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Iran's Quds force leader vows to continue backing militias across region

Esmail Qaani says Tehran knows how to 'guide young, motivated Muslims to defend themselves,' amid stalled hopes for a nuclear deal with the West
Iran's Quds force leader Esmail Qaani speaks during a ceremony on the first anniversary of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani's death in Tehran on 1 January 2021 (AFP)

The head of Iran's Quds Force, an elite branch of the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), vowed on Thursday to continue "leading" militias across the Middle East, amid stalled hopes for a nuclear deal with the West.

Speaking to supporters and senior commanders of the corps, Brigadier-General Esmail Qaani said all Islamic militias would "undoubtedly" enjoy Iran's backing, and took aim at the US and Israel.

"The US and the Zionists should know that this is our definite path," he said. "The Islamic revolution of Iran knows how to guide young, motivated Muslims to defend themselves," he said.

The commander's comments come as tensions have escalated in recent weeks in the occupied Palestinian territories. On Friday, Israeli forces attacked Palestinian worshippers inside al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem, wounding and arresting scores of people. 

Violence spiked last Ramadan when Israel tried to expel Palestinian families from the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Israeli settlers.

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This prompted widespread protests across the occupied West Bank and the Palestinian community inside Israel, triggering Israel's large-scale military operation on the besieged Gaza Strip in May 2021. 

Qaani replaced Qassem Soleimani, the high-profile commander of the Quds Force who was assassinated by the US in Baghdad in 2020 under the administration of then US president Donald Trump. 

The Quds Force is the foreign arm of the IRGC and has provided military support for proxy forces throughout the region, including pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.

The Trump administration placed the group on the counter terror sanctions list in 2017.

"Our hands are not tied, and we will respond robustly wherever in the world our interests come under aggression," Qaani said.

The senior general also voiced support for the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, who he described as Tehran's "new children," praising them for producing missiles "in their basements".

Nuclear talks with the West have stalled over Tehran's demand that the US lift its terrorism designation on the IRGC and the Quds Force as part of any deal.

That has alarmed Washington's partners in Israel and Arab capitals, who are concerned that a deal with Iran could free up billions of dollars for Iran's economy without reining in its support for proxies across the region and its ballistic missile development.