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Qassem Soleimani: IRGC's star commander a useful counterweight to Rouhani

The popular head of Iran's Qods Force launched a side swipe at the Iranian president's foreign policy this week. His critique is a PR boon for Rouhani's opponents, not a prelude to a political career

The tit for tat exchanges between the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the newly re-elected government of President Hassan Rouhani shows no sign of abating.

In the latest twist, in a speech on 11 July, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the hugely popular commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, appeared to attack the spirit, if not the substance, of the government’s foreign policy by highlighting the role of the Qods Force – and the wider IRGC – in advancing Iranian strategic and foreign policy goals.

Soleimani has emerged as the symbol of a divergent foreign policy which challenges the country’s more formal foreign policy apparatus

Speaking on the 40th day of the “martyrdom” of Brigadier General Shaaban Nassiri – who was killed in late May during the operation to retake Mosul – Soleimani glorified the role of commanders like Nassiri who make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of national prestige through the projection of complex forms of hard power.

This is, of course, a swipe at the Rouhani administration which is perceived to favour softer forms of diplomacy to advance the Iranian position.

From a factual point of view, Soleimani’s position is a statement of the obvious, to the extent that hard power and military capability is the prerequisite of successful diplomacy. However, it was the way he expressed himself and his timing that lends Soleimani’s latest speech significant political meaning.

This latest swipe at the Rouhani administration will inevitably touch off speculation as to Soleimani’s intentions and his putative political ambition.

The uncertainty about Soleimani’s real intentions is exacerbated not only because he is by far the most popular commander of the Revolutionary Guards, but also, and more importantly, because his authority and standing appear to exceed his formal position in the IRGC hierarchy.

Overall, the fear is not so much that the IRGC would ever try to oust the government, but that it will seek to continually contain it, at least in the foreign policy sphere.  

National icon

Soleimani has become a national hero largely owing to his successful stewardship of the Qods Force, the IRGC’s expeditionary wing.

Initially a secretive unit, in recent years the Qods Force has enthusiastically embraced publicity. This trend intensified after the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group and the fight back by Iraqi paramilitary forces which the Qods Force trained, equipped and, in some cases, directed.

Soleimani is an object of obsession for Western analysts and commentators who have described him as the 'Shadow Commander' and the 'Dark Knight' 

Sixty-year-old Soleimani is the first Revolutionary Guards commander to achieve this level of fame and popularity, an impressive feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that this has been achieved through charisma and sheer force of personality as opposed to institutional backing by the IRGC.

In addition to being a social media star in Iran, Soleimani is also an object of obsession for Western analysts and commentators who have described him as the “Shadow Commander” and the “Dark Knight” amongst a plethora of negative characterisations.   

The most important fact about Soleimani is that he is an IRGC man through and through. Having joined the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) when it was founded in May 1979, Soleimani slowly rose through the ranks.

Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps cheer during a speech from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 1999 (AFP)
During the Iran-Iraq war, he established a reputation as a quiet, determined and skilful commander of small sized companies and battalions largely comprised of combatants from his hometown of Kerman in south-central Iran.  

Like most Pasdaran commanders who survived the war, Soleimani went on to establish a successful career at the very top of the IRGC, joining the ranks of men known for their ideological vigour, toughness and total institutional commitment to the IRGC.

Appointed as the commander of the Qods Force in 1998, Soleimani was expected to be commanding the entire IRGC organisation by now, but this hasn’t happened. That’s probably because Soleimani prefers his current role in which he has been remarkably successful at building the Qods Force brand.

By positioning the Qods Force at the forefront of the fight against IS, Soleimani has reaped the dividends at home where Iran’s role in combating the jihadist group is hugely popular.

With his institutional success and popularity among the public, Soleimani has emerged as a symbol of Iranian nationalism and prestige. No other figure has ever had such a visible role in creating national security successes.

At a deeper level, Soleimani has also emerged as the symbol of a divergent foreign policy which challenges the country’s more formal foreign policy apparatus.

Soleimani’s rise - and rise

So where does Soleimani go from here? More to the point, will he try to leverage his national popularity, not to mention his social media stardom, in the pursuit of a political career? This is unlikely, even in the long term. Military commanders – even when they have long relinquished the uniform – do not perform well in Iranian politics, at least in electoral terms.

Military commanders – even when they have long relinquished the uniform – do not perform well in Iranian politics

The best example is the former commander of the IRGC, Mohsen Rezai (who led the Pasdaran during the Iran-Iraq War and nearly a decade afterwards before being replaced in 1997) who has contested two presidential elections in 2009 and 2013 coming in a distant third and fourth respectively.

Instead of imputing political motives onto Soleimani, it is more accurate to see this phenomenon as part of a wider IRGC strategy to develop a counter to the Iranian government, specifically in terms of regional policy and, to some extent, national security discourse more broadly.

Rouhani shakes hands with Soleimani in September 2015 (AFP)
This development in part explains the recent tensions between IRGC commanders and the Rouhani administration. The reformist-centrist alliance that is behind Rouhani’s successive electoral successes in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections and the 2016 parliamentary elections appears to be a sustainable political and electoral force.

This means that conservatives and principalists allied to the IRGC will have to come to terms with the loss of the executive and legislative branches of the government for years, if not at least a decade.

Soleimani’s personal popularity purchases greater institutional credibility for the IRGC and helps to create a semblance of equilibrium between the Pasdaran and the government. This equilibrium will become crucially important once the leader Ayatollah Khamenei passes on and the Islamic Republic sets about managing the post-Khamenei transition period. 

A successful transition depends to a large extent on the government and the IRGC working in tandem and in pursuit of a shared national vision. General Soleimani may yet play a crucial role in this transition but he is unlikely to ever formally enter politics.    

- Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics. He is the director of the research group Dysart Consulting. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Major General Qasem Soleimani attends a meeting of Revolutionary Guard's commanders in Tehran in September 2016. (AFP)         

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