February 19, 2020
At an annual religious ceremony that the Supreme Leader holds every year, Ismail Qaani, the new commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force, was conspicuous in his absence.
These ceremonies, called Fatimiyya, are held to mourn the 632 A.D. martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima, and they last for four nights. All high-level officials of the Islamic Republic and senior military commanders attend these ceremonies on at least one of the four nights and, before he was killed in an American drone strike on January 3, General Ghasem Soleimani, former commander of the Quds Force, was always among them.
But this year General Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, was noticeably absent. As the successor to a successful commander, Qaani has many challenges ahead and his absence could mean that he is now on an undisclosed mission perhaps to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
In his statement when appointing Qaani to the post, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered Qaani to precisely follow all of Soleimani’s policies and plans. This is not an easy task even though, according to Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, a member of parliament’s National Security Committee, “Commander Qaani has been involved in all missions entrusted to the Quds Force. He has the experience, the management capabilities and the charisma required to carry out the Supreme Leader’s intention.”
Under General Soleimani, Qaani commanded armed forces supported by the Islamic Republic in Yemen, Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, Lebanon, Palestine and parts of Africa. Little was heard of Qaani’s role in the armed conflicts in Iraq or Syria because the Iranian commander in these theaters was initially General Hossein Hamedani and then Ghasem Soleimani himself. Hamedani was killed in October 2015 in Aleppo, Syria, after which Soleimani started to play a prominent role in Syria and Iraq. Now that Soleimani has been killed, we are going to hear more and more about Qaani’s role in places where the Islamic Republic is engaged in supporting and/or conducting military operations by its allies.
Qaani’s most important mission is to push US forces out the region, particularly from Afghanistan and Iraq; this is the same mission that Khamenei had entrusted to Soleimani. As Soleimani’s deputy commander of the Quds Force, Qaani failed to push American forces out of Afghanistan, the same way that Soleimani had failed to drive American forces out of Iraq. Now as the commander of the Quds Force, the Supreme Leader has given Qaani the task of threatening American interests in the region, especially in these two countries, and to try to at least force the US military out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But it still appears that Qaani is incapable of accomplishing this mission.
Limited Experience in Iraq and Syria
During the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq, Qaani gained some experience in extraterritorial warfare inside Iraqi territory. But in later years, he was assigned to Afghanistan and Yemen and, therefore, he lacks the necessary experience to to meet the challenges of realizing the goals of the Islamic Republic and its Quds Force in the new Iraq.
The first challenge that Qaani faces in Iraq is to build close relations with at least 50 Iraqi Shia militias [Persian link]. Soleimani played a prominent role in organizing these militias, but he failed to unify them. Qaani must now establish lines of communication with these groups, consolidate his position as the commander and, if successful, continue Soleimani’s efforts to unify them.
Implicitly confirming these challenges [Persian link], Mehdi Bakhtiari, a military analyst close to the Revolutionary Guards, says that because of their extraterritorial missions, members of the Quds Force “must have a diplomatic temperament and the emotional capacity to build emotional relationships with other people. Commander Soleimani had all these characteristics”. Admitting that Qaani is a different person, Bakhtiari was nevertheless confident that Qaani would carry out the general strategy of the Islamic Republic “even though, in practice, there might be tactical shortcomings and changes.”
The other challenge faced by Qaani is to coordinate and work with Soleimani’s command team – inherited when he took his new post. Iraj Majedi, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, who served with the Revolutionary Guards for 35 years, Brigadier General Ahmad Sabouri, deputy coordinator in the Quds Force, Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative to the Quds Force, Hassan Danaeifar, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2017, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, another former ambassador to Iraq, Mohammad Jalal Moab, the executive head of the Iraqi Holy Shrines Reconstruction Headquarters, Hassan Polarak, advisor to the commander of Quds Force and a member of the Force’s command council, are among those that Qaani urgently needs to carry out his plans in Iraq.
Last year, Soleimani appointed Hassan Polarak to the Quds Force’s Economic Committee to help it bypass US economic sanctions. According to official figures, there are now more than 100 commercial Iranian companies in Iraq and a number of them are tasked with bypassing sanctions under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards [Persian PDF].
It remains to be seen how successful General Qaani will be in his covert and overt activities in Iraq and whether he will be able to continue General Soleimani’s work.
In his first act as commander of the Quds Force, Qaani appointed Mohammad Hejazi as his deputy commander. The appointment shows that the Quds Force itself had no one else in its ranks that Qaani could consider to be qualified for this position and he was forced to choose Hejazi.
The “Shadow Commander”
In Iran, Qaani is known as an “operational intelligence” commander who likes to operate under the radar and has been nicknamed the “shadow commander” [Persian link].
“He does not like to be the center of attention, and neither did the Revolutionary Guards want to draw attention to him,” says Afshon Ostovar [Persian link], an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the American Naval Postgraduate School. Ostovar speculates that Soleimani’s celebrity status might have been a reason behind his assassination and that we should expect Qaani to become the real “shadow commander” in Iran.
Commodore Ali Fadavi, the Revolutionary Guards’ Deputy Coordinator, agrees [Persian link] that, with the appointment of Qaani, we must expect changes in how the Quds Force operates. “In the coming years, the Resistance Front [a term denoting allies of the Islamic Republic in the region] shall witness geographical and qualitative changes,” he said on January 4, after the appointment of Qaani.
These claims are being made at a time when Qaani faces significant challenges because he lacks Soleimani’s charisma and character, he has limited experience in Iraq and Syria and he has to deal with Soleimani’s experienced and established commanders in the Quds Force. He has a long way to go to consolidate his position within the Quds Force and other groups supported by the Islamic Republic in the region. So it remains an open question how successful he is going to be – compared to Soleimani.