MENA Power Brokers: Esmail Qaani

MENA Power Brokers: Esmail Qaani

The drone attack on January 3rd that killed Qassem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force, removed one of the main architects of Iran’s strategy of backing armed proxies across the Middle East. His successor, Esmail Qaani, has some big shoes to fill; Soleimani was a charismatic and dynamic figure, with a high profile and hands-on approach. Under Qaani the Qods Force will continue Iran’s strategy, but their activities are likely to be more careful, restrained and in line with mainstream policy. How will this affect the Middle East?

The Qods Force: a key player of Iran’s regional security strategy

The devastating eight-year war with Iraq in the ‘80s formed Iran’s security paradigm. However, with a regular military deficient in resources, and surrounded by resource-rich enemies and few friends, Iran had to rely on an unconventional security strategy. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was formed in 1979 by an amalgamation of revolutionary paramilitaries to defend the Islamic Revolution and counterweight the distrusted regular military, the Artesh. Whereas Artesh is responsible for defending Iran’s territorial integrity, the IRGC is tasked with deterring conventional attacks and leveraging Iran’s regional power capabilities. It does so through four-pronged unconventional strategy: its deterrent missile capabilities, its hit-and-run guerilla navy force, its disruptive cyber force, and its stable of proxies and armed non-state allies.

The limitations of Artesh and the IRGC to project military power abroad led to the creation of the Qods Force; tasked with operations outside Iran’s borders, including intelligence and special operations missions. Like that of the US Army Special Forces, the Qods Force is responsible for organizing, recruiting, training, and equipping armed groups. Such groups may be friendly to Iran and their Islamic Revolutionary ideology, but in many cases, they are simply hostile to Iran’s enemies.

These proxies and militant allies provide Iran with deniability and a degree of strategic deterrence. It deters regional adversaries, like Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia, from taking direct military action in fear of retaliatory attacks by Iran’s proxies; and allows Iran to deny any involvement. Furthermore, by helping form large paramilitary groups with significant sway over their national states, Iran is able to deter foreign involvement within their sphere of influence.

A recent report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) outlines Iran’s proxy influence from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East, to Bahrain and Yemen on the Arabian peninsula, to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in the Levant. Iran, through the Qods Force, provides such proxies with advanced weapons, embedded advisers and specialists, and support in everything from communications to financial matters. IISS estimates that the total number of militants may be as high as 200,000, with expenditures in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen accounting to nearly US$17bn.

Iran’s most advanced proxy, Lebanese Hezbollah, was established to deter major Israeli overreach in the region, but later became key to the survival of the Assad-regime in the Syrian civil war. It was founded as an Iranian proxy and is still very much dependent on Iran, but has developed into an autonomous political and military actor.

As part of the war efforts in Iraq and Syria, the Qods Force built up large militant conglomerates from local militias. The fight against the Islamic State in 2014 led to the build-up of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF; al-Hashd ash-Shaabi) in Iraq. The PMF has sidelined US influence and become incredibly politically influential but is now at a crossroads after their leader was killed along Suleimani.

From early on in the Syrian civil war the Qods Force helped form local loyalist militias; these were later on incorporated into the National Defense Forces (NDF; Quwaat ad-Difaa’ al-Watani) tasked with assisting the Assad-regime in its counterinsurgency efforts. But where Assad’s forces lacked, Iran’s proxies had to pick up the slack. Not only has Hezbollah and several Iraqi militias been involved in fighting Syrian rebels, but the Qods Force also formed Afghan (Fatimiyoun) and Pakistani (Zainebiyoun) Shi’a militias, which after training were deployed to the Syrian battlefield.

Arab Peninsula

Events following the Arab Spring also provided Iran with an opening to gain a foothold on the Arab Peninsula.  The anti-regime resentment among Shi’a majority in Bahrain opened up for Iranian influence, whereby the Qods Force, through intermediaries, provided modest support to local militant networks (such as the al-Ashtar Brigades). However, geographic constraints, tough policing, and tepid Iranian interest prevent it from developing. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, strategies of cooptation and coercion have prevented local Shi’a communities to be open for Iranian influence.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s military adventure in Yemen allowed Iran to gain a foothold on the Peninsula. There was little Iranian interest in Yemen until the Houthi movement captured Sanaa from the Saudi backed Hadi government, but this provided Iran with a strategically on Saudi Arabia’s south and gave them an opportunity to suck Saudi Arabia into a quagmire. Though not deployed in large numbers, the Qods Force has provided embedded advisers and military specialists to the Houthi movement in their efforts against the Saudi military coalition. They have also provided the Houthis with advice and means to strike at Saudi oil production.

Who is Esmail Qaani?

Little is known about the new head of the Qods Force, but the 61-year-old is a native of Mashad in Khorasan province. Esmail Qaani joined the IRGC in 1980 between the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. He received his military training by the IRGC, and as part of the IRGC’s 5th Nasr Division participated in counterinsurgency efforts against Turkmen and Kurdish rebellions, before being sent to the frontlines against Iraq. He participated in several successful campaigns on Iran’s southern front against Iraq, and this is where he befriended Soleimani and also Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

After the war, he became responsible for IRGC activities in Afghanistan, such as fighting drug cartels along the border with Iran. In the early ‘90s he joined the Qods Force and a few years later became deputy head of the Qods Force when Solemani was appointed head of the force. In Qods, Qaani’s responsibilities have largely been centred on Qods’ activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, but he may also have been responsible for Africa and South America.

