General Hosein Salimi
Hossein Salami, the new commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

It’s no secret that Washington’s current antagonism towards Iran — along with its  unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — has empowered harder-line elements in Iranian politics and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

That has brought about important changes in the IRGC command, and these bear scrutiny. Ambiguity is embedded in Iranian culture. Generally, major personnel or policy shifts cannot be explained by an evident doctrine, but it can be helpful to delineate processes and identify telling patterns.

The recent shift began with the unexpected April 2019 replacement of the IRGC chief commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, whose tenure had earlier been extended until 2020 but was then cut short.

The new commander, Hossein Salami, clearly operates differently. Significantly, he is not one of the first-generation commanders who held senior positions during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s. Informed Iran observers view Salami as a propaganda operative.

But why make such changes now?

This may be symptomatic of a desire to develop more confrontational rhetoric towards Iran’s enemies but also be an outgrowth of other sources of tension.

Some analysts see it as a reaction to the designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) by the Donald Trump administration. Others believe the shift anticipates wide-ranging confrontation with the US. It could also be politically motivated, particularly in the context of the current competition to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Parallel to this and other recent developments at the highest levels of the IRGC, rumours have emerged to the effect that Israel has infiltrated the IRGC command structure. Considering that Israeli intelligence managed to steal the so-called nuclear archives from inside Iran, such rumours are credible, but the Iranian authorities have dismissed them.

The IRGC has four intelligence and security units, and the overall structure of the military organisation must therefore be understood if the significance of moves affecting those organs are to be understood. The units are:

  • The Quds Force is in charge of foreign operations and is led by Qassem Soleimani.
  • The IRGC Intelligence Organisation, which exists parallel to the Ministry of Information, is led by hard-line cleric Hossein Taeb. This unit is responsible for many security operations, including the arrests of dual nationals that have put a major strain on Iran’s relations with Western countries.
  • The IRGC Information Protection Organisation is in charge of safeguarding sensitive information and is an anti-espionage unit, again in parallel to and clashing with the Ministry of Information.
  • The IRGC Protection Unit is in charge of the security of high-ranking officials and essential sites and institutions, as well as airports and key infrastructure. Interestingly, in April 2019, Ali Nasiri was replaced by Fathollah Jamiri after serving only 18 months as head of this unit.

The timing of the sudden change at the helm of the IRGC Protection Unit suggests that….

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