Afterwards, General Qassem Suleimani embarked on a triumphant tour of front-line positions, receiving the kisses of grateful soldiers.
As usual, his uniform lacked any badges of rank or gold braid, for Gen Suleimani sees no need to advertise his status as Iran’s most celebrated military commander and the leader of the elite “Quds Force” of the Revolutionary Guard.
For months, this stocky 59-year-old, who shuns a general’s uniform for simple sand-coloured fatigues and a white “keffiyeh”, has been the hidden mastermind of Iraq’s counter-offensive against Isil.
His presence in Baghdad has often been the stuff of rumour, but last week Gen Suleimani stepped out of the shadows and – with a suitable show of modesty – basked in the acclaim of his troops. The occasion was a series of battlefield victories outside the city of Tikrit, which seems close to being recaptured from the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
Oddly enough, Gen Suleimani’s sudden appearance in Iraq had something to do with another high profile event on the other side of the world. In Washington last Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu stood before Congress and summoned all his authority as Israel’s prime minister to condemn an emerging agreement between America and Iran designed to tie down the latter’s nuclear programme.
What invisible thread joined these two implacable foes, the Iranian general and the Israeli leader? In brief, Mr Netanyahu fears that an impending nuclear deal will unleash Iran’s ambitions to subvert, influence and undermine a raft of countries across the Middle East – ambitions that are symbolised by Gen Suleimani, who serves as their human spearpoint.
Iran, for its part, wants to deliver an emphatic message: even if its diplomats compromise over the nuclear programme in the interests of ridding the country of sanctions, Gen Suleimani and his comrades will ensure that the Shia Islamic Republic remains a rising power, determined to reshape the entire Middle East in its own image. As the general himself told the official media in Tehran: “Today we see signs of the Islamic Revolution being exported throughout the region – from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa.”
And that is precisely what Mr Netanyahu and the Sunni rulers of the Gulf most fear. They believe that a nuclear deal between Iran and America would herald a fundamental change in the balance of power in the Middle East. In particular, they think that an agreement to settle the nuclear issue would implicitly convey American acceptance of Iran’s domination of swathes of the region.
Already, Iranian tentacles spread far and wide. In Lebanon, the Islamic Republic has more direct influence than any other foreign power, thanks to its umbilical relationship with Hizbollah, the radical Shia movement. In Syria, Gen Suleimani has quietly masterminded Bashar al-Assad’s struggle to stay in power, deploying thousands of troops from the Revolutionary Guard and Hizbollah. In Iraq, Gen Suleimani is commanding the struggle on the ground against Isil, reinforcing his country’s ironclad alliance with the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
And in Yemen, Shia rebels have taken over the capital, Sana’a, with the benefit of Iranian weapons and support. All this has led Iranian officials to boast that four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a – are under their de facto control.
If this could take place in the teeth of sanctions and Iran’s bitter rivalry with America, then what might happen if a nuclear deal sweeps away the embargo and brings the superpower’s enmity to an end?
“The nuclear issue is only a symptom of the real disease,” says Jonathan Eyal, the head of security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “The real issue is the balance of power in the region and Iran’s place in the Middle East. The Arab monarchies look at this in very binary and existential terms.”
For all their formal enmity with the “Zionist entity”, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf rulers now share Israel’s fears. All of them suspect that Iran will make tactical concessions over its nuclear programme in order to receive a free pass from America to stir yet more turmoil in the Middle East.
But are these concerns justified? The first question is whether a nuclear deal really is imminent. America negotiates with Iran on the nuclear issue as a member of the “P5 plus 1” – a contact group consisting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. All the parties have set a deadline of March 24 for a political agreement on the nuclear programme, with another three months to fill in technical details.
And the signs are that significant progress has indeed been made.
Once, years or even decades would pass without any formal contact between America and Iran. Last week alone, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, held three days of talks with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Afterwards, Mr Zarif said: “We are not far from knowing how that agreement will look.” He added: “We believe that we are very close.” Privately, diplomats who are part of the talks voice pleasant surprise over the progress towards settling the thorniest questions. In particular, Iran and America are understood to be close to agreeing a compromise over Tehran’s ability to enrich uranium.
This issue has been at the heart of the dispute for over a decade for the simple reason that enrichment technology could be used to make fuel for power stations – which Iran insists is the only goal – or the fissile core of a nuclear weapon. Under the likely compromise, Iran would get rid of enough centrifuges to ensure that its scientists would be a year away from enriching sufficient weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb.
Not good enough, say Mr Netanyahu and the Arab powers. They shiver at the thought of Iran being permanently 12 months away from the wherewithal for a nuclear bomb, particularly as the limitations on centrifuges would probably expire after a decade or so.
Yet the biggest outstanding issue – which could still derail an agreement – concerns the sanctions regime. Iran wants all sanctions to go the moment a deal is signed, something that would provide an instant bonanza of tens of billions of dollars of unfrozen assets.
America, meanwhile, insists on a staged relaxation of sanctions, conditional on Iran keeping its side of the bargain.
But whatever way you look at it, an agreement would eventually sweep away the sanctions and pour billions of dollars of extra oil revenues into Iran’s coffers. If money is power, then the Islamic Republic’s leaders will end up with a great deal more of both.
Privately, Arab diplomats say that President Barack Obama is concerned only about his legacy. He wants to bury the hatchet with Iran – and he will not have to think about the country again after he leaves the White House in January 2017. The countries of the region, meanwhile, will have to live alongside Iran for the rest of time.
But there are good reasons to believe that Israel and Saudi Arabia – those unlikely partners in fretting and worry – have fundamentally misjudged the situation. In particular, they wildly exaggerate Iran’s power.The Islamic Republic is in the throes of economic collapse, inflicted as much by incompetence and corruption as by sanctions.
Even if all the embargoes and restrictions were lifted tomorrow, experience suggests that Iran’s state-dominated economy would remain hobbled by the ineptitude of the country’s rulers.
Meanwhile, it is far from clear that Gen Suleimani’s adventures have done anything to serve Iran’s national interest. In Syria, he has cast countless lives – along with billions of dollars that Tehran can ill afford – into the bottomless pit represented by a flailing and bloodstained regime. By propping up President Assad, Gen Suleimani has prolonged Syria’s civil war and, with bitter irony, created the ideal conditions for Isil to thrive.
Today, the general’s men are fighting to suppress the very threat which their supposedly brilliant commander helped to conjure into being.
In Iraq, meanwhile, Gen Suleimani has thrown Iran’s weight behind the most virulently sectarian Shia militias, thereby helping to deepen the alienation of the Sunni minority and, once again, create the best possible conditions for Isil. This alleged military genius – the modest martial hero of state media portrayal – has, in reality, presided over a ruinous policy that has substantially increased the threat to Iran.
So the fears of a resurgent Iran are probably misconceived. But that matters little, for the reality is that they are genuine and deeply felt. And the sombre consequence is that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will probably respond to a nuclear agreement by escalating their own proxy wars against Iran, fought on the distant battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.