Download PDF Should Major General Qassem Suleimani, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC QF) commander, pursue a political career ahead of Iran’s 2013 presidential election, he may be replaced by Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, IRGC QF deputy. Qaani is uncharismatic and a less distinguished military commander than Suleimani, but his operational battlefield experience, network within the IRGC, and long history of acquaintance with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei qualify him for such an appointment.
Key points in this Outlook:
- A rift among ruling elites, harsher sanctions, and the threat of strikes against its nuclear facilities means the Tehran regime is looking for a leader like Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC QF) Commander Qassem Suleimani to unify the nation.
- Should Suleimani pursue politics, he may be replaced by his deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, who is believed to be directing the IRGC QF’s activities in Afghanistan.
- While Qaani has the battlefield-hardened credibility to command the Quds Force, his focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and central Asia raises important questions as the United States is planning its military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
This is the fourth in a series of Middle Eastern Outlooks about the IRGC QF.
The Iranian media’s coverage of Major General Qassem Suleimani, IRGC QF commander, reached new heights after calls for his assassination in two expert testimonies presented at the October 26, 2011, session of the US House Committee on Homeland Security. The media attention was followed by the Iranian parliament’s November 2, 2011, declaration of support for the IRGC QF.
The intense media exposure of Suleimani in Iran may be a sign that he is the choice of the Iranian political leadership’s for the next head of the executive branch. He may not be a great statesman, but in the face of increased military threats against Iran’s nuclear program and a heightened level of friction between the civilian leaders of the Islamic Republic, Suleimani, the hero from the war with Iraq, could serve as a unifying figure.
There is no information available about succession patterns in the IRGC QF command, but should Suleimani leave his position as IRGC QF commander and pursue a political career, he may be replaced by Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, IRGC QF deputy, about whom little is written in English-language open-source material. This Middle Eastern Outlook, the fourth in a series about the IRGC QF, presents data on Qaani extracted from Persian-language open-source material and discusses Qaani’s relationship with Suleimani.
Esmail Qaani: A Biography
According to Green Movement opposition sources, Qaani was born in Bojnord in North Khorasan province, which corresponds with his military career in various IRGC units from the province and his frequent presence in the Razavi Khorasan and North Khorasan provinces. (See appendix.) Qaani’s date of birth is unknown, but he appears slightly older than the fifty-four-year-old Suleimani.
Qaani has at least one son, Ali Qaani, who is supposedly a student of electrical engineering at the Mashhad branch of Azad University. This source also writes that the son was allegedly arrested for participating in anti-government rallies in 2009 at university campuses in Mashhad. Qaani has dismissed this claim. The open-source materials also refer to a certain “Dr. Ghaani”—the alternative Latin transliteration of Qaani—who is the principal of the Shi’a Islamic College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and may be related to the IRGC QF deputy. It would make sense that a relative of Qaani is engaged in religious missionary work of the Intelligence Ministry.
"The intense media exposure of Suleimani in Iran may be a sign that he is the choice of the Iranian political leadership’s for the next head of the executive branch."
The earliest record of Qaani’s activities in the IRGC dates back to December 1982, when then IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezai tasked a leading IRGC commander from Isfahan, Morteza Qorbani, to identify competent guardsmen to form a division from Khorasan province. Qorbani presented three individuals to Rezai who would compose the nucleus of the newly established division, which was later called the Fifth Nasr Division: Nour-Ali Shoushtari, a key IRGC commander who was assassinated on October 18, 2009, in Pishin in Sistan va Baluchestan province; Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, currently mayor of Tehran; and Qaani. Toward the end of the war with Iraq, Rezai appointed Qaani Fifth Nasr Division commander, replacing Qalibaf.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, on August 17, 1988, Rezai appointed Qaani division deputy of the IRGC Ground Forces’ eighth operational zone, headquartered in Mashhad. The Persian-language open-source material does not provide any information about Qaani’s activities from August 1988 to the late 1990s, but one can safely assume that Qaani was involved in suppressing the June 1992 social unrest in Mashhad. It is equally likely that Qaani was involved in the IRGC’s operations against drug cartels infiltrating Khorasan province from Afghanistan and in the IRGC’s support to the Jebhe-ye Mouttahid-i Islami-yi Milli Bara-yi Nijat-i Afghanistan [United Islamic National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan], also known as the Northern Alliance, against the Taliban in the late 1990s.
The earliest documented reference to Qaani as an IRGC QF commander appears in Mohammad Mohaddessin’s 1993 edition of Islamic Fundamentalism—The New Global Threat, in which Qaani is identified as Fourth Ansar Corps of the IRGC QF commander. According to Mohaddessin, the Fourth Ansar Corps is “responsible for Guards Corps’ activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Asian republics,” which supports the hypothesis on Qaani’s engagements with the Northern Alliance in the 1990s.
A second reference to Qaani—this time as IRGC QF deputy commander—appears in an Iraqi intelligence schematic of the QF organization, dated 2000, which has a striking resemblance to Mohaddessin’s IRGC QF organizational chart. It is, therefore, likely that Qaani was appointed QF deputy commander during the escalation of Iran and the Taliban sometime between 1993 and 2000.
