“[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. 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. And he just so happens to be the hardest-working spook on the planet.
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. 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.