Commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Hossein Salami delivers a speech during the forty-day memorial, after the killing of Iran's Quds Force top commander Qassem Soleimani. February 13, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

February 25, 2020

Why Iran’s Professional Military Officials Kept the Hotheads at Bay Following Soleimani’s Death

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Iran’s response to the targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani demonstrates that Iran’s professional decision makers still play a dominant role in the decision-making process. Iran’s military decision makers largely fall into two categories: rhetorically disciplined (“pros”) and rhetorically undisciplined (“hotheads”). The hotheads reacted emotionally to Soleimani’s death and sought a stronger military response, but the pros successfully argued for more restraint. The regime’s response to the targeted killing of Soleimani demonstrates that the regime continues to prioritize strategic patience and heed the pros even in the wake of a highly emotional event—at least for now.

Iran and the US have been in a pattern of heightened escalation since the US enforced strict sanctions in  May 2019, crippling Iran’s economy. The US responded to a series of Iranian proxy attacks on US military facilities in Iraq by killing Iran’s most notorious commander, Qassem Soleimani, at the beginning of January. The IRGC responded with a missile attack on the US al-Asad airbase.

The missile attack was a relatively muted retaliation. It was likely to kill some Americans (assertions by some senior US administration officials notwithstanding) but not many.  It ended up killing none, although it injured dozens. Iranians did not conduct further direct military action after that attack, although their proxies have hit the US embassy complex in Baghdad multiple times with attacks that could well have killed Americans.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promoted hotheads to top positions in the IRGC in spring 2019, raising the possibility that the regime would make rasher, more emotional decisions in crises. Notorious hothead IRGC Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami replaced the more professional IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as IRGC Commander in April 2019. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also promoted IRGC Brig. Gen. Ali Fadavi and Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi in May 2019, both known for their fiery rhetoric.

Iran’s pros appear to have argued successfully against hot-headed calls for more military action after the al-Asad attack. A faction of armed forces officials *argued for a more aggressive military response for Soleimani’s death after the al-Asad attack; Naghdi even *advocated for the killing of US personnel.[1] Multiple pros subsequently publically *warned *against any hasty military actions.[2] Assuming the hotheads’ advice to Khamenei is the same as their rhetoric, the pros were likely actively arguing against the hotheads’ advice. The pros’ ability to rein in the hotheads suggests that the regime still prioritizes its long-term strategic goals over immediate revenge.

Iran’s hotheads cooled down and echoed the pros by the end of January 2020, emphasizing a regional social pressure campaign over more military action. Both *pros and *hotheads recommended Iran’s allies across the region begin a new phase of *social pressure and propaganda, *targeting US military and diplomatic presence.[3][4]

The pros’ continued influence in regime decision-making suggests that the US faces the same calculating and therefore formidable opponent it has for years despite the hotheads’ promotions. The Iranians are continuing to escalate in the same way they have historically. The contrast between the relatively muted response to Soleimani’s death and the hotheads’ rhetoric gives the false impression that the Iranians are de-escalating. The pros are inclined to practice strategic patience—waiting for the opportune time, means, and target to exact revenge—but they will not abandon their response to perceived US aggression.

The pros may not always have this influence, however. The newly elected, largely principlist Iranian parliament in February 2020, a likely principlist president in 2021, and a post-Khamenei Islamic Republic could undermine the cooler heads in the room and shift Iran’s decision-making status quo. Iran’s emphasis on strategic patience in the meantime will pose a challenge to US diplomatic and social influence in the Middle East as the US and Iran enter their next phase of escalation.


[1] IRGC Coordination Deputy Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi indicated on January 16th that the US was an occupier, therefore it is justified to kill Americans. Naghdi indicated there would be more military action against the US.

[2] Professional Supreme Leader Military Advisor Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi warned direct war may result in losing land or Iranian economic assets on January 16.  Professional Armed Forces General Staff Chief Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri similarly warned that “another event” could lead to a worrying escalation, on January 16.

[3] Hothead Naghdi and Professional Safavi both endorsed the same policy during a ceremony they both attended on January 20th. The IRGC officials endorsed politicizing Soleimani’s image to gain support for Resistance causes.

[4] Professional former IRGC Commander Jafari emphasized Soleimani’s death would fuel a social movement, as opposed to a military confrontation. Professional Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani later addressed Iraqi religious authorities, government and parliament in a speech supporting Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s Million Man March against the “US occupation”.

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