How Will the Quds Force Attempt to Fill the Loss of Soleimani in its Mission Areas?

Hadi Atay Coordinator, Security Studies

Aware that Soleimani is irreplaceable as a commander, Khamenei tries to form a new conception of command.

How will the regional role of Iran’s military-ideological organization be affected now that the number one figure in the Quds Force has been eliminated, and will the new appointments in the Quds Force decrease its operational capacity?

The Quds Force and the Factor of Soleimani

As one of the five forces comprising the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Quds Force, in the simplest terms, is responsible for extraterritorial military activities. It was created during the Iran-Iraq War for the purpose of conducting operations in Iraqi territory. The Quds Force commenced its operations by first supporting “the Shiites opposing the Baath” and then supported the dissident Kurdish entities located in the northern region of the country. Alongside these non-governmental actors, whom it defined as the axis of resistance and who were mostly Shiite and Arab; the force provided intelligence and logistical support to Shiite entities in Iran’s eastern hinterland who originated from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although the foundation of the Quds Force can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War, it was largely insignificant until 1997 when Qasem Soleimani was appointed as its commander at the time of the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan. Qasem Soleimani became a milestone figure for the Quds Force, in the fact that during war-time, he was among the few commanders who acted on the same ideology as the Supreme Leader Khamenei. A tangible example of this was the fact that as the commander of the Quds Force for 22 years, he was the only one who received Iran’s highest military honor, the Order of Zolfaghar, in the last 40 years. Therefore due to the weight of his special position in relation to Khamenei, Qasem Soleimani turned the Quds Force into a de facto independent force while it was supposed to be a part of the Joint Staff of the IRGC. Moreover, Soleimani conducted his strategic decisions directly in coordination with the Supreme Leader rather than through the structure of command within the IRGC.

It is possible to say, with respect to Qasem Soleimani’s influence in the regional politics, that through his personal efforts, he was, in effect, the main architect of the Islamic Republic’s Middle East security strategy. Therefore it is prominent to talk about the change he created in Iran’s regional politics by using his personal communicational capacity and fluent Arabic. This skill enabled him to continuously have unmediated talks with Iran’s allies, primarily the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad and the General Secretary of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. In combination with Soleimani’s personal charisma, this skill played a critical role in the increase of Iran’s political and operational power after the Arab Spring by connecting Iran’s allies to one another.

Alongside his determinant role in the relations of the Iran-Arab world, it must be remembered that Soleimani was also the de facto author of strategic relations between Iran and Russia, and indeed, he was highly esteemed as a capable and courageous general in the eyes of Putin and the Russian military elite. In a statement to news of Solemimani’s visit to Russia, Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior advisor to Khamenei in international affairs, noted that it was Soleimani who had been steering the ship during the storm of Iran’s Middle East contacts. Velayati had said: “In this war of Iran and Russia against the terrorists, during which the alliance between Iran and Russia has expanded, it is only natural that Soleimani meets with Russian authorities and works in coordination with them.” These words indicate the fact that the leader of the Quds Force was esteemed as a reputable key figure in Iran’s relations with its North.

The Quds Force under Soleimani’s command, had not only actualized the security strategies of the Islamic Republic, but also, by bypassing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, obtained the control of Iran’s embassies in the Middle East. Just as in the case of Iran’s current ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, who had been the chief advisor to the Major General Qasem Soleimani for years in the body of the Quds Force, Iran’s ambassadors to countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq have been former generals in the Quds Force. In this regard, Qasem Soleimani having full authority over the issues of military and security, held a position higher than the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif or his Senior Advisor, Velayeti.

Filling in for Soleimani and the New Model of Command

Considering that the Quds Force was shaped and expanded during Soleimani’s term, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the IRGC QF, would have to meet great difficulties in filling in for Soleimani and in sustaining Iran’s security, military and diplomatic activities in the Middle East. The difficulties to be met in the Quds Force stem from two main problems:

a- Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani does not possess the personal reputation of Soleimani, in his relation to Khamenei, and it will probably take time for Ghaani to establish special relations with him.

b- Although Ghaani has been in contact and collaboration with the delegation leaders and commanders of Iran’s allies, his main mission has been related to Iran’s East. Consequently it seems quite hard for Ghaani to re-establish and maintain the relations with the non-governmental actors supported by Iran, at a level comparable to that of Soleimani.

