Key shake-ups in Iran could mean strategic shifts
Beirut - A major shake-up in the highest levels of Iran’s military and diplomatic establishments in recent weeks at a critical time in the turbulent Middle East triggered speculation about how this will affect the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and in particular its strategy in Syria and Iraq.
The wars in the two countries, where the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is deeply involved and having to absorb increasingly heavy casualties, dominate Tehran’s overall strategy, which is aimed at making Iran the region’s paramount power.
The command shuffles in Tehran between IRGC-led hardliners and supporters of reformist President Hassan Rohani emphasise the competing strategies of military dominance and diplomacy at play within the corridors of power in Tehran.
On June 28th, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, without warning dismissed Major- General Hassan Firouzabadi as chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, after he had held the post for 27 years, and replaced him with his deputy, Major-General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, a senior IRGC commander with an intelligence background.
There was no official explanation but Bagheri’s promotion made him the first IRGC commander to hold the post that oversees Iran’s complex military establishment.
That was a major gain for the Guards over the regular army, which has been distrusted and sidelined since the Islamic revolution. On the face of it, Bagheri’s appointment was a significant endorsement of the IRGC’s dominance of the military and thus its campaigns in Syria and Iraq.
Bagheri, like most IRGC chiefs, opposed Rohani’s controversial July 2015 agreement with US-led global powers to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting crippling international sanctions.
Firouzabadi supported that landmark deal. Although he held little power himself, his departure was seen as weakening Rohani’s policy of diplomatic engagement rather than the use of military forces.
Both camps in Iran have secured powerful posts. Rohani appeared to make gains in the manoeuvring with the June 10th appointment of Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council who reportedly favours diplomatic solutions, to a new post, senior coordinator for political, military and security affairs with Russia and Syria.
This was seen a setback for Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the high-profile commander of the IRGC’s foreign operations wing, the elite al-Quds Force, which is heavily engaged in Syria and Iraq and who has been seen as the master strategist running Iran’s wars of expansion.
On June 15th, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a close Rohani ally who negotiated the 2015 nuclear agreement, dismissed his pro-IRGC deputy minister for Arab and African affairs, veteran diplomat Hossein Amir Abdollahian, linked to the hardliners and replaced him with a Rohani supporter, Hossein Jaberi Ansari.
This move, like the other changes, could not have been made without Khamenei’s approval, underlining the supreme leader’s strategy of playing both sides against each other to avoid an open rupture within the Tehran leadership.
But it seemed to give Shamkhani unprecedented powers that pit him against the powerful Soleimani that could impede the operational supremacy in Syria, Iraq and Yemen that al-Quds Force commander has held for several years.
Shamkhani’s elevation came amid signs of friction between Iranian, Syrian and Russian forces in Syria, where the Iranian contingent included al-Quds Force troops and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.
They suffered serious losses in heavy fighting near the city of Aleppo in northern Syria in May, with allegations by Hezbollah that the Russians failed to provide sufficient air cover and left the Lebanese fighters in the lurch. There are also signs of serious differences over strategy and objectives.
Shamkhani is an oddity in the Tehran line-up: an ethnic Arab from the south-eastern province of Khuzestan and a fluent Arabic speaker. However, he could prove to be a pivotal figure in the months ahead. He has been a driving force in the emergence of a stronger pro-diplomacy group within the broader Iranian leadership.
In July 2014, for instance, Shamkhani played an important role in Tehran throwing his support behind Shia politician Haider al-Abadi taking over the Baghdad government from the widely discredited and corrupt Nuri al-Maliki, whose dictatorial policies drove Iraq’s Sunni minority to despair and gave impetus to the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Farzin Nadimi, a Washington-based Iranian analyst, has observed that Shamkhani’s “ascendance may have come at the expense of… Qassem Soleimani, who is believed to have strongly backed another term for Maliki”.
Just how deep the differences are between these two important regime figures is not clear. However, Iranian analyst Ali Alfoneh, author of Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guard Is Transforming Iran, said Shamkhani’s new appointment “indicates Rohani’s attempting to establish greater political control over strategic coordination with the Russians.
“This is, I’m sure, a nuisance to Soleimani, who prefers to personally conduct tactical coordination with the Russians in Syria and talk strategy to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in Moscow,” he said.
Shamkhani, whom the Americans, Europeans and regional statesmen have long seen as a rising figure in Iranian policymaking, is likely to buttress Rohani’s diplomacy-centric strategy.
David Ignatius of the Washington Post, a long-time observer of the Middle East, noted in October 2014, as the nuclear negotiations between Iran and global powers were going into high gear, that Shamkhani was “an intriguing figure… gaining prominence in the Iranian government just as regional conflicts in Iraq and Syria intensify…
“Shamkhani’s rise is noteworthy because he appears to bridge the radical and moderate camps at a time when opinion in Iran is divided about a nuclear deal.”
An IRGC commander during Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, like Soleimani and other veterans now politically prominent, Shamkhani has clout in IRGC circles, too.
That is an edge that allows him “to challenge his former comrades,” observed Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
With access to both Rohani and Khamenei, “Shamkhani can play an influential role in managing the crisis in the Arab world,” in part because he’s an Arab and speaks the language, says Hossein Mousavian, a former regime official who now teaches at Princeton University.