As the highly visible commander of Iran's most elite special forces unit, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is the face of his nation's military, but the notorious leader's current condition is a mystery.
It is not disputed that Soleimani, who commands the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, was injured by shrapnel earlier this month while leading his men in Aleppo, Syria, where Iran and Russia are fighting on behalf of President Bashar Assad. The official line from Tehran is that he is recovering from "minor injuries," but critics of the regime in Tehran say the man whose battlefield exploits have made him the face of the Iranian military could be fighting for his life.
“[Soleimani] suffered severe shrapnel wounds, including in the head, while at Aleppo’s southern front two weeks ago,” read a report issued Sunday by the Iranian opposition MEK. “Due to the severity of his wounds, Soleimani was immediately airlifted by an IRGC helicopter to Damascus and, after receiving preliminary treatment, was transferred to Tehran. He is hospitalized at IRGC Baqiyatallah Hospital... So far, he has undergone at least two surgeries. Soleimani… is not allowed any visitors… The IRGC counterintelligence section has imposed a total blackout to prevent any leaks on the news of Soleimani’s wounding. The hospital personnel are under strict orders to refrain from answering any questions in this regard.”
"If he is alive and well, as the regime claims, it is easy for them to dispel the rumors by showing him at a public event."
- MEK, Iranian opposition group
The MEK cited a source inside the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and the report included detailed information of what the group claims is the truth behind Soleimani’s absence from public view since the explosion. The secrecy surrounding Soleimani's care could be the biggest clue that something is very wrong with the man voted "Man of the Year" in a national poll earlier this year. Were the nation's most-decorated warrior to be injured critically, or even mortally, in battle, it would be a massive blow to the morale of Iran's military -- and a huge boost to that of the Syrian opposition.
The MEK report claims Soleimani, leading his men alongside Hezbollah fighters, was in a vehicle that took a direct hit from the Free Syrian Army, the forces supported by the U.S. and other Western countries.
"We very much stand by the statement," Shahin Gobadi, MEK spokesman in Paris, told FoxNews.com. "We're very confident about the information we have. If he is alive and well, as the regime claims, it is easy for them to dispel the rumors by showing him at a public event. At the most recent meeting Ayatollah Khamanei had with the commanders of the IRGC this week, Soleimani was nowhere to be found. Every time there have been such events he has always been on the front row featured very prominently."
Official Iranian media outlets insist the 58-year-old military man, whose face-to-face meeting in July with Russian President Vladimir Putin foreshadowed Moscow's entry into the war, is well and recovering from minor injuries.
“The head of the IRGC’s Public Relations Office, Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif, said Maj. General Soleimani is alive and well,” Iran’s state-run Press TV reported last week. And on Monday, Iran's Tasnim News Agency reported interviewing the military leader a day earlier, saying he laughed that "his fervent wish to be martyred has not still come true."
The Tasnim report was accompanied by a picture alleged to be four months old, and did little to quell speculation about Soleimani's health.
Soleimani is not just a figurehead in Iran's military. He has been blamed for arming and coordinating Iraqi insurgents who fought U.S. soldiers and is the nation's top military strategist.
"Qassem Soleimani is the one who has been exporting malign[ant] activities throughout the Middle East for some time now," outgoing U.S. Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Fox News in August. "He's absolutely responsible for killing many Americans. In fact, I would say the last two years I was there the majority of our casualties came from his surrogates, not Sunni or Al Qaeda."
A month earlier, Soleimani, designated a terrorist by the U.S. in 2005 and who in October 2011was directly linked by the Treasury Department to a plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. at a Washington restaurant, was reported to have traveled to Moscow in breach of international sanctions for private discussions with Putin. Many regional observers believe that meeting sealed the deal for Russia to enter the war alongside Iran, Hezbollah and Assad's forces, an alliance that seems to have brought the Syrian regime back from the brink.
Throughout Iran’s controversial intervention in the war in Syria, Tehran has been reluctant to acknowledge battlefield losses even though Iran's proxy army Hezbollah has consistently sustained substantial numbers of casualties. But in recent weeks, official reports have emerged of notable numbers of Iranian casualties. The Washington Post on Saturday reported that Iran held funerals for 67 soldiers killed during the month of October alone.
The MEK told FoxNews.com they believe at least 3,000 IRGC soldiers have died so far and they have the names of 16 brigadier generals and senior officers killed during the campaign in Syria. The most prominent of the acknowledged casualties was Gen. Hossein Hamadani, Soleimani's deputy, killed last month in Aleppo, the very same city where the explosion that may have placed the major general's life in the balance took place.
Even Ayatollah Khamenei is now acknowledging the growing losses, paying his respects -- reported on his Twitter account -- at the home of the family of the Hamadani family.
"The Obama administration gambled that a nuclear deal would lead to a responsible Iran," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R- Calif., stated today as he announced a hearing on Wednesday to examine the brutal and destabilizing role of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"Instead, the regime is working harder than ever to export violence and terror to Syria, Yemen and beyond. Iran’s backing of Syria’s Assad regime has fed the rise of ISIS. Soon, sanctions will be lifted and the Iranian regime will hit a jackpot in the tens of billions. This money isn’t going to ordinary Iranians; it will be used to strengthen Iran’s murderous Revolutionary Guard Corps."