The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk(*) for the reader's awareness.
The emergence of new leadership in the “Axis of Resistance” following Qassem Soleimani’s death may undermine the Quds Force’s role in leading the proxy network. Soleimani commanded the Axis of Resistance and reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, circumventing the Iranian armed forces’ chain of command. Leaders outside the Quds Force will likely seek to fill the power vacuum created by Soleimani’s death.
The new Quds Force commander, Esmail Ghaani, lacks the qualities required to easily replace Soleimani. Ghaani does not have Soleimani’s stature, relationship with Khamenei, experience, or interpersonal connections in the Middle East. Ghaani instead worked in Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America when he was Quds Force deputy commander and reportedly does not speak fluent Arabic—unlike Soleimani. Ghaani will likely struggle to cultivate the same effective relationships in the region that Soleimani had. Ghaani’s less intimate relationship with Khamenei may allow Ghaani’s military superiors to subordinate him in a way they could not with Soleimani.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) leaders—including its commander, Hossein Salami—may seek greater operational control over the Axis of Resistance. Soleimani commanded Iran’s external operations and proxy network largely independent of the rest of the IRGC. The IRGC Ground Forces helped the Quds Force coordinate proxy operations in Syria but operated under Soleimani’s command framework. Salami may seek to build a distinct command echelon to bring the Quds Force back into the IRGC hierarchy and better control Iranian military and proxy activities abroad.
This goal may have motivated Salami’s *appointment of Mohammad Hejazi to Ghaani’s old position–Quds Force deputy commander—on January 20. Hejazi had a key role in integrating the Basij Organization with the IRGC Ground Forces after Khamenei appointed him as IRGC deputy commander in 2008. Hejazi previously commanded the Basij from 1998 to 2007. Salami may similarly hope to leverage Hejazi to better integrate the Quds Force with the Basij and IRGC Ground Forces, increasing Salami’s control over Iran’s external activities.
Non-Iranian actors could also assume greater leadership in the Axis of Resistance. Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah reportedly *convened with Iraqi proxy leaders in Beirut at Iran’s request to discuss overcoming internal divisions after Soleimani’s death. Nasrallah’s mediation among Iraqi proxies indicates Tehran may increasingly rely on him to coordinate its proxy activities.
Iran needs leadership in the Axis of Resistance—whether from the Quds Force or elsewhere—to moderate its escalation against the US. The regime likely worries that Soleimani’s death degraded its control over its proxies. Iran risks an inadvertent escalation with the US if Iranian-backed militias take unilateral action against Americans. The Institute for the Study of War assessed this possibility and found that Iran is likely working to establish more centralized control over its Iraqi proxies to mitigate this risk.
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New Quds Force Leadership
Iran’s Supreme Leader appointed Qassem Soleimani’s successor. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei *appointed Soleimani’s former deputy, Brig. Gen. First Class Esmail Ghaani, as Quds Force commander on January 3. Khamenei stated that the Quds Force’s agenda will remain unchanged under Ghaani. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami later *appointed Brig. Gen. First Class Mohammad Hejazi as Quds Force deputy commander on January 20.
Ghaani lacks Soleimani’s experience working in the Middle East and interpersonal relations with Iranian proxies. Ghaani has historically operated in secondary priority theaters to the Quds Force, likely maintaining a division of labor with Soleimani. Ghaani has traveled to Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America, while Soleimani typically worked in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The US sanctioned Ghaani in 2012 for facilitating the transfer of funds and weapons shipments to Africa.
Hejazi has experience suppressing protests and working in the field with Iran’s proxies. Hejazi fought in the Iran-Iraq War and has held senior positions in the IRGC, Basij Organization, and Armed Forces General Staff. Hejazi was also deputy commander of the IRGC’s Sarallah Operational Base, which is responsible for suppressing protests and security threats in Tehran. The US sanctioned Hejazi in 2007.
Hejazi was also likely a Quds Force liaison to Lebanese Hezbollah. Iranian media *described Hejazi’s most recent position as a field officer “in one of the resistance fronts” and “responsible for the IRGC in Lebanon.” The Israel Defense Forces claimed in August 2019 that Hejazi commanded Iranian personnel in Lebanon and ran a precision-guided missile project with Hezbollah.
Anti-regime protests erupted in several Iranian cities and universities after the IRGC Aerospace Force shot down a Ukrainian airliner on January 8. The protests began on January 11 after mourning ceremonies for the passengers. The protests were primarily concentrated in Tehran and comprised of students. Smaller demonstrations spread to other cities including Esfahan and Karaj. Protesters criticized the IRGC and called for Khamenei’s resignation. The regime deployed the Law Enforcement Forces to suppress the demonstrations.
The expansion of Iran’s protest movement to include students in major cities could pose an increasingly complex security challenge to the regime. Iran’s last two major protest waves were the Dey Protests in late 2017 and early 2018 and the November 2019 gasoline riots. These anti-regime protests were concentrated in cities’ peripheries and Iran’s border regions and mostly driven by economic grievances. Iran’s working class and economically disenfranchised youth were the main demographics present.
Forecast: Iranian security forces would struggle to manage simultaneous mass protests in rural areas and cities. The regime will maintain the will and capability to kill protesters, however, and will likely resort to lethal violence rapidly to quash a cross-class protest movement.