Qasem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian military commander who wields enormous influence in Iraq, returning from a visit to Syria and Iraq. (ISNA)

By Track Persia

December 21, 2019

To sustain Tehran’s activities, the Quds Force, the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) under leadership of Qasem Soleimani has provided international and regional proxy militants, in particular, those based in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, the Gulf Arab state, Palestine, in addition to al-Qaeda militants, with safe haven, terrorist training, funds, arms and ideological training.  Tehran considers these proxy militant groups as part of what it calls the ‘Axis of Resistance’. The main task of these groups is confronting Iran’s adversaries, such as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia and its allies, and to increase Iran’s regional influence.

The invasion of Iraq

The invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in 2003, provided Iran with first opportunity to establish a compliant Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Tehran viewed the invasion as an opportunity to pressure and subdue Iraq’s neighbours if it was to prevail against stronger powers.

The Quds Force created different domestic defence and external militant proxies in Iraq to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution and increase influence in this war-torn country. It successfully dominated Iraq’s state including Iraq’s security apparatus, providing its surrogates with more advanced weapons to target Iran’s adversaries in the country such as coalition troops and anti-government and ant-Iranian groups. It has also tasked these militant factions with regional conflicts such as fighting in Syria to support Asad’s regime.

Under Soleimani’s leadership, the Quds Force increased Iran’s influence in Iraq, in particular with the US forces’ withdrawal from the country in 2011.  Since then, Tehran has the upper hand in shaping Iraqi geopolitical, security and economic affairs.

The ongoing anti-government protests in Iraq pose a challenge to Iran’s strategic policy in Iraq to the extent they have compelled Soleimani to play a key role in suppressing them by directing Iran-backed Shiite militias’ leaders, such as Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq; Jamal Jaafar Mohammad al-Ibrahimi (otherwise known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or PMU) to aggressively crush the protests, killing hundreds of protesters and activists using Iran-made weapons.

The Arab Spring and Tehran’s regional policy

Tehran attempted to exploit the region-wide wave of political and economic disturbances, in particular with the outbreak of the Arab Spring unleashed in 2011. Tehran’s attempt was encouraged by the survival of the 2009 domestic uprising which is widely known as the Green Movement.

One of Tehran’s attractive target during the rise of the uprisings in some Arab countries was the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), given the large Shiite communities reside there.  Tehran hoped it could instigate the Shia in these Gulf countries against their governments. However, this attempt was not successful, given the Shia there are not sympathetic with Iranian Shiite theocracy whose rhetoric turned deeply hostile against their states.

That said, the eruption of the uprising in Syria in 2011 and the prospect of a collapse of Bashar al-Asad’s totalitarian regime prompted Tehran to interfere to save the dictatorship of al-Asad and the Syrian military and security forces which began to lose control over large swathes of Syria’s territories because they had been trained to fight only conventional wars.

Tehran was aware that the loss of the Asad’s regime would obstruct its support for the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian militants such as Hamas. Losing ally like al-Asad in Syria would also result in losing Tehran’s access to the Syrian borders with Israel, Tehran archenemy.

Quds Force’s international terrorist operations

Quds Force is widely accused of playing key role in terrorist operations regionally and internationally, such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Argentina. For example, among the terrorist operations that Quds Force is suspected of playing key role, are those in Beirut in 1983 and Khobar in 1996 which left hundreds of Americans dead or injured.

The 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires left 85 dead and hundreds wounded. However, the governments of these targeted countries and the international community did not respond well to deter future operations by Quds Force and their reaction was only limited to relatively modest economic sanctions. That, consequently, has encouraged Tehran to continue task Quds Force with plotting carrying out terrorist operations without fearing of consequences. The Quds Force is also accused of attempting to destabilise regional countries such as Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen and Syria.

Formation of Quds Force and the role of Qasem Soleimani

Iran’s IRGC was established on 22 April 1979 by late Iran’s Supreme Leader and founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after a systematic purge campaign targeting  Iran’s Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh) which Iran’s revolutionary leaders deeply distrusted and suspected its loyalty. Conversely, the Artesh accused the IRGC of lacking professionalism and attempting to steal its role.

The main goal of the formation of IRGC was not only to counterweight Artesh, but also to form as many as possible of revolutionary groups loyal to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the Iranian constitution, the IRGC’s task is to “support liberation movement and oppressed Muslims abroad”.

Domestically, the IRGC’s main target was eliminating monarchists, leftists and other elements opposing the new Islamic Republic and its ideology which is based on Wilayat al-faqih (velayat-e faqih in Persian ),the right of cleric to rule.

Having learned the lessons of the Iran-Iraq War and after having purged opposition elements, the IRGC became Iran’s dominant military organisation, despite the Artesh remained the traditional military force responsible of defending Iran’s lands. The IRGC’s loyalty to wilayat al-faqih made it close to Iran’s Supreme leaders and it gradually developed bureaucratic cohesion and became key political player.

Domestically, the IRGC was able to establish an economic power enabled to operate large independent commercial enterprises. These companies gained greater autonomy from civilian control and provided the country with vast web of commercial resources operating to reconstruct the war-damaged Iran.

To achieve its extraterritorial mission, of supporting revolutionary movements of ‘oppressed Muslims’, the IRGC relies upon its subordinate element, the Quds Force (Jerusalem Force, or Niru-ye Quds). The Quds Force was established in the first years of the Iran-Iraq War as an unconventional force consisted of intelligence and special units. During the early years of its formation, Quds Force focused on the war with Iraq and cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini praised the Quds Force in 1990 saying that its mission was to ‘establish popular Hezbollah cells all over the world’. The IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari illustrated the consistency of its assignment in 2016, claiming that ‘the mission of the Quds Force is extraterritorial, to help Islamic movements, expand the Islamic Revolution and to bolster the resistance and endurance of suffering people throughout the world and to people who need help in such countries as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq’.

The Quds created proxy partners abroad capable of raising the risk to adversaries without a cost to the Iranian forces. It adopted the strategy of operating internationally with a focus on Afghanistan, Africa, Asia, Central Asia, Iraq, Lebanon, Latin America and the Arabian Peninsula. To implement this strategy, the Quds Force established approximately 20 militant training camps in Iran, as well as outside Iran, in particular, in Lebanon and Sudan. Additionally, it created logistics elements capable of smuggling weapons shipments internationally.

Qasem Soleiman has played a key role in Quds Force’s operations.  His first role in the war with Iraq was to ensure the delivery of water to front-line soldiers. As the conflict was exhausting Iran’s cadre of officers, Soleimani was moved to a battlefield position despite lacking of military and formal education.

Soleimani’s early military career included the suppression of Kurdish uprisings along Iran’s northwest border with Iraq and participation in the Iran–Iraq War’s major battles. After the war, he was appointed the commander of an IRGC division tasked with suppressing unrest and narcotics trafficking along Iran’s eastern border. During the period of Tehran’s tensions with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, in particular, after the kidnapping of a number of Iranian diplomats, Soleimani was busy working on returning the kidnapped diplomats who were later killed. At the same time, Soleimani was working on maintaining the relationship between the Quds Force and the Lebanese Hezbollah and expanding the Quds Force’s activities in Lebanon and Sudan. In addition to Iraq, Soleimani has played a significant role in Syria war to bolster President Bashar Asad’s army against multinational insurgents.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.