As part of the Qods Force efforts in Afghanistan was Iran’s backing of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, and Qaani developed a working relationship with several Afghan politicians. Being pictured with Northern Alliance’s Ahmad Shah Masood as early as 1999, and with Bamyan Province Governor Muhammad Tahir Zaheer in 2018, is indicative of the depth Qaani’s experience in Afghanistan. It is under his responsibility that the Fatimiyoun and Zainebiyoun were formed and deployed to Syria.

The Qods Force under Qaani versus under Solemani

Understanding how Esmail Qaani differs from Qassem Soleimani makes it possible to understand if and how the Qods Force will change under his leadership. Qassem Soleimani was a key element in forming and expanding Iran’s unconventional strategy of regional power projection. A 700-page archive of secret intelligence cables from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) leaked to The Intercept reveal a lot about Qassem Soleimani. In his primary area of operation, Iraq, he was a very powerful player with an extensive personal network, ranging from well-placed politicians to powerful militants. He was very charismatic and hands-on. But he also feuded with other services, such as MOIS. In fact, Iranian intelligence also criticizes him for being obstinate and tenacious, as well self-promoting and too high profile, often pictured with troops at the frontline in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence sources also blame him for fuelling ethnic tension in Iraq through the brutality displayed by his proxy militias.

In many ways, Qaani is Soleimani’s opposite. He is more inconspicuous with only sporadic media appearances. He comes across as more humble and is described as bureaucratic, primarily concerned with the day-to-day administrative affairs of the Qods Force. In Afghanistan, Qaani was responsible for building networks primarily among Shi’a Muslims and in areas with historical ties with Iran. But he lacks any significant experience from the Arab world and does not speak Arabic. Unable to fill Soleimani’s shoes alone, Qaani will be backed by a committee of experienced Qods members to handle Iran’s network of proxies and militant allies in the Middle East. Likely to play a significant role is his deputy, Muhammad Hussein-Zada Hejazi, responsible for Qods Force’s activities’ in the Levant, and Abdel Reza Shahlai, Qods’ man in Yemen.

Analysis: The future of the Qods Force in the Middle East 

As the geostrategic underpinning remains unchanged there will be no significant change in the Qods Force’s strategic focus, but the change in leadership structure will be felt. Although Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the commander in chief with broad executive powers, including foreign policy, he does rely on mediation with ministerial members in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). But as a trusted friend of Khamenei, Qassem Soleimani was given a free hand to conduct the affairs of the Qods Force as he liked.

Esmail Qaani does not enjoy this level of trust and respect from the Iranian leadership. Therefore, under his leadership, with operations run by committee, the activities of the Qods Force is likely to be operationally safer and more covert; more in concert with other political institutions, such as the SNSC; and more in line with mainstream assessments, as that of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Judging from Qaani’s past, the Qods Force is unlikely to be less active, just less visible and more prudent. Qaani is likely to build on established networks and work to expand them. Having established and built paramilitaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan is testament to Qaani’s ability to recruit members and build large organizations from bottom-up.

Iraq remains Iran’s most significant area of focus given its ramifications for Iran’s domestic security. Iran has invested heavily in Iraq and is very unlikely to take a more reluctant role in the country. But it will take time and effort to build trust and forge ties to militia leaders. The PMF will require a lot of coalition building and incentivizing to avoid splintering. This will leave the PMF less politically dominating for the time being.

Iran and Syria have long-standing ties, as Syria provides Iran with geostrategic leverage against Israel and a transit route to Lebanon. The Qods Force is likely to persist in forming militias and amalgamating them into NDF, and compete with Russian and Turkish influence on the ground. For the Qods Force, it will be business as usual in Syria.

Lebanese Hezbollah remains Iran’s most successful proxy project of strategic value. Hezbollah had until 2011 gained an increasing amount of autonomy from Iran, but with the civil war in Syria in 2011, Qassem Soleimani’s increased micromanagement shrank Hezbollah’s manoeuvrability. Hezbollah will regain some of that autonomy with Soleimani gone. But the organization is still very much dependent on Iran and will therefore still be under the sway of the Qods Force.

Backing the Houthis in Yemen has proved successful in bleeding Iran’s main rival, Saudi Arabia, at a very little cost to themselves. By embedding Qods operators with the Houthis, they have raided across the Saudi border, and launched drone and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia, with an inconspicuous Iranian presence. This is the arena Iran has the most leeway to strike at US allies. But the Houthis is not under Iran’s influence on the extent of the militants in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. And after a de-escalation in the war, the Houthis may be reluctant to do anything that could reignite fighting. But should the war escalate, Iran will see this as an opportunity; the Qods Force is then likely to increase their presence and provide the Houthis with more advanced weapons. There are already indications of this happening as the Houthis on February 24th shot down a Saudi military jet with a Surface-to-Air Missile. 

This piece is co-authored by Ola Wam and Ole Tobias Boegh.
Ole T. Boegh has a BA in Balkan Studies from the University of Oslo and a MSc in Global Security Studies from the University of Glasgow. He has experience in intelligence work from the Norwegian Army with several short term deployments to Afghanistan. Ole currently works in the private security industry in the UK.

About Author

Ola Wam

Ola holds an M.A. in Security Studies from University of Birmingham, and an M.Phil. from the University in Oslo for graduate research on how Shell manages political risk in the Niger Delta. He has written on issues relating to oil, regional geopolitics, and civil conflict in the Middle East, which has been published in The Global Intelligence, Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition (online), and several Norwegian newspapers. He currently works as a freelance journalist focusing on oil politics, particularly on the geopolitical impact of the shale gas and tight oil revolution on the Middle East.