Following the killing of top Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has chosen General Esmail Qaani to replace Soleimani as the head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei overlooked several first-generation IRGC commanders such as Gholam Ali Rashid and Mohammed Kowsari. He instead chose Soleimani’s long-time friend and number two in the Quds Force.
For the sake of continuity
Soleimani had been expected to shift to politics eventually, and Qaani was widely seen as the likely successor to ensure continuity in the functioning of the Quds Force.
Like Soleimani, Qaani too is close to Khamenei. The news agency IRNA quoted Khamenei as describing Qaani as “one of the most prominent commanders in service to Iran”, and as saying that under Qaani’s command “Quds Force will remain unchanged”. Qaani, for his part, promised to move ahead “with the same force” (as Soleimani) and seek to end US military presence in the Middle East.
The Quds Force is an elite wing of IRGC that reports only to Khamenei. While IRGC’s responsibilities include Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its naval forces including units that keep tabs on US presence around Iranian waters, and Basij which is a voluntary force tasked with internal security, its Quds Force wing functions as the foreign arm of Iran’s security apparatus. Under Soleimani since 1998, Quds Force emerged as an organisation that combines foreign intelligence gathering with military operations that are most often run by paramilitary outfits not directly connected to the Iranian military. Over the last two decades, it mastered the use of proxy war to extend Iran’s influence across the Muslim world, and help contain Israel’s influence in Lebanon, and Saudis in Yemen.
Qaani, before joining Quds
Qaani was born in 1957 in Mashhad and joined the IRGC a year after the Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed monarchy of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979. This is also when Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guards. Qaani and Soleimani were subsequently part of the force that was sent to crush the Kurdish uprising. This was followed by Saddam Hussein-led Iraq’s invasion of Iran supported by the West. Soleimani and Qaani survived the eight-year war but its scars informed their beliefs and shaped their worldview. Both had been regularly talking about the sacrifice of thousands of young Iranians who were sent out as human-wave assaults on Iraqi positions.
A few reports on Qaani’s early career suggest that he had been “selected, along with Nour-Ali Shoushtari and Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, who later became mayor of Tehran, to form a Islamic Revolutionary Guards division from Khorasan province in December 1982”. After joining the IRGC, Qaani rose through the ranks during the war with Iraq. He was subsequently elevated as the commander of IRGC’s Nasr-5 division and later 21 Imam Reza Division. He also led the crackdown on anti-regime protestors in Mashhad in the early 1990s.
The Quds Force role
When Soleimani was appointed chief of the Quds Force, he brought Qaani as his deputy and they worked together for the last two decades.
The sketchy details available in the public domain suggest that while Soleimani focused on the Quds Force’s operations on Iran’s western front, Qaani dealt with the eastern front that included Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their work often overlapped.
Some of the key assets of the Quds Force that were nurtured by Soleimani to contain the influence of the US and its allies, especially in Israel and Saudi Arabia, include the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shia groups in Bahrain etc. The Quds Force is also seen close to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestinian territories.
Qaani is seen as an important player in the creation of Shia militias in Afghanistan and Pakistan that were formed to help in the war against the ISIS in Syria. Liwa al-Fatimioun, a Shia militia from Afghanistan who are fighting in Syria and Yemen, was formed in 2014. A Shia militia called Liwa Zainebiyoun was organised in Pakistan too to fight ISIS in Syria. Islamabad has viewed Qaani’s efforts in both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan with suspicion, especially the formation of Shia battalions for fighting in the Middle East. The Quds Force, reports suggest, had lately been extending its influence over the Afghan Taliban. Qaani has also been leading a fight to control anti-Iran groups like Jundullah and Jaish al-Adl, that as per Tehran, operate and take shelter in bordering Pakistan territory. After a terror attack inside Iran last year, Soleimani had publicly castigated Islamabad. Quds Force has been close to the northern alliance in Afghanistan ( Soleimani had a friendship with Ahmad Shah Masood) while Soleimani and Qaani are said to have had long and close relationships with Indian agencies too.
In 2012, the US government during Barak Obama’s presidency designated Qaani as a specially designated terrorist, along with an Iranian cargo airliner and a Nigerian shipping agency, soon after a shipment of weapons and ammunition was found on its way to Syria.
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