By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Qassem Soleimani, a top military commander in Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is a wanted man.
For years, he's been linked to support for terrorism, covert operations, arms smuggling, and other efforts aimed at expanding Iran's influence abroad and undermining that of its enemies.
Since 2007, he's been formally labeled a supporter of terrorism by the United States. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Soleimani for his alleged role in an assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
In fact, what he really is, according to an unusual interview with his younger brother, is misunderstood.
"He's a serious person, but very kind and emotional," said Sohrab Soleimani in an interview published on August 23 with the Fars news agency, a Persian-language news outlet affiliated with the powerful IRGC.
"Those who don't know him well can't believe what kind of personality he has," he was quoted as saying.
The interview comes at a critical time for Iran's role and influence in the region. The landmark deal reached last month aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions is poised to lift crippling sanctions and open up Iran's rusting economy to global investment and world markets.
Meanwhile, chaotic wars in Syria -- Iran's closest ally -- and in Yemen continue as proxy battlefields between Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and forces backed by Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran's deepest rival.
Soleimani has been hit by a United Nations travel ban over his alleged role in Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The UN sanctions against him will be lifted as part of the nuclear deal, although he will remain on the U.S. blacklist. Earlier this month, Washington expressed concern over reports that Soleimani had visited Moscow in late July. Russia denied the reports.
Widely picked up by Iranian news sites, the Fars interview appeared to be part of Iran's efforts to boost Soleimani's profile and portray him as a selfless national hero who plays an instrumental role in the volatile Middle East.
"Haj Soleimani has been born in our family, but he doesn't belong to us, he belongs to the country and to the Shi'a," Sohrab Soleimani said, referring to his brother by the honorific to describe him as devout.
Fars said it conducted the interview with Sohrab Soleimani, who heads the Prisons Organization of Tehran Province, because the private life of his brother is of great interest to "many people, particularly to Iran's youth."
Major General Qassem Soleimani, accused of helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power and arming Shi'ite militia in Iraq, used to be a man in the shadows. The unit he commands, the Quds Force, was formed during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and is now believed to conduct clandestine paramilitary operations throughout the region.
In recent months, he's become a celebrity, with numerous photos of his appearances on the battlefield against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq popping up on social media and news blogs. Pictures of the bearded Soleimani at funerals held for Iranian fighters killed in Syria and Iraq have also been circulating on the Internet.
Iranian officials have suggested that Soleimani does not enjoy being in the spotlight but that his growing popularity has prompted media and others to publish the photos.
In January, more than 200 Iranian lawmakers praised Soleimani and his Quds Force for playing a "determining role" in what they described as defending Muslims and regional security, and also fighting terrorist groups, namely "the criminal and evil [Islamic State group]."
Meanwhile, hard-line Iranian officials have paid tribute to the 58-year-old Qassem Soleimani through songs, social media posts, and documentaries amid rumors that he could enter politics.
Video by Fars News Agency: Iran "Shadow General " Qasem Soleimani
A look in to foreign media at the knights of the Middle East
In the Fars interview, Sohrab Soleimani recalled a meeting between a former regional governor and his father, who is a farmer from the same region. "[The former governor] told my father, 'Do you know how famous your son is and how much the 'arrogance' fears him?'" Sohrab said, using a term hard-line Iranian officials use to describe the United States.
Soleimani said his father responded, "They're afraid of Islam, not of my son."
Soleimani also said his older brother had always made sure that his close relatives did not take the wrong path in life. "As the head of the Quds Force, he has little time to devote to his own life, yet his attention for his [family and friends] has not diminished," he said.
The two brothers fought together during the war with Iraq when Qassem Soleimani was in charge of the IRGC's Sarallah Division. "Haj Qassem has a [belt] in karate, he used to work as a fitness coach in a bodybuilding club," he said.
Qassem Soleimani joined the IRGC following the 1979 revolution that ended the rule of Iran's U.S.-backed shah. After leaving the Sarallah Division of the IRGC, he became commander of the Quds Force following an order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom Soleimani is said to be deeply loyal.
Sohrab Soleimani suggested that the IRGC was currently concerned about the safety of his influential brother. "My brother is strongly opposed to bodyguards, his safety is probably now causing concerns for the commander of the IRGC," he said.
In the interview, Sohrab Soleimani also spoke about his brother's "love" for children of the martyrs, a term used in Iran to describe soldiers and IRGC members killed in the war with Iraq and also those killed more recently in the fighting in Syria and Iraq.
"He loves the children of the martyrs so much that sometimes his own children become jealous. He has very close ties to the martyrs' children. And he doesn't care to which faction the martyrs belong," he said.
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