Picking a new IRGC commander from the old guard
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree promoting Brigadier-General Hossein Salami to major-general and appointed him chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The appointment takes place in an atmosphere of heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, including the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and further US sanctions against Iran’s oil exports.
The IRGC leadership change, however, follows a familiar pattern. Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi served as IRGC chief commander from 1997-07. Major-General Mohammad-Ali Jafari had served in the same position from September 2007 and his departure was expected.
The unexpected element is Khamenei’s preference for the old guard. Instead of promoting a representative of the younger generation of IRGC officers to leadership, Khamenei opted for Salami, a 59-year-old veteran of the war with Iraq (1980-88).
Understanding the motives behind Khamenei’s choice not only provides insights into what we can expect from Salami but also sheds light into the balance of power between Khamenei, the armed forces’ commander-in-chief and the IRGC.
Salami was born in 1960, in the village of Vaneshan, near Golpayegan in Isfahan province. Around the same time, the shah of Iran initiated his ambitious modernisation programme, which provided bright children from rural areas with access to higher education. Modernisation, however, was not coupled with democratisation, which turned the young intelligentsia against the shah.
Salami benefited from the reforms and made a giant leap from Vaneshan to Tehran. He was admitted to Iran University of Science and Technology in 1978, where he studied mechanical engineering. His education was cut short by the revolution and closure of the universities during the cultural revolution.
In 1980, Salami joined the Isfahan branch of the nascent IRGC and was soon deployed in Iranian Kurdistan. He volunteered for front-line duty in the war against the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Few details are available about his functions and performance during the early years of the war but he was promoted to commander of the Karbala and later 14th Imam Hussein divisions. Still later, he was appointed commander of the tactical naval Nouh headquarters.
Following the end of the war with Iraq, Salami studied at the staff college of Islamic Republic of Iran Army, graduated with a master’s degree in defence management and served as head of operations at the IRGC Joint Staff from 1997-2005.
It was in this position that Salami and other high-ranking IRGC commanders published an open letter protesting the dismissal of Mohsen Rezaei as IRGC chief commander.
Rezaei had been a vocal critic of presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami and, after Khatami’s electoral victory, the president demanded the ousting of the IRGC chief commander. Khamenei accommodated Khatami, which infuriated the IRGC commanders.
Under Presidents Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rohani, Salami and the old-boy network of the IRGC joined ranks. The IRGC and its commanders extracted maximum concessions, both political and economic, from civilian politicians in return for defending the regime against the enemy it fears most: the people of Iran.
In recent years, Salami, who served as IRGC deputy chief, consistently reflected the dominant ideological viewpoints of the IRGC leadership but he is, perhaps undeservedly, perceived in the media as less subtle in his public statements than his predecessors.
By appointing Salami, Khamenei clearly opted for a safe choice. As Washington tightens sanctions screws on Iran and with the very real risk of economic collapse and potential bread riots in Iran in sight, Khamenei clearly prefers the tested old hands of the Iran-Iraq war era generation than younger officers.
However, Khamenei may also have had no real choice. The same old-boy network of the IRGC, which protested against Rezaei’s dismissal in 1997, may have imposed Salami on Khamenei. The question, of course, is whether the old generation is up to the new challenges the regime is facing.