Iran’s al-Quds Force out of the shadows
As US President Donald Trump presented his new Iran strategy, he authorised the US Treasury Department to “further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents and affiliates.”
Following the president’s speech, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, in a statement, declared: “We are designating the IRGC for providing support to the IRGC-[al- Quds Force] QF, the key Iranian entity enabling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s relentless campaign of brutal violence against his own people…”
Mnuchin accused the IRGC of using “IRGC bases and civilian airports in Iran to transfer military equipment to Iraq and Syria for IRGC-QF.”
One does not need to search hard for evidence of IRGC’s al-Quds Force in Iraq and Syria. The Iranian media openly report on its losses there.
Commander Shaban Nasiri, who died May 27 in an explosion in Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq, represents one of those losses. He served as an adviser to Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of al-Quds Force. Nasiri’s story and the story of his fellow al-Quds Force commanders killed in combat in Iraq and Syria shed light into the otherwise secretive organisation operating in the shadows.
Nasiri was born in 1958 in Karaj on the outskirts of Tehran. In the search for better job opportunities, his family moved to the Nezam Abad neighbourhood of the Iranian capital. The area was urbanising fast to accommodate the rural population flocking to Tehran.
Not much is known about Nasiri’s family background but, like most migrants from the countryside, they probably were more religious than the average Tehrani. Unsurprisingly, the family answered the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s call to help overthrow the shah’s regime and establish a religious political order.
The revolution provided the likes of Nasiri the opportunity for social mobility. He joined the IRGC and expanded its Karaj branch. After the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran, Nasiri volunteered for the war effort. He was transferred to the Nosrat tactical intelligence base, which was manned mainly by Iranian nationals of Arab background. He was transferred to the 9th Badr Division, composed of Shia Iraqi prisoners of war who had volunteered to fight alongside Iranian forces.
After the war with Iraq ended in 1988, Nasiri was engaged in al- Quds Force training and spent time in Somalia as late as 2011. In his final deployment, Nasiri served in Iraq in an advisory capacity. There, he revived his old network and helped organise the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) until a booby trap in Tal Afar ended his life.
Nasiri’s history and information on other al-Quds Force officers killed in combat in Iraq provide remarkable insights into the secretive organisation.
My study of funeral services in Iran for military personnel killed in Iraq and Syria indicates that at least 40 Iranian nationals have been killed in combat in Iraq since April 2014. At least seven were al-Quds Force officers. They were either ethnically Arab or fluent Arabic speakers.
Most had either served in the Nosrat tactical intelligence base, Base Hamzeh directing the fight against Kurdish insurgents within Iran, or Base Ramezan of IRGC, which was engaged in operations behind enemy lines in Iraqi Kurdistan. This clearly indicates al-Quds Force officers in Iraq were all high-ranking officers and the command language is Arabic.
Among the 510 Iranian nationals killed in combat in Syria since January 2012, 41 were identified as al-Quds Force officers but the real number is probably much higher.
The branch affiliation of 302 casualties is not known. Many may have served in al-Quds Force. Initially, al-Quds Force officers may have fought in combat units of their own but, as Tehran deployed non-Iranian Shia militias in Syria, al-Quds Force officers were fighting alongside Iraqi Shia militias or served as mid-level commanders in the Shia Afghan Fatemiyoun Division.
Al-Quds Force officers seconded to the Iraqi militias were either ethnically Arab Iranian nationals or fluent Arabic speakers. This indicates those units’ command language is Arabic. The Fatemiyoun Division, on the other hand, consists of Persian speakers.
Deployment of al-Quds Force in Iraq and Syria clearly helped advance the IRGC’s war aims in the region. However, the rising death toll among its officers is bringing new attention to the secretive unit. Not only blood, but exposure and US Treasury sanctions are included in the price al-Quds Force is paying for its increased activities in wars.