It was reported on Wednesday that Bagheri had been appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as a replacement for Hassan Firouzabadi, who had held the position since 1989. The incident was described by the New York Times as a “shake up” of the armed forces, apparently motivated by a desire to move the military closer to the supreme leader and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and marginally further away from President Hassan Rouhani.
Whereas Firouzabadi was reportedly close to both figures, Bagheri has more transparent allegiance to the supreme leader, as well as being a member of the IRGC and a former deputy of intelligence and operations for the hardline paramilitary group, which operates separately from the regular army. The implications of his posting to the head of the army were examined by the Long War Journal in another article that was also published on Thursday.
That piece of analysis concluded that Bagheri’s appointment was indicative of a trend that would make the Iranian military “more revolutionary” and more prone to close coordination with the IRGC. This same trend was arguably already on display in April when it was reported that Iran was deploying commandos from the regular army to fight in Syria, where efforts on behalf of the Islamic Republic had previously been prosecuted only by the IRGC and a variety of militant proxies that it controlled.
The overall trend toward closer cooperation between the military and paramilitary might suggest that the former will provide support for the latter as it strives to expand its reach across the broader Middle East. The growth of Iranian influence is something that has been an obvious cause of concern for critics of Tehran and for regional powers like Israel and Saudi Arabia at least since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West.
The trend has been most obvious in Syria, where Iran was credited with saving the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad from the brink of overthrow by relatively moderate rebel forces. Since then, the moderate rebels have been to a great extent overshadowed by ISIS militants. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army has reportedly become subordinate to Shiite militias that are overwhelmingly supported and controlled by Tehran.
The National Interest took a new look at this situation on Thursday, through an article that examined the growing complexity of Iran’s regional interventions and the increasing number of fronts on which it is fighting. The article argues that while Iran has sacrificed much in Syria and has succeeded in preserving the Assad regime over the short term, it has seen little benefit for itself as a result. The one notable exception to this, however, is the way in which the Syrian intervention has given Iran a “region-wide army of Shia and local militias stretching from Lebanon to Iraq and into South Asia.”
Although the National Interest emphasizes that there is essentially no way for Iran to achieve victory on all of its regional fronts, the same article notes that the current circumstances open up the possibility of Iran gaining greater and greater influence in Iraq, in what it called a process of “Iranianization” of security and political structures. This is evidently dependent, however, on Iran effectively keeping the local opposition in check – opposition that the National Interest says is prone to growth as a result of Iran driving recruitment to competing sectarian forces in Iraq and elsewhere.
This divisive sectarian influence was highlighted by CIA Director John Brennan in an interview with Judy Woodruff for PBS Newshour. The interview highlighted recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry claiming that Iran had been more helpful than harmful in the global conflict against ISIS. Asked for his opinion on the matter, Brennan avoided directly contradicting the Secretary of State, but did emphasize that many of the things Iran has done in Iraq and Syria has facilitated the growth of regional terrorism.
He implied a view contrary to Kerry’s when he said that the Iranians “have to do more… to demonstrate their commitment to helping defeat these terrorist organizations and being able to work with regional states.”
The prospects for such a commitment have arguably diminished with the appointment of Bagheri to his chief of staff position, and with the associated escalation of the army’s revolutionary character. If the regular armed forces do indeed provide great support to the IRGC and to militant proxies in the future, the world can presumably expect to see more diverse and expansive Iranian interventions, and also more foreign provocations of the sort that the IRGC has spearheaded in the year since the end of nuclear negotiations.
It was the IRGC, for instance, that conducted two ballistic missile tests last year in violation of a UN Security Council resolution, and four more this year. And it was IRGC naval forces that seized 10 American sailors in January when they mistakenly strayed near Iran’s Farsi Island. The US Navy recently completed a report on that incident, which was summarized by the Washington Free Beacon, among many other sources.
The report criticizes the crew of the two American boats involved in the incident, as well as naval officers in command of that crew. But while it finds that the sailors violated US military protocol, they acted in accordance with international law. The same could not be said of the IRGC, which unnecessarily forced the Americans to their knees and arrested them at gunpoint, taking photos and video of the incident for propaganda purposes.
Those materials were re-aired in Iranian state media for weeks, during which Supreme Leader Khamenei conferred the highest honors on the IRGC officers involved in the incident and plans were announced for the building of a statue commemorating it. This suggests that the Iranians were striving to portray the incident as a military victory of the US, in keeping with a range of propaganda statements from the IRGC and from other military officers suggesting that the Islamic Republic is prepared for war with the US and could accomplish such feats as sinking a US aircraft carrier or successfully closing off the Strait of Hormuz.
Insofar as Bagheri’s comments about “annihilating the wicked” were non-specific about the targets of those theoretic actions, it is possible that his statement was meant to emulate statements from his IRGC colleagues, serving as a veiled threat to all Iranian adversaries, including the US.