June 29, 2016

Supreme Leader signals possible enhanced role for Armed Forces General Staff

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shook up over 25 years of leadership in the Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS), the body that oversees both Iran’s conventional forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), when he replaced Major General Hassan Firouzabadi with IRGC Major General Mohammad Bagheri as AFGS Chief on June 28. Bagheri's appointment may signal Khamenei’s intention to give the AFGS a more significant role in coordinating the IRGC Quds Force-led armed forces’ increasing joint activities abroad. This development could suggest that Khamenei is establishing an institutional basis for continued operations of both the IRGC and the regular military beyond Iran’s borders.

Bagheri’s military background hints at the enhanced role Khamenei may envision for the AFGS. Bagheri served as intelligence deputy for a major operational base and for the IRGC Ground Forces during the Iran-Iraq War, and later as head of IRGC intelligence. Post-war, Bagheri became AFGS intelligence deputy and later AFGS intelligence and operations deputy. Bagheri is a member of a powerful, exclusive group of senior IRGC commanders who forged a close relationship during the war. Members of this Command Network occupy leadership positions within the IRGC and the AFGS and have demonstrated remarkable cohesion throughout periods of instability in Iran.

The Supreme Leader likely selected Firouzabadi to head the AFGS in 1989 - and kept him in the position for decades - because of a close personal relationship dating back to the early 70s. Firouzabadi does not possess a formal military background and is not a member of the Command Network. His experience lies in aid, civil construction, and paramilitary organizations.

Firouzabadi’s lack of military experience may not have mattered in the past, when the IRGC and the Artesh had separate and more distinct operational focuses.  The IRGC has been the only arm of Iran’s military to operate beyond Iran’s borders until recently. The Artesh deployment to Syria for the first time earlier this year signaled a fundamental shift, however. It is expanding its historical focus on the defense of Iran’s borders to include supporting the IRGC in defending and exporting the Islamic Revolution.

Khamenei may see the AFGS as a major resource to help meet the new and expanded needs of the two militaries’ activities in the Syrian and possibly Iraqi theaters. A more active and involved AFGS under Bagheri could prove a key element in the continued success of Iran’s activities abroad. The IRGC is several years into its involvement in the Syrian crisis and may be facing constraints on its deployable manpower. The Artesh is a significant but largely untapped source of troops for Iran’s expeditionary activities, and the AFGS could play an important role in facilitating the integration of the two militaries in the Syria and possibly Iraq theaters. The AFGS would be more likely to take on a supportive rather than leadership role in this regard, as the IRGC Quds Force continues to direct Iran’s expeditionary activities. This appointment may indicate Khamenei’s intention to maintain or even expand Iranian military operations abroad.