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Amir Ali Hajizadeh: Iran's drone mastermind known as 'the new Soleimani'

General Amir Ali Hajizadeh has been accused by Israel of various attacks across the Middle East. Could he be the man to take up Soleimani's mantle?
The Head of the Revolutionary Guard's Aerospace Division Amir Ali Hajizadeh during the launch of a military satellite (AFP)
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Tehran

In recent weeks, one Iranian name has been on the lips of Israeli military officials: General Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force commander has been held personally responsible for Tehran’s growing drone capabilities and its alleged attacks on a number of Israeli-linked ships - most recently the Mercer Street tanker in the Gulf of Oman.

“Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s air force, is behind dozens of terror attacks in the region, employing [unmanned aerial vehicles] UAVs and missiles,” said Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

'Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s air force, is behind dozens of terror attacks in the region, employing UAVs and missiles'

- Benny Gantz, Israeli defence minister

Some Israeli security officials, analysts, and observers even believe Hajizadeh to be the “new Qassem Soleimani”, a Revolutionary Guard general shaping Iranian policy and enjoying the ear and trust of Iran’s supreme leader.

Though he is yet to reach the status of Soleimani, who the United States assassinated in a drone strike with the help of Mossad, Hajizadeh is nevertheless growing in stature at home and abroad.

And with Iran and its allies increasingly using drones in its military operations around the Middle East, the general is becoming an ever-more dangerous foe for Iran’s enemies.

The sniper who joined the missile unit

Though Hajizadeh was born in Tehran in 1962, his parents originally came from Karaj, a satellite city 50km from the capital.

Like many of the Revolutionary Guard’s top commanders, he enlisted in the nascent "special unit" in 1980 with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. There he is said to have been posted to many fronts during the arduous eight-year conflict and deployed as a sniper.

General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, during a military drill in an unknown location in central Iran (AFP)
General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, during a military drill in an unknown location in central Iran (AFP)

Though he trained and fought as a sharpshooter, Hajizadeh was also affiliated to the Guard’s artillery division and grew close to General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, known as the godfather of Iran’s missile programme.

A former military commander told Middle East Eye that Moghaddam was personally responsible for elevating Hajizadeh up through the Revolutionary Guard ranks.

“When Moghaddam and 12 other people went on a three-month mission to Damascus in 1984 to be trained by the Syrian army to launch the Scud B missiles Iran had received from Libya, he proposed to the top commanders that Hajizadeh organise the first missile unit - named ‘Hadid’ - before he returned from Syria to command the unit himself.”

From then on, Hajizadeh was a key figure in Iran’s missile programme, as well as playing an important role in the Revolutionary Guard air force that was formed in 1985.

A new era for Hajizadeh

Hajizadeh would have to wait until 2003 to be appointed as the chief commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Air Defence. After assuming the position, he quickly began focusing on the production of air defence missile systems.

“When I [joined the force], I realised that it was hundreds of times more complex than the surface-to-surface missiles, and we felt like it was impossible [to produce air defence systems],” Haijzadeh recalled earlier this year.

According to Hajizadeh, the Russians offered to sell Iran some Buk missile systems, and a few Iranian delegations travelled to Moscow. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instead encouraged the Revolutionary Guard to produce its own missile systems.

'Hajizadeh is a conservative figure and completely against reformists'

- Former conservative official

“The purchase was cancelled and we came to focus on [producing Iranian-made systems], leading to the production of the 3rd Khordad, Tabas, and Raad native systems,” Hajizadeh said.

In 2009, Khamenei decided to broaden the Guard Air Force’s scope of activities. A space section was bolted on, and its name was changed to the Aerospace Force. This force became responsible for the Islamic Republic’s missile development and use, and Khamenei named Hajizadeh as its commander.

In an interview with local media in 2018, Hajizadeh described presenting Khamenei with plans for missile development.

“He said, ‘what you said is good, but my priority is the missile's precision,'” Hajizadeh recalled.

