Key shake-ups in Iran could mean strategic shifts

Sunday 17/07/2016
General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, chosen as chief of staff of the armed forces, sits in a meeting in Tehran, last June.

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.