Being aware that Soleimani is irreplaceable as a commander, Khamenei is trying to form a new conception of command. In this regard, with the aim of making up for the above mentioned missing points, he appointed Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi as a deputy to Ghaani who had been responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Considering Hejazi’s military past, his supervision over Hezbollah’s missile program, his close relations with deep key figures in the status quo and the Office of the Supreme Leader, and finally the political path he has been following, it is apparent that Khamenei appointed him not as a deputy but an equivalent to Ghaani. Keeping this in mind, we can say that Hejazi will be, in effect, at the top rank in the chain of command in the Quds Force along with Ghaani through a conception of command with two axes.

Projected Administrative Problems and Their Solutions in the Countries where the Quds Force is Active
Country Mission Post-Soleimani Solution
Iraq Formation of governments with closer relations to Iran. Preservation of the power of Popular Mobilization Groups and the management of the relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. Since Mukteda es-Sadr has been unsuccessful in being a replacement for al-Muhandis, Lebanese Hezbollah has started an initiave under the auspices of Sheihk Muhammad al-Kawsarani, the Hezbollah representative in Iraq.
Syria Assuring Assad’s continuation by establishing allied force units with particularly the Damascus administration. In this post-Soleimani gap, the Syrian leadership of the “Axis of Resistance” will be transferred to Lebanese Hezbollah under the supervision of Hejazi and the control of Talal Hamiyah.
Lebanon Unconditionally supporting Hezbollah, and increasing the influence of this movement in the army, the cabinet and the general politics of the country. Considering the systematic and historical significance of the Iran-Hezbollah relations there will be observed a serious gap after Soleimani.
Yemen Assuring the continuation of the Houthi administration in Sanaa against the oppression of Saudi Arabia. Neither Ghaani nor Hejazi has any experience in this area. Therefore the issue in Yemen will be in the especially authorized hands of Abdolreza Shahlai who has experience in the region.
Gaza Strip Unconditionally supporting groups against Israel such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is probable that the shared administration of the Brigadier General Hejazi and the Brigadier General Ghaani will jointly make decisions in this front.
Afghanistan Supporting political or armed groups remaining close to Iran and increasing their influence within the state, as it has been so far. Since the Brigadier General Ghaani had formerly been focused primarily on Afghanistan, it is projected that the Quds Force will increase its activity in Afghanistan. Considering Iran’s failure in realizing its main  aim of disrupting the peace talks, the IRGC QF may deploy it’s Afghan militia brigades in  this theater.

 

Projection

  • The image and the decisiveness of the Quds Force in the eyes of Iran’s political and military elite had developed through the figure of Qasem Soleimani. Therefore it seems quite unlikely that a Quds Force without Soleimani could sustain its former influence in the administrative affairs of the IRGC.
     
  • Most likely in the near future, the Brigadier General Ghaani will attempt to strengthen his relations with the leaders of delegations in the region and to create an image of an active commander by going out on tour around the region. On the other hand, it is strongly possible to see that the leaders of delegations, covertly or not, arriving in Iran and having meetings with the new commander of the Quds Force, similar to the visits of the leaders of the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Mobilization Groups to Tehran after the appointment of Ghaani.
     
  • As has been observed in recent days, the loss of Soleimani and al-Muhandis has paralyzed the organization of the Quds Force. Although it is considerable that presence of commanders such as the Brigadier General Hassan Pelarek, the Brigadier General Hassan Qazimi, the Brigadier General Hassan Danaifer, Mohammad Jalalmaab and the Brigadier General İraj Masjedi who had field experience for a long time in Iraq, will partially make up for the absence of Soleimani, it does not seem possible that there be a substitution for al-Muhandis. Consequently, it is probable that the activity of the Quds Force in Iraq could be diminished.
     
  • Even though the new commanding team the Quds Force has obtained Khamenei’s special support and established political and operational relations with the delegations in the region, the greatest threat to the alliance between the commanders of the Quds Force and the delegations remains as the possibility of the USA targeting them in the case that tensions escalate.

Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, Brigadier General Ghaani, Brigadier General Hejazi

The Unveiling of the Revolutionary Guards' Secret Space Program

Hadi Atay

The IRGC's rocket capacity to reach an altitude of 425 kilometers and the satellite's military reconnaissance capabilities have geopolitical ramifications for the region.

IRGC Navy’s Harassment of U.S. Warships in the Northern Gulf: Intel Analysis

Hadi Atay

While such incidents have occurred sporadically in the past, they have largely ceased in recent months, and this incident comes at a time of heightened levels of tension between the two countries.