Why did Soleimani blow cover of an IRGC al-Quds Force arm?
It is quite common that intelligence agencies and special operations forces use front organisations to provide cover for their covert agents and actions. Those agencies openly admit their relationship with the covers is less common if not unprecedented.
This is exactly what happened July 25. The government-controlled Iranian media reported Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of extraterritorial operations al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), appointed a new director for the Reconstruction Organisation of Holy Shrines in Iraq.
The questions are what the exact role of this organisation is and why Soleimani disclosed the relationship between al-Quds Force and its cover.
Its website states that the Reconstruction Organisation was established as a “non-governmental” and “non-profit” entity in 2003, which coincides with the US-led invasion of Iraq. The website discloses that, apart from activities in Balad, Karbala, Kazimiyah, Musayib, Najaf and Samarra in Iraq, the organisation has had engagements in Syria.
Besides reconstructing Shia shrines, those activities include international fundraising for the reconstruction effort and servicing Iranian pilgrims. Iraqi officials interviewed by IRNA said the number of Iranian pilgrims to Iraq totalled 3.5 million by 2018. That number has dramatically declined because of US sanctions against Iran and a 50% devaluation of the Iranian rial.
Despite claims of the Reconstruction Organisation being a non-governmental organisation, there are many indications that it is a governmental entity. The Reconstruction Organisation appears on the country’s annual budget and representatives of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei closely monitor its work.
The organisation has long been suspected of being a cover for al-Quds Force. Hassan Pelarak, the first director of the organisation, is a native of Kerman and a veteran of the 41st Sarallah Division of the IRGC. So is Soleimani, who was commander of the division during the war with Iraq.
The Reconstruction Organisation would be an obvious cover for al-Quds Force, which can use the cover of pilgrim and construction materials logistics to transport men and materiel from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Those suspicions were proven right when Soleimani, on July 25, appointed Pelarak his “special assistant” and “adviser to the Quds Force commander” and replaced him with Mohammad Jalal-Maab, another native of Kerman.
Soleimani’s motives for disclosing the relationship between the Reconstruction Organisation and al-Quds Force are not clear but the decree he issued may shed light into them: Al-Quds Force’s commander asked Pelarak to join “the economics committee of the [Quds] Force to neutralise the sanctions.”
It is not known to what extent al-Quds Force is engaged in bypassing the US sanctions to help Iran’s economy and openly declaring such intentions hardly enhances such schemes. However, Soleimani may hope the declarations alone will further endear him and al-Quds Force to the Iranian public.
This approach is not free of risk. Rather than perceiving Soleimani and al-Quds Force as saviours, the Iranian public may just as well question the wisdom of Iran using scarce resources in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon rather than helping needy Iranians.
Worse, the Iranian public may blame the regime in Tehran and al-Quds Force for economic hardships, rather than the Trump administration and its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.