A handout picture provided by the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on January 3, 2020, shows the newly-appointed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Esmail Qaani.

Esmail Qaani, the man appointed by Iran to succeed the charismatic Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, is expected to bring his experience in cultivating regional militias to the IRGC’s external operations arm, and most critically, to further the Supreme Leader’s goal of ridding the region of US troops.

Like Soleimani, Qaani, 62, is a veteran of the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, during which he commanded units that included allied Afghan mujahedeen, according to a profile in state news agency Tasnim.

But while Soleimani gained more prominence as a battlefield commander, Qaani over the years focused on connecting disparate Shiite minority communities in the region and bringing them into Iran’s sphere.

“He has mostly concentrated on Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Asia … finding common points, galvanizing previously docile Shia communities and bringing them closer to Iran,” said Kamal Alam, a military analyst focused on West Asia.

That also meant “indoctrination, and then actual mobilization and finally deployment into the battlefield,” Alam told Asia Times, namely during the war against the Sunni extremist group Islamic State.

In the wake of Qaani’s appointment, an official from the Supreme Leader’s Bureau of Political Affairs told Iran’s Azaz University news agency that the Quds Force veteran had played a key coordination role in the force, establishing relationships as far afield as resistance groups in Africa – most likely Nigeria. 

In Qaani’s first press conference after Soleimani’s January 3 assassination by a US strike in Baghdad, Qaani stood flanked by the flags of the Shiite militias which the Islamic Republic has cultivated over the past years and decades, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Fatimeyoun Brigade of Afghanistan.

“That was something even Soleimani didn’t do,” noted Alam.

Soleimani, however, had assumed an outsized media profile in recent years, a social media team clearly in tow to craft his public persona on Instagram as he popped up on battlefronts from Syria to Iraq.

Many analysts expect Qaani, who was born in Mashhad, to assume a more discreet role.

“Soleimani’s assassination almost certainly raised concerns regarding operational security within the organization and Soleimani’s surge in media exposure during and after his role in the fight against ISIS is likely under scrutiny,” said Will Fulton, an Iran analyst focusing on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“I expect the reporting on Qaani to be much more limited and his military persona to be rooted in the mystique of his obfuscated activities,” Fulton told Asia Times.

Opening for Rouhani

While much has been made of Soleimani’s persona, he was a general in a military apparatus, and not a one-man show, emphasizes Matthew Petti, a Persian speaking reporter who closely follows the Iranian press.

“Iran is a nation-state with a sophisticated national security bureaucracy that includes a national security council, a joint chiefs of staff and a modern hierarchy,” he told Asia Times. “It is in some ways modeled after the US.”

“Rather than looking at personalities and Shiite Muslim symbolism,” Petti says, outsiders should compare Iran’s IRGC to other developed military structures when trying to guess its new commander’s next move.

“Soleimani’s successor can be expected to continue the policies set by consensus between the Supreme Leader, top military brass and the elected representatives of the Rouhani government,” he told Asia Times.

What Soleimani’s death could do, however, is create an opening for the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani and his appointees, who face an election battle this year. 

“As we saw from the leaks in the Intercept, there is a quiet but very real rivalry between members of Rohani’s administration – the elected government – and the Revolutionary Guards,” said Petti.

The investigative site the Intercept in collaboration with the New York Times last year published a report on leaked documents from Iran’s national security agency, which assessed Soleimani was alienating Sunnis in the region through his public appearances amongst Shiite militias. 

Soleimani’s battlefield notoriety, a report said, “made it obvious that Iran controlled the dreaded Shia militias.”

“This policy of Iran in Iraq has allowed the Americans to return to Iraq with greater legitimacy,” it further warned.

The removal of such a powerful figure thus “will remove an obstacle for the rivals of the Revolutionary Guards in the national security apparatus to carve out their own space for decision making,” said Petti.

“Soleimani was always too much of a charismatic figure domestically to attack.”

Qaani, in contrast, is not.

The IRGC veteran begins his tenure with the stain of the Guards having mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian Airlines passenger jet full of fellow Iranians, sabotaging a moment of national unity in the wake of Soleimani’s killing.

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