By Mahmoud Hakamian
It was reported on Monday that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had appointed a new head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, roughly two weeks after US President Donald Trump announced that the entire organization would be sanctioned and designated as a foreign terrorist organization. No clear explanation was given for the sudden change in leadership, although it arguably represents an even more hardline shift for the already avowedly conservative paramilitary.
Speaking to Bloomberg News, Atlantic Council senior fellow Amir Handjani explained that the new appointee, 58-year-old Hossein Salami, is “well-versed in the exercise of brute force.” In an English-language tweet, Khamenei only referred vaguely to Salami’s “qualities and valuable experiences in major managerial responsibilities.” The tweet also announced the erstwhile brigadier general’s announcement to the rank of major general. The supreme leader’s statement of praise seemingly reflects Handjani’s assessment that Salami is “very much an operations guy.”
But the real importance of his operational experience reportedly stems from the confrontational stance that Khamenei and the Iranian regime as a whole have taken amidst deteriorating relations with the US and, to a lesser extent, the nations of Europe. “Khamenei picked Salami because he foresees a confrontational footing with the U.S. and he wants a hardliner’s hardliner,” Handjani said.
In this sense, the new appointment may be viewed as the latest in a series of expressions of defiance in the wake of the IRGC terror designation. Indeed, Salami himself was quick to contribute such an expression, stating on April 13 that he and the rest of the organization were “proud” to have received that designation from Washington. This comports with Khamenei’s own statement, at a gathering of military leaders four days later, that “any action that makes the enemy angry is appropriate and correct.”
This in turn coincided with vague threats of retaliation against the terror designation. It is not clear whether Salami’s appointment is viewed as a component of that retaliation, or as setting the stage for further such action. It is also possible that the removal of Salami’s predecessor is being viewed by the clerical establishment as its own rejection of the Trump administration’s effort to put pressure on the IRGC. This is because that former leader, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has been moved to a role as leader of one of the country’s influential and well-financed cultural and social organizations, through which the IRGC already exerts much of its influence over civilian affairs.
That influence, just as well as the IRGC’s direct terrorist role and its support of proxy groups like Hezbollah, is part of the Trump administration’s rationale for imposing extensive sanctions and penalizing anyone who provides material support to the hardline paramilitary. It has been frequently speculated that the ultimate goal of the administration’s Iran policy is to promote regime change, perhaps by supporting Resistance elements inside Iranian society. But many critics of the clerical regime have insisted that breaking the IRGC’s hold on that society is a crucial prerequisite to such an outcome.
This perspective was emphasized on Friday by IranWire when it published an analysis of how the terror designation might change Iran. The article also specifically attributed that perspective to the Trump administration, stating that its “thinking seems to be that if Iran is going to change — whether this means regime change or a massive overhaul to how it responds with the outer world — the Guards will have to be confronted and broken up.”
That view was given credence, for instance, by political science Professor Saeid Gholkar, who was quoted in the article as saying, “The Guards must be seen as the main variable when considering the future of Iran.” IranWire went on to say that the growing influence of the IRGC has helped to constrain political choices in the Islamic Republic, specifically limiting electoral options to “hard hardliners and the hardest of hardliners.”
The article attributed this influence in large part to Supreme Leader Khamenei’s relationship with the IRGC since taking over leadership of the country from its late founder Ruhollah Khomeini. With the IRGC operating as “his own private army” to suppress domestic dissent, Khamenei “has allowed the IRGC to become a military and industrial conglomerate that has penetrated every facet of life and power in Iran and much of the Middle East.” By moving the former head of the paramilitary into a prominent role in Iran’s semi-private sector, Khamenei may have signaled to both the hardline establishment and its foreign enemies that he remains committed to this process.
Such commitment could amplify the effects of the IRGC sanctions upon the rest of the Iranian economy. But there is a great deal of confidence surrounding the notion of those sanctions putting effective pressure on the organization and the regime. In the short term, IranWire foresees an increase in the repression of dissent – something that was evidenced by reports of renewed efforts to shut down Instagram following the platform’s blockage of several IRGC-affiliated accounts. But as the Center for Human Rights in Iran noted on Friday, the people have been pushing back against these efforts and would likely continue to challenge the IRGC and its political allies.
This speaks to IranWire’s long-term projection that it will be “very difficult, if not impossible” for the IRGC to develop a plan to survive in the midst of the newfound American pressures. Although critics of the Trump administration’s assertive Iran policy may expect such pressures to create an upsurge of nationalist sentiment in the Islamic Republic, IranWire casts doubt on this by emphasizing that the Iranian population largely views the IRGC as “both a symbol of the failure of the Islamic Revolution [and] the force behind this failure.”
That view was arguably on display during many of the popular protests that took place in 2018 – a period referred to by National Council of Resistance of Iran leader Maryam Rajavi as “a year full of uprisings.” Among those protests, as well as in more recent protests against an incompetent government response to widespread flooding, there were notable clashes between participants and IRGC operatives.
To whatever extent economic sanctions are successful in weakening the IRGC or loosening its hold on various aspects of Iranian society, they will likely encourage more of these sorts of clashes. Meanwhile, the accompanying scrutiny of the IRGC’s domestic and foreign activities may help to encourage broader international cooperation in confronting Iran’s hardline elements.
According to another IranWire report, some of that scrutiny could even “expose Iran to possible military intervention by the United States.” This observation was made in reference to recent comments by IRGC General Saeed Ghasemi admitting that the organization used the Red Crescent relief organization to carry out activities in the 1990s, which included collaboration with Al Qaeda.
Iranian connections to the group that carried out the 9/11 attacks on the US have long been alleged, by Ghasemi’s comments seemingly represent a unique form of confirmation. And such connections ostensibly authorize the US president to unilaterally order military action against Iran. There has been no indication to date that this is the intention of the current administration, which has largely sought to extricate US forces from military entanglements in the region. Yet the heightened potential for conflict may constitute a new form of pressure on Tehran, as by calling the supreme leader’s bluff in the midst of his efforts to promote “the hardest of hardliners” and to encourage the further escalation of tensions between Iran and the West.