With tensions growing between Iran and the United States, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has undergone a new round of senior appointments and structural changes in its key intelligence, security, and cultural branches.
The new appointments do not affect the exalted position held by Major-General Qasem Soleimani of the IRGC’s Quds Force, responsible for Iran’s clandestine military operations throughout the world. Soleimani, the “Shadow Commander,” has been described by Iran’s Supreme Leader as “a living martyr of the revolution.”1
On April 21, 2019, a short time after the U.S. Government designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Hossein Salami as its commander-in-chief. As part of the recent round of appointments to the IRGC, on May 16, 2019, Khamenei appointed Admiral Ali Fadavi as its deputy commander and Mohammadreza Naqdi as coordinating deputy to the IRGC commander. Ali Fadavi served in the past as commander of the IRGC’s navy (IRGCN), while Naqdi served as head of its Basij (volunteer) paramilitary force.2
Like his commander, Fadavi holds hawkish views. He was the commander of the IRGCN during the detainment of the 10 American sailors in the Persian Gulf (January 2016) and received a special military medal from Khamenei for his efforts. Fadavi is known for his harsh declarations against the presence of the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf, and he expressed approval of blockading the Strait of Hormuz. He believes in the IRGC’s ability to prevail over the United States in a possible clash in the Gulf and went so far as to ridicule President Hassan Rouhani and call on him “to express remorse” for his talk of a U.S.-Iranian compromise that could prevent a war.3
Various intelligence reports blame the IRGC Navy for the May 13, 2019, attacks on oil tankers at the UAE port of Fujairah.
Preparing for a Possible Domestic Escalation
Naqdi, 58 years old, is considered one of the veteran IRGC commanders. Less than three years ago, Khamenei himself took command of the Basij from Naqdi and appointed Gholamhossein Gheybparvar as his deputy. Naqdi was not sent home but was given a junior, less significant position as deputy head of the IRGC’s Unit for Culture and Social Affairs.
Even though the appointment of Ali Fadavi as stand-in commander of the IRGC came as no surprise in light of the similarity of his worldview to that of Hossein Salami, the appointment of Naqdi was met with incredulity because of the importance of his post. Naqdi is considered one of the offspring of the Iranians who were born and grew up in Iraq in recent decades. He also served as commander of the Badr division, which included Iraqis who lived in Iran and operated against Saddam Hussein’s regime. He is thought to have close ties with the commanders of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), the Iraqi pro-Iranian Shiite militia. Naqdi was appointed the commander of the Basij during the 2009 protests against the rigged election that gave then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term. As Basij commander, Naqdi played a key role in the cruel and violent suppression of the civil revolt. The reformist camp, along with human rights organizations within and outside Iran, continues to accuse him of involvement in severe tortures of civilians and also of a considerable number of regime members, such as Tehran’s mayor. A military court in Iran even sentenced Naqdi to eight months in prison, though the punishment was never carried out.4
International human rights organizations, the European Union, and the UN Security Council have declared him one of the Iranian regime’s most violent commanders when it comes to domestic repression.5
The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Naqdi in February 2011 for “being responsible for or complicit in serious human rights abuses.”
With the appointment of Naqdi at this point, Khamenei is conveying a clear message to the Iranian citizens that the regime will not tolerate and will harshly suppress any sign of a civil revolt when external threats to the regime’s existence by the United States and its allies are growing, and the U.S. sanctions are eroding the country’s economy.
Structural Changes in Intelligence: The IRGC
Within the framework of the IRGC appointments, on May 18, 2019, Hossein Salami appointed Hossein Taib as commander of the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC and promoted Hassan Mohaqeq to be his deputy6. Fars and news agencies affiliated with the IRGC announced that Taib’s powers had been expanded with the merging of the Office of the Deputy of Strategic Intelligence of the IRGC and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.7
Salami’s decision to consolidate the two entities was made so that they could more efficiently perform their tasks, improve decision-making processes in time of emergency, strengthen security and information security within the IRGC, and prepare for domestic and external threats.
Mohaqeq replaced Hossein Najat, who had served under Taib as deputy head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization since December 2016. Najat was appointed head of the Unit for Culture and Welfare Affairs of the IRGC in place of Muhammad Reza Naqdi.
Hossein Taib remains in a key IRGC post, with enhanced powers, despite calls from within to remove him. Many reformists, including even former President Ahmadinejad, have called on Khamenei to dismiss Taib and to prosecute him. In recent days Hossein Sarafraz, former director-general of the Iranian Broadcasting Authority, revealed unprecedented information about Taib’s misdeeds and accused him of violent involvement in plots by different organizations of the regime to assassinate senior regime officials and other Iranians. Sarafraz disclosed, among other things, that Taib had planned and engaged in efforts to kill Shahrazad Mirgholikhan, a woman who was the former chief supervisor of the Iranian Broadcasting Authority. She had been married in the past to one of the senior IRGC commanders, and she served five years in an American prison for violating the sanctions against Iran after she tried to smuggle 3,000 night-vision cameras into Iran in a deal involving her husband.
After a divorce from the commander, Mirgholikhan fled from Iran to Oman three years ago because of threats from Hossein Taib. She continues, however, to appear frequently on the social networks to reveal information about the corruption of the senior IRGC officials. In recent days she called on Khamenei to remove Taib from the ranks of the government, saying she was about to expose secret and very important information about a connection between IRGC commanders and Middle Eastern terror organizations.8
Hossein Sarafraz, Mirgholikhan’s former director, went to Oman to visit her last month, and upon returning to Iran, he said in interviews that Taib’s deeds and his plotting against Mirgholikhan and other Iranians constitute a danger to the regime.9 Despite all the scandals in which Taib’s name is involved, his status was raised, and powers increased by the IRGC commander apparently after consultations with the Leader of the regime. The bolstering of Taib further sharpens the regime’s message to the citizens of the country that it will not tolerate any protest at the current sensitive and problematic juncture for Iran.10, 11
The IRGC Prepares to Confront the United States
The long series of appointments among the IRGC leadership reflects Iran’s preparation, domestically and externally, for a protracted campaign in the regional and international arenas. Hossein Salami and Ali Fadavi (who are well familiar with Iran’s asymmetrical-warfare strategies for the Persian Gulf) are expected to contend with military threats from the United States and other “enemies of Iran,” while Hossein Taib and Mohammad Reza Naqdi are expected to mount a response to the domestic threats, particularly the far-reaching one of a civil insurrection in light of the rapid aggravation of the economic crisis amid the tightening U.S. sanctions.
During Taib’s appointment ceremony, Salami asserted that Iran is engaged in a full-scale intelligence (information) war with the United States and other enemies of Iran and the Islamic way. He added that the war is being waged in the domains of cyber, psychology, military moves, public diplomacy, and others. He declared that the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization would focus on “the United States and the [other] enemies [of Iran] to identify their strategy and behavior patterns, so that ultimately [we] will be able to defeat them.” The IRGC commander added further that the political philosophy behind Washington’s policy would bring the United States to the verge of collapse, that “the end of the United States is near,” and that “the American story will collapse exactly as the Twin Towers collapsed.” Iran, conversely, would gain greatly in power and stability thanks to its faith.12
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