Later reports on Qaani’s military career appear contradictory. On May 6, 2006, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi appointed Qaani IRGC counterintelligence deputy, serving under Hojjat al-Eslam Gholam-Hossein Ramezani, but in press reports since May 6, 2006, Qaani is presented as IRGC QF deputy. (See appendix.) The dual function of Qaani as both IRGC QF deputy and IRGC counterintelligence deputy is unusual, but not implausible.
Qaani’s War-Era Experiences and Leadership
In the course of the war against Iraq, Qaani and the Fifth Nasr Division participated in successful operations such as Ashura (October 18–22, 1984), liberating the Fasil and Garkoni heights in the north of Meimak; the Valfajr VIII operation (February 9–April 29, 1986), capturing al-Faw Peninsula; Karbala I (June 30–July 10, 1986), liberating Mehran; Nasr VIII (November 20–21, 1987), stabilizing the Iranian positions around Maoot; and Karbala V (January 9–March 3, 1987), capturing Shalamcheh. However, Qaani also participated in the disastrous Beit al-Moqaddas VII operation (June 25, 1988), which resulted in the Iranian debacle at Majnoun peninsula. Qaani is at least partially to blame for the defeat at Majnoun, since he served as Fifth Nasr Division commander during the operation.
Qaani seems to share Suleimani’s ability for improvisation in military operations. While planning the Nasr VIII operation, for example, Qaani suggested alternative ways of transporting automobiles to the other side of the Qal’e-Cholan River even before the bridge had been built. Another characteristic Suleimani and Qaani share is their participation in high-risk reconnaissance missions prior to military operations. Like Suleimani, Qaani stresses the importance of the IRGC commanders acting as the vanguards of the forces during attacks rather than leading from behind.
Qaani’s war-era record does not display the same degree of distinction as Suleimani’s, but at times Qaani has displayed the courage to question the wisdom of decisions made by his superiors. On September 29, 1987, Qaani engaged in a fierce debate with Ali Shamkhani, IRGC Ground Forces commander, over the ability of the IRGC to fight in the Maoot operational zone. The day after this meeting, Qaani questioned the ability of the IRGC Logistics division to provide food for his men.
However, the war-era records also indicate fundamental differences between Suleimani and Qaani. While Suleimani was a charismatic leader universally loved by the men under his command—a theme often referred to in the open-source materials—only one source describes Qaani as a popular commander. Another source describes the young Qaani as “a thin youth with an innocent face . . . a humble man.” Qaani also seems to have faced many challenges from his men, who wanted to fight on the southern front to escape the cold, poor provisions and the Kurdish insurgents in the north.
"Decision makers planning US military withdrawal from Afghanistan can safely assume that an IRGC QF led by Qaani would engage much more aggressively in Afghanistan and central Asia."
Ideological Tenets of Qaani’s Thinking
Suleimani’s and Qaani’s speeches reveal both their similarities and differences. They both extensively use the standard IRGC praise of the martyrs from the war with Iraq and make only passing remarks to internal Iranian affairs. More recently, both men have started commenting on the Arab Spring, or “the Islamic awakening” in the Islamic Republic’s official parlance.
However, their styles are also remarkably different. While the charismatic Suleimani, particularly in his youth, managed to move men with his simple vocabulary and deeply personal and humble style, Qaani’s speeches seem completely impersonal and rehearsed and do not reveal much about him.
While Suleimani is usually more direct in his speeches, Qaani hides behind official rhetoric. This is particularly true of Qaani’s few remarks on internal affairs in Iran. Also, Qaani’s statements on regional developments closely echo the platitudes of the political level: “The Islamic Republic is the safe haven of all [world revolutionary] movements,” Qaani said on one occasion. The same goes for Qaani’s statements about martyrs, and standard mantra on the Arab spring as continuity of “the path of Iran’s Islamic revolution.” He has even claimed that “the sacred defense” (the Iran/Iraq War) is the “role model of the current Islamic awakening [Arab Spring] in the region.”
Qaani and Suleimani belong to the same network, but Qaani also seems to have a long history of relations with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a recently published booklet commemorating Khamenei’s war-era activities, Qaani is one of eight surviving war veterans who describes his encounter with Khamenei during the war. Qaani reveals that Khamenei, a native of Mashhad, would lead mourning ceremonies for Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of the Shi’a buried in Khorasan, with “the boys from Mashhad,” who served in the Fifth Nasr Division during the war with Iraq. Qaani and Khamenei are also indirectly connected through Qaani’s superior Shoushtari, who knew Khamenei even before the revolution.
Suleimani and Qaani: Physical Presence
A survey of the whereabouts of Suleimani and Qaani since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, drawing on available open-source materials, provides strong indications of the division of labor between the two, with Qaani’s primary responsibility being Afghanistan. (See appendix.)
