooperated with Americans in the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the things I take away from your article about Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds force, is that there are leaders in Iran who are practical enough to work with the United States covertly, or perhaps now overtly, on issues where our interests and their interests coincide. But that doesn't mean that they like the United States or they want to be friends or allies with the United States, and there are issues where interests coincide and issues where they most certainly don't.
You know, in Iraq the Iranians hated Saddam Hussein, so we had a common interest there. They hated the Taliban, so we had a common interest there. Where do our interests collide and coincide right now?
FILKINS: That's a tough one. They may not. 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. And so, you know, can we make a deal on that? I'm skeptical. I mentioned this before, but I think, you know, the Iranians have been extremely patient in the way that they've pursued their nuclear program, particularly over the past decade.
There aren't any sort of fixed time tables about when they have to get it done and they are willing to proceed at a very deliberate pace as long as they're still moving forward. And I think - and again, it's impossible to divine their motives or even their objectives, but I think what's troubling to me is that where they appear to be heading is this, and I think this is troubling to a lot of people that watch the nuclear program.
The Iranians are not going to get the capability, build the bomb, and then wheel it out of the garage and have a press conference. They're not going to do that. And they're not going to - I don't think - they're not going to build a bomb and try to hide it somewhere. What they may possibly do, and I think it's a pretty good bet this is what they want to do, is essentially have the capability to build a bomb very quickly.
Which is sort of otherwise known as - there's different terms but kind of a breakout capability, or I think what some people refer to as a latent capability. And that is you flick the switch and you could build a bomb in six weeks. Is the West and is the United States or even Israel going to be willing to go to war with Iran to stop them from having a latent capability to build a nuclear weapon?
I don't - maybe. But I'll tell you, there are a lot of people who don't think they will. And I think that's what the Iranians are essentially betting on, that they can acquire the latent capability, that they can be six weeks or two months away from building a bomb, and no one will be willing to stop them at that point as long as they don't - as long as they don't build the bomb itself we won't act. That's my sense of what they want.
And, you know, again, this is a very tricky business, reading the tea leaves there.
GROSS: So one more thing. So much of your piece is about General Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds force. Have you ever met him? And if not, what's the closest you've come?
FILKINS: That's a good question. I have not met him and I tried to meet him and I know a lot of people who know him. And I asked them in the course of reporting the story to carry a message to him and ask him for an interview. I have not heard back yet. However, I just got an email this morning - I went to Iran in 2005 in an amazing trip. It was just absolutely extraordinary. I was in Tehran for four days.
I drove across Iraq to the Iranian border. I flew into Tehran. I met Ahmadinejad, the president then, and I met the head of the National Security Council, Ali Larijani. It was an amazing trip. And I was shocked at the time that I got in. I was shocked that I got a visa. To this day, or at least until this morning, I had no idea how I ever got in.
And somebody sent me an email today who at the time had been instrumental in my getting into Iran. And he said, did you know that Qassem Suleimani personally approved your visa? He knows you.
GROSS: He knows you?
FILKINS: He knows me. So I'm very pleased to say. So - and then somebody else - there's an Iranian who's written pretty extensively about Qassem Suleimani, and you know, there's a chunk in my piece where American officials were sending messages to Suleimani and he was sending them back, sometimes in text messages, which sometimes were funny and sometimes they were indignant but, you know, they were communicating with him.
And this Iranian researcher said to me, I got a text message from him before and maybe you will get one too. That's how he operates.
GROSS: Have you gotten your text yet?
FILKINS: So I'm waiting.
FILKINS: I haven't gotten it yet. I just checked my phone.
GROSS: Keep checking. Yeah.
GROSS: OK. Dexter Filkins, thank you so much for talking with us.
FILKINS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: It's always great to have you on the show. Thank you again. Dexter Filkins' article about the leader of Iran's Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, is in the current issue of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. You can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.