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Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

The Shadow Commander, by Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker

Qassem Suleimani is the Iranian operative who has been reshaping the Middle East. Now he's directing Assad's war in Syria.

Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran's favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. "Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today," John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, "and no one's ever heard of him."

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images 

Jailed in Iran: The Story of ex-Marine Amir Hekmati, by Azmat Khan, Al Jazeera English

The story of Amir Hekmati, the Iranian-American and former Marine who has been imprisoned in Tehran for more than two years.

It was Amir's first trip to Iran, motivated, his family says, by a love of travel and a desire to see his aging grandmothers. That day, two weeks into his trip, Amir called up his mother Behnaz back in Flint, Mich., to tell her how excited he was to be in Tehran. He hung up promising to call again later to tell her how it went.

But Amir never showed up at the gathering.

The next day, worried family members went to the family home where he was staying and found muddy footprints but no sign of Amir.

"They find out that his computer, cell phone and all his IDs, wallet, everything was gone," said his mother, Behnaz.

That day would mark the beginning of more than two turbulent years for the Hekmati family. Within months of disappearing, an Iranian court would sentence Amir to death on charges of spying for the CIA. 

sabzphoto/flickr 

Why I Have Gone on Hunger Strike, by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the Guardian

In an open letter, the imprisoned Pussy Riot member explains why the brutal conditions at Penal Colony No. 14 have led her to undertake a hunger strike in protest.

Beginning Monday, 23 September, I am going on hunger strike. This is an extreme method, but I am convinced that it is my only way out of my current situation.

The penal colony administration refuses to hear me. But I, in turn, refuse to back down from my demands. I will not remain silent, resigned to watch as my fellow prisoners collapse under the strain of slavery-like conditions. I demand that the colony administration respect human rights; I demand that the Mordovia camp function in accordance with the law. I demand that we be treated like human beings, not slaves.

MAKSIM BLINOV/AFP/Getty Images 

Can a Gay, Catholic Leftist Actually Squelch Corruption in Sicily? by Marco De Martino, the New York Times

The Sicilian President aims to reform the excess and graft that define one of the world's most notoriously corrupt regions.

The financial crisis has been especially brutal in Sicily - which has been referred to as the "Greece of Italy" - a place where the debt has spiraled so far out of control that many fear it will bring the rest of Italy down with it. Even by Italian standards, Sicily has long been extreme in its waste and corruption. The government spent lavishly on companies and projects that had little or no purpose other than to guarantee votes and keep political parties in power. Directly or indirectly, the regional government that Crocetta oversees employs about 50,000 people, whose salaries total more than a billion euros a year. Past presidents were able to avoid the day of reckoning, but now the money has all but dried up. And according to a study by the European Commission, among 262 European regions examined, Sicily is 235th in terms of competitiveness.

Days after he took office last December - having been elected on the ballot of the political movement he co-founded, the Megaphone - Crocetta fired his predecessor's 21 press officers. He then took aim at about 250 of the trade schools after proving that some were operated by the chauffeurs of regional politicians. When he greeted me for the first time, he proudly announced that he had discovered even more waste: "The region looks after about 800 exotic birds," he said, "spending astronomical sums every year - as much as 500,000 euros. It's time to stop!"

MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images 

The Spies Inside Damascus, by Ronen Bergman, Foreign Policy

The Mossad's secret war on the Syrian WMD machine.

Under the guise of a routine working visit to Syria, and as part of the good military relations that had remained between Syria and Russia (with the Russians still maintaining intelligence bases in the Golan Heights and in northern Syria), Kuntsevich began forming personal links with the heads of the Syrian regime. He received huge amounts of money from them, and in turn, he supplied them with the know-how and some of the equipment, which he acquired in Europe, for the manufacture of VX weapons.

In 1998, the Mossad learned details of some of these transactions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried to warn the heads of the government in Moscow about the general's doings in meetings he held with them in 1999, but to no avail. It seemed as though Yeltsin could not, or would not, intervene. When the Israelis saw that their pressure was not working, Mossad agents in Europe were assigned to pose as independent researchers working on the background for a documentary film on gas warfare. They repeatedly contacted high-ranking officials in the Kremlin and the Russian army and said that according to their information, Kuntsevich was selling chemical warfare agents to Syria. The goal was to scare Moscow into believing that the information was about to be made public. Unfortunately, this didn't work either, and apart from a stern warning, nothing was done to curb the general.

On April 3, 2002, Kuntsevich died mysteriously while on a flight from Damascus to Moscow. Also mysterious is the inscription on his headstone in Moscow, which states his death date as March 29. Syrian intelligence is convinced that the Mossad was behind his demise. Israeli officials have not commented on such allegations

URIEL SINAI/Getty Images 

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