“At that time, we were working on the range of our missiles while it faced an [high] error rate. When the supreme leader said that, we tried for three months and reached the desired result, and later we reached the lowest possible error rate.”

Anti-West, anti-Rouhani, anti-JCPOA

Hajizadeh’s Aerospace Force found itself in the middle of a diplomatic scandal in March 2016, just as relations between the Islamic Republic and the West appeared to have reached new heights following the JCPOA nuclear deal.

During a military exercise, the Revolutionary Guard fired two ballistic missiles with “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth” written in huge letters down the sides.

The Revolutionary Guard said the missiles, which had a range of 2,000km, were designed to counter the Israeli threat. But at the time, many Iranians accused the Revolutionary Guard of attempting to blow up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by creating tensions.

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Hajizadeh forcefully rejected such a characterisation, insisting the missile tests were unrelated to the nuclear deal.

He described the message written down the missiles as "the taste of the fighters", and noted that it was "common" to write lines inspired by the supreme leader’s statements on missiles.

Yet that did not stop criticism from being levelled his way.

Ali Motahari, an outspoken former moderate MP whose father was the chief theorist of the Islamic Republic, once indirectly accused the Revolutionary Guard of damaging the JCPOA by launching the missiles.

The row continued to rumble on. Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have just stepped down as president and foreign minister respectively, repeatedly insisted the nuclear deal removed the threat of war. Hajizadeh, meanwhile, declared this a lie.

Unsurprisingly, Rouhani’s hardline replacement Ebrahim Raisi has had a much warmer reception. Hajizadeh called Raisi’s administration the first fully “Islamic government”.

The new face of Revolutionary Guard power

As the missile furore showed, Hajizadeh was more than a Revolutionary Guard commander, he was an excellent advertisement of its power and capabilities.

It was under his watch that Iran fired missiles at Islamic State group positions in Syria, downed a US reconnaissance drone in the Gulf, and bombarded a military base in Iraq hosting American soldiers. 

Perhaps most controversial, at least within Iran, is the Aerospace Force’s use of “missile cities” – subterranean stores of missiles, some of which are said to be found beneath or beside urban areas.

Iranian missiles are seen at a new "missile city" of Iran's Revolutionary Guards naval unit at an undisclosed location in Iran (Reuters)
Iranian missiles are seen at a new "missile city" of Iran's Revolutionary Guards naval unit at an undisclosed location in Iran (Reuters)

"In the whole geography of Iran, we have these cities - wherever there is a mountain," Hajizadeh once boasted.

According to the commander, "a percentage" of the missiles are always "vertical" and "ready to fire".

Hajizadeh’s strategy for increasing the number of missile cities as well as promoting them in the media has only added to the attention he receives and brought him praise from Khamenei.

One of Hajizadeh’s gambits very nearly found Iran at war with the United States.

In 2019, the Revolutionary Guard shot down a US RQ-4A Global Hawk, a $220m surveillance drone that can fly at strikingly high altitudes of 60,000 feet.

Iran downed it over the Strait of Hormuz using a surface-to-air missile, saying it had violated its airspace.

The incident put the two countries on the verge of a military confrontation, with then-US President Donald Trump reportedly ordering a retaliatory attack against Iran but later pulling back from launching the strike.

The Global Hawk was downed under the command of Hajizadeh, and he later stated that he was ready to target two US bases in UAE and Qatar and an American aircraft carrier if Washington did indeed retaliate.

Revenge

The following year came the most dramatic moment faced by the Revolutionary Guard in years: the assassination of Soleimani at Baghdad airport.

It was left to Hajizadeh to respond. A few days after the drone strike, the Aerospace Force rained down a barrage of ballistic missiles on Iraq’s al-Asad airbase, resulting in more than 100 American troops being diagnosed and treated for traumatic brain injuries.

One year after the bombardment, Hajizadeh boasted about the operation, which was labelled the “day of God”.

The general added that the attack had been carried out despite being urged by officials in and outside Iran not to do so. According to Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard decided to target al-Asad 24 hours before firing the 13 missiles, and only 10 people were aware of the details.

