After Soleimani: What's Next for Iran's QudsForce?

Author:Tabatabai, Ariane M.

With Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Soleimani dead, a key question before U.S. policymakers and analysts lies in the future of this unit, most closely associated with Iran's troubling regional activities ranging from interventions in various conflicts and support for terrorist groups and insurgents. This article considers Soleimani's legacy for the IRGC-QF, analyzes his successor's characteristics, and assesses what the transition may mean for the organization. It argues that the IRGC-QF is unlikely to change its modus operandi significantly and that the new Quds Force commander, Esmail Qaani, is likely to ensure a smooth transition.

Qassem Soleimani is dead. The 62-year-old commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) elite unit known as the Quds Force (IRGC-QF) had long been one of the United States' most effective foes. Often described as the "shadow commander," Soleimani had played a key role in designing and executing Iran's policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. But his reach was not simply limited to those theaters and countries, though they were the most challenging for the United States. The network of non-state allies and partners Soleimani helped cultivate is now composed of thousands of forces in the region and its influence extends beyond the Middle East and South Asia. When President Trump made the decision to target Soleimani, the administration stated that it was acting to disrupt what it has described as an "imminent" attack and to reestablish deterrence--although this claim has been disputed. (1) But it also likely hoped that the move would at least help to undermine the IRGC-QF and thwart its operations. To be sure, Soleimani occupied a unique place in Iran's security architecture and in some ways, was perhaps unparalleled in his ability to advance Iranian national interests as viewed by the regime. But the degree to which Soleimani's death will change the course of the Quds Force's activities in the region and beyond is up for debate. To make sense of what that might mean going forward, it is critical to understand what the IRGC-QF could look like with Soleimani out of the equation.

The question of the implications of Soleimani's death and the potential disruption or continuity in IRGC-QF activities is significant for a number of reasons. Today, Iran is directly and indirectly involved in half a dozen countries in its region from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Yemen. The IRGC-QF plays a central role in many of these theaters, and the network of non-state allies and partners the unit has helped cultivate counts thousands of forces across several different groups and organizations to include Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Fatemiyoun (Afghan Shi'a militia) and Zeinabiyoun (Pakistani Shi'a militia) in Syria. It remains to be seen if and how Soleimani's death will change Iran's footprint, the breadth, depth, and scope of Tehran's relations with its proxies, and how the country intervenes abroad-primarily through 'train and advise' missions rather than direct and large deployments of troops. Under Soleimani, the IRGC-QF was instrumental in allowing Iran to compete with an otherwise conventionally superior and nuclear-armed adversary, the United States, and its partners and allies. With Soleimani gone, Washington must understand how Iran is likely to compete and how the IRGC-QF will fit in the Iranian national security and defense toolbox.

There are several reasons to believe that the IRGC-QF's operations will not fundamentally shift following Soleimani's death. These are divided into two broad categories: organizational and personal. First, on the organizational side, the force today is institutionalized and bureaucratic. It is far from the one-man show that one may assume existed based on Soleimani's stature (an image that had been cultivated both top-down by the Islamic Republic in general and the IRGC in particular and bottom-up by a populace looking for a protector and eager to find solace amidst regional crises and threats). Second, currently very little is known about Soleimani's successor, as he has largely operated under the radar. But what is known of him indicates that he is likely to replace Soleimani with ease and continue his work.

This article begins with a brief overview of the IRGC-QF and how it came into being. It discusses how the unit helped formalize a policy pre-dating it and, indeed, even the Islamic Republic itself. Next, this paper will discuss Soleimani's leadership style and his legacy, before describing what is known of his successor, Esmail Qaani. Finally, the article will examine what is next for the IRGC-QF and what to expect in terms of Iranian policy going forward.

The Shadow Commander and the Quds Force

Iran established the IRGC-QF in 1990 to replace the Office of Liberation Movements (OLM) under direct order from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, (2) who was then in the early stages of his tenure, having assumed the supreme leadership a year prior.

The OLM helped build the infrastructure for the IRGC-QF in the early 1980s. Its first major mission abroad was the deployment of a number of its forces to Lebanon in 1982 to help organize and support the Shi'a militias fighting against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Shortly thereafter, the OLM would play an important role in helping unite these militias under the banner of Lebanese Hezbollah. (3) But it did not have to start its work from scratch. Indeed, already prior to the revolution, under the U.S.aligned Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (known as the Shah), Iran was working to cultivate ties with various non-state partners in the region, including in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan-in other words, countries where the Islamic Republic would intervene and/or support non-state actors. (4) At the time, the main motivation for Tehran seeking such relationships resided in its Cold War fear of a communist takeover. Under the Shah, the main intelligence organization in the country-better known by its Persian acronym, SAVAK-was in charge of these relationships. (5)

The IRGC-QF was established to succeed the OLM, which had, in turn, taken over parts of the SAVAK's mandate with the 1979 Islamic Revolution transforming the Imperial State of Iran into the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new elite force was designed to tackle the country's regional interventions and proxy relations. In 1998, Soleimani became the IRGC-QF's second commander, succeeding General Ahmad...

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