BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the covert action wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, is stepping out of the shadows as a leading hard-liner, and as tension with the United States heats up, that's a really bad sign.
There is a school of thought among Iran-watchers that Tehran believes the United States and Israel, backed by Britain, are gearing up for a showdown with the Islamic Republic.
The Iranians, several seasoned analysts say, are getting ready for trouble as hard-line conservatives in the ruling elite demonstrated when they stormed and sacked the British Embassy in Tehran Nov. 29.
Some of the so-called students who swarmed over the embassy walls carried portraits of Suleimani, underlining his growing iconic status among the radicals, and more importantly in the Revolutionary Guard, one of the regime's most powerful institutions.
That indicated the "students" were probably members of the Quds Force and the paramilitary Basij organization, the regime's strong-arm force, which it controls.
Until recently, Suleimani was known as "the invisible general" because he worked from the shadows, conducting clandestine operations, including assassinations, against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His forces are also operating in Syria and Lebanon and fomenting trouble in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. administration says the al-Quds Force was behind the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Now he's taking a higher profile.
"Suleimani clearly has big ambitions," wrote international affairs specialist Julian Borger in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
"Suleimani and the Quds Force … are clearly seeking to expand their influence on events from the regional to the global stage and have none of the caution of their seniors in the Iranian theocracy."
The Iranians' mindset that a collision is just a matter of time stems, in part at least, from a hard-line policy speech given by U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon in Washington recently, says veteran analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar.
"Evidently, Donilon spoke for President Barack Obama, fully mindful of the criticality of an already supercharged Middle East situation," observed Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.
"We have enhanced our significant and enduring U.S. force presence in the region," Donilon declared.
"In addition, we have worked to develop a network of air and missile defenses, shared early warning, improved maritime security, closer counter-terrorism cooperation, expanded the programs to build partner capacity, and increased efforts to harden and protect our partners' critical infrastructure.
"The steps demonstrate unmistakably to Tehran that any attempt to dominate the region will be futile. And they show the United States is prepared for any contingency …
"President Obama has said as recently as last week, we are not taking any options off the table in pursuit of our basic objectives."
Bhadrakumar observed that "in the Iranian estimation, Obama is simply not interested in hearing Iran's narrative. His obsessive concern is his 2012 re-election bid."
The analyst, noting the "amazing degree of belligerence" in Donilon's speech, said Tehran believes the showdown "may take place within Obama's first term as president -- because it may well ensure the success of his bid for a second term."
The Nov. 12 explosion at a Revolutionary Guards ballistic missile base 30 miles west of Tehran, which killed the architect of Iran's strategic missile forces and, by one account, blew up 180 Shehab-3 missiles, appears to have galvanized the Iranians.
They insisted it was an accident and not the work of U.S. or Israeli agents widely believed to have been behind a chain of bombings at key nuclear and military facilities in recent years, plus the assassination of several nuclear scientists.
However, some reports have attributed the missile base blast and other recent attacks, on homegrown saboteurs, possibly with outside help.
These, the reports say, are veterans of the Green Movement who clashed with the regime over the hotly disputed 2009 presidential elections and who have evolved into a revolutionary group that's taking on the clerical regime.
"The problem for Western governments and their attempts to influence events in Tehran is that the rise of Suleimani and the Quds Force, and the radical and reckless approach they represent, could be a symptom of Iran's isolation and desperation, as well as a cause," Borger noted.
"Deepening Iran's predicament may only make them stronger."