The survey has produced about 135 entries concerning the physical whereabouts of Suleimani and Qaani: 68 references to Suleimani and 67 references to Qaani. According to this data, since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988, Suleimani and Qaani were present at the same time and place on only a single occasion: the September 28, 2009, Quds Day celebration in Kerman. This may be a security measure so that in case of an assassination plot at least one of the two would survive. This could also mean that Qaani conducts the day-to-day administration of the IRGC QF when Suleimani attends ceremonial events.
According to the data, Suleimani and Qaani spend significant time in their respective hometowns. Since 1988, we find eighteen references to Suleimani’s public appearances in Kerman and twenty-nine references to Qaani’s public appearances in Razavi Khorasan province in the same period. The Iranian press does not refer to Suleimani and Qaani’s visits to IRGC QF bases, but Qaani’s significant presence in Razavi Khorasan province is of great importance. According to the Iraqi intelligence report, the QF has four regional commands dedicated to the areas immediately surrounding Iran, and the Fourth IRGC QF base is in Mashhad, the capital of Razavi Khorasan. One can therefore assume that Qaani’s presence in Mashhad is due to his role as commander of the Fourth QF Corps.
There are also other factors indicating Qaani’s engagement in Afghanistan: The Iranian press has reported that significant numbers of Afghan refugees and immigrants attend Qaani’s speeches in Razavi Khorasan. Other references in the Iranian press document Qaani’s participation in poetry evenings with Afghan Mujahedeen—and Guantanamo Bay detention camp veterans such as Seyyed Ali-Shah Mousavi Gardizi. According to Gardizi, the United States Army accused him of working to topple “the government [of Afghanistan], plan a popular uprising and surrender Paktia [province in eastern Afghanistan] to the opponents.” Such associations may provide further indication of Qaani’s charge over the IRGC QF operations in Afghanistan.
There are twelve references to Suleimani’s presence in Tehran since 1988 and only two references to Qaani’s presence in the capital in the same period, which may be because of Suleimani’s functions as IRGC QF commander. Other provinces in which Suleimani and Qaani have made public appearances are Bandar Abbas, Fars, Gilan, Isfahan, Kurdistan, North Khorasan, Qom, Semnan, and Yazd.
Few sources refer to the international travels of Suleimani and Qaani, but these deserve mention. The open-source materials refer only once to Qaani’s international travels. On November 23, 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accompanied by “200 business leaders,” flew to Brasilia from Gambia for a twenty-four-hour stay, before continuing on to Bolivia, Venezuela, and Senegal. Since Brazil considers the IRGC QF a terrorist organization, Qaani’s presence proved controversial. In a later inquiry, Brazilian Senator Eduardo Azeredo, chairman of the Joint Committee for the Control of Intelligence Activities, asked the Brazilian justice minister if Qaani was part of Ahmadinejad’s entourage during the visit to Brazil. The justice minister dismissed Qaani’s presence in Brasilia, but the Brazilian Federal Police Department later admitted that Qaani had accompanied Ahmadinejad and was granted a transit visa by Brazilian authorities.
Slightly more references exist to Suleimani’s international travels. Suleimani’s earliest documented foreign visit was on January 21, 1999, to Tajikistan, which probably served the purpose of arming the anti-Taliban Afghan groups. The second reference in the open-source materials is Suleimani’s April 2006 visit to the Green Zone in Baghdad. Around May 1, 2008, Suleimani held negotiations with Iraqi authorities in the Iran/Iraq border area, and on September 10, 2009, Suleimani allegedly held talks with the Iraqi president in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. Suleimani’s latest documented trip is his December 2009 visit to Damascus, Syria.
Without additional information about Qaani’s international travels, one cannot draw any conclusions, but based on this information Qaani may oversee the IRGC QF activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and central Asia, along with more distant countries in Africa and South America, while Suleimani attends to the security concerns in western Iran, such as developments in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
In the face of increasing divisions among the ruling elites of the Islamic Republic, ever-harsher sanctions against Iran, and the threat of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the regime is in search of a public figure capable of unifying the nation. Few people other than Suleimani can play such a role, and the intensified press coverage of his public appearances may suggest that Suleimani will soon leave his position in the IRGC QF and pursue a career in politics. Therefore, it is all the more important to pay attention to Qaani, who may replace Suleimani as IRGC QF commander.
The relationship between Qaani—the potential IRGC QF commander—and Suleimani—the potential chief executive—may be too early to predict. Qaani’s battlefield experience, network within the IRGC, and long acquaintance with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may aid him as Suleimani’s replacement, but there is no doubt that the uncharismatic and less distinguished Qaani would have great difficulties filling Suleimani’s boots.
That Qaani directs the IRGC QF’s activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and central Asia may also provide an indication that he would focus primarily on Afghanistan as IRGC QF commander. Decision makers planning US military withdrawal from Afghanistan can safely assume that an IRGC QF led by Qaani would engage much more aggressively in Afghanistan and central Asia.
Ali Alfoneh ([email protected]) is a resident fellow at AEI. The author thanks AEI scholars Danielle Pletka and Frederick Kagan, along with Michael Eisenstadt, Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior fellow, for their advice.
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