Thirty minutes before they were launched, however, Iranian officials warned the Iraqi government the base would soon come under fire.

Hajizadeh would later say that the US strike on Soleimani was a warning that Iranians can be killed without retribution, but the missile attack proved it wrong.

A shocking mistake

The flare-up was not the resounding success that Hajizadeh hoped for, however.

Hours after Iran’s attack, a 176-seat Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down over Tehran. Iranian officials hid the real cause of the crash for three days but eventually acknowledged that the Revolutionary Guard’s air defence systems, working under the command of Hajizadeh, had shot down the plane “mistakenly”.

Hajizadeh then appeared on TV to elaborate on the incident, saying those responsible for hitting the plane would be put on trial.

Hajizadeh pointing at a map during a televised press conference in the Tehran following the downing of a Ukrainian jet, on 11 January 2020 (AFP)
Hajizadeh pointing at a map during a televised press conference in Tehran following the downing of a Ukrainian jet, on 11 January 2020 (AFP)

“I heard about the heartbreaking incident of the downing of the Ukrainian passenger. When I became sure, I really wished for death, wishing I had died and not witnessed such a thing,” he said.

The general claimed he never intended to hide the Guard’s responsibility, and the three-day delay in acknowledging fault was due to the joint staff reviewing and studying the causes.

Suddenly, demands for Hajijzadeh to be dismissed or put on trial grew. Hajijzadeh remained in his post, but his image had been forever tarnished.

Rise of Iran’s UAVs

Today, Iran enjoys a large arsenal of drones, of various sizes and capabilities. But the first, developed over 30 years ago, were strictly used for reconnaissance.

In 1984, the Revolutionary Guard formed its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) unit and populated it with individuals who had passed various piloting and technical courses.

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The unit, named Raad (Thunder), was able to perform important reconnaissance missions before major operations during the Iran-Iraq war. Once the Guard’s air force was formed in 1985, Raad and the Hadid missile unit came under its control. Now, those units are part of Hajijzadeh’s Aerospace Force.

In the past decade, under Hajizadeh’s command, Iran’s drone unit has made remarkable progress with the production of various UAVs up to a range of 7,000 kilometers.

“Four or three years ago, in a meeting we had with the supreme leader about the UAVs, he said that the performance is very good, but the number of UAVs is low and you should increase it. After this, we all mobilised to increase the number of UAVs,” Hajizadeh said last year.

Iran’s drones are not reserved for its forces alone. Proxies in Iraq and Yemen, too, have started using Iranian drones, as well as ones developed themselves. These drones have been used in attacks against Saudi oil facilities and airports, US troops, and various kinds of ships around the Arabian Peninsula.

“For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority,” US Central Command head General Kenneth McKenzie recently warned.

The new Soleimani

In recent years, the Iranians have waged an asymmetric war with the United States, one that a military analyst based Iran says is based on two pillars.

The first pillar is the Aerospace Force. Hajizadeh’s success with the division has kept him in place, with Khamenei refusing to dismiss him even after the Ukrainian jet incident, the analyst said.

The second pillar is the Quds Force, the Republican Guard’s elite overseas unit famously led by Soleimani, However since Soleimani’s killing, its influence and effectiveness have diminished.

'Hajizadeh’s success in the Aerospace Force is turning him into a Soleimani with less charisma'

- Iran-based military analyst

“Hajizadeh’s success in the Aerospace Force is turning him into a Soleimani with less charisma. But we should pay attention to the fact that compared to Esmail Qaani, the new Quds Force commander, he is much more useful,” the analyst told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Yet while Hajizadeh may be militarily comparable to Soleimani to some extent, politically he is very different.

“Soleimani was somehow close to reformists and was never politically a hardliner. He even once mediated for the release of a prominent reformist figure,” a former conservative official told MEE.

“Hajizadeh, however, is a conservative figure and completely against reformists. He even once appeared on TV praising the likely candidature of [prominent hardliner] Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf before the 2020 parliamentary elections.”