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The IRGC Strategic Brain Trust | Part 1: Ghasem Soleimani and Ahmad Vahidi


01 Aug 2012 10:41Comments

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' two paramount strategists.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
[ profiles ] There are very few military forces in the world that receive more international media coverage than Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It seems that practically every news item about Iran mentions the Revolutionary Guards, often prominently. And as speculation about possible military attacks on Iran persists, the role of the Guards -- or Sepah, as they are often called inside the country -- will be pivotal in any resulting confrontation.

As I have previously described (see, for example, here, here, and here), the Revolutionary Guards are the most powerful institution in Iran. Their power is due not solely to their military might and the fact that they consume the lion's share of Iran's military expenditures, but also to their political and economic clout and the large number of officers -- most of them officially retired, but some still on active duty -- who have penetrated every branch of government.

Since 2005, the administrations of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have included at least seven cabinet ministers who have served as Guard officers: Parviz Fattah, deputy head of Khatam ol-Anbiya, the Guards' engineering arm, and former minister of power; Masoud Mirkazemi, former minister of commerce and then oil; Interior Minister Brigadier General Mostafa Mohammad Najar, former defense minister; Sadegh Mahsooli, former head of three different ministries -- interior, welfare, and labor; Hossein Saffar Harandi, former minister of culture and Islamic guidance and currently senior adviser to Guard chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari; Minister of Power Majid Namjoo; Minister of Oil Rostam Ghasemi, former head of Khatam ol-Anbiya; and Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi.

171479_441.jpgTehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (pictured here, at far left, behind Major General Ghasem Soleimani) is a retired Guard brigadier general and former commander of its air wing. Most provincial governors and many mayors are former Guard officers. The secretary-general of the Expediency Discernment Council is retired Major General Mohsen Rezaei, who was the Guards' top commander for 16 years. Judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani's senior adviser is Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, one of the most hardline Guard officers.

Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, another former Guard officer, worked for years in the Guards' ideological division, trying to modernize the theoretical basis for Velaayat-e Faghih (the doctrine of rule by the Islamic jurist, in the person of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). At least 66 deputies in the newly seated Majles are former Guard and Basij officers, including influential figures such as Esmail Kosari, Parviz Soroori, Ali Reza Zakani, Mehdi Eisazadeh, Mohammad Esmail Saeedi, Mohammad Ashoori, Abbas Ali Mansoori, Javad Karimi Qoddoosi, and Ebrahim Agha Mohammadi. The parliamentary Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy is essentially controlled by retired Guard officers, as are several other powerful legislative commissions.

Most of the sensitive positions in the armed forces have been given to Guard officers. For example, in addition to Vahidi, Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, began his military career as a member of the Basij militia and is considered a Guard officer. The most important intelligence posts, particularly those involving internal security, are controlled by the Guards' intelligence unit. The Ministry of Intelligence itself is filled with current and former Guard officers.

Guard-linked companies have taken over much of the national economy. Many Iranian economists estimate that a significant portion of the official national economy is controlled directly or indirectly by the Guards. As for the unofficial or black market economy, the Guards use many jetties that are out of control of the custom office to import vast quantities of goods. This was famously mocked by Ahmadinejad, himself a former Guard operative, when he referred to the Guards' illegal imports as "baraadaraan-e ghachaghchi-ye khodemaan" (our own smuggling brothers). The Guards' intervention in the national economy has become so glaring that it has brought criticism even from some conservatives. In response, the Guards recently felt obliged to declare that all profits made by Guard-linked companies will be spent on the development of poverty-stricken regions and that "Khatam ol-Anbiya will not take part in projects that cost less than 300 billion tomans" -- about $250 million according to the official rate of exchange. There is, of course, no way of independently verifying such claims.

As I have discussed in the past, the Guards' drive to gain political and economic power began almost immediately after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was appointed Supreme Leader in June 1989. As he had no significant base of popular support and was not held in high esteem by the senior clerics, he relied heavily on the security and intelligence forces, allowing the Guards to enter the economic arena under the pretext of using the experience that Khatam ol-Anbiya had gained during the eight-year war with Iraq. During the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and the first term of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2001), the Guards attempted to influence the political process through cultural activities and intense propaganda; with the nationwide city council elections in 2002, they began to seek overt political power. After the 2009 presidential election, the Guards effectively took control of the nation. Cleric Amrollah Mohammadi, Khamenei's representative to the second district of the Guards' naval forces, recently told IRNA, the state news agency, "In the 1388 [2009] fetneh [sedition, the hardliners' epithet for the Green Movement], a lot of our forces were shaky. Only Sepah stood behind the Supreme Leader to the end."

Who are the Guards' leading strategists? While many senior Guard officers are repeatedly in the news, loudly warning the United States and Israel about the consequences of attacking Iran or boasting about Iranian advances in military hardware, most of these rhetoricians are not considered truly influential. Based on extensive research over the past year, and conversations with two well-informed sources in Iran, we have found that the Guard brain trust appears to consist of five generals, of whom two are paramount. All five are senior commanders, but they will play their most crucial roles as the Guards' true strategists in any military confrontation pitting Iran against the United States and its allies.


Unlike what many believe in the West, the top two Guard strategists are not Generals Jafari and Firoozabadi, the corps' top two commanders, but Major General Ghasem Soleimani and Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi.

Ghasem Soleimani

As I wrote in a profile of Soleimani published here last December, he is essentially in control of Iran's Middle Eastern policy and reports directly to Khamenei. While Soleimani is lionized in Iran, he and the elite division under his command, the Quds Force, have been accused of intervening in Syria's internal conflict and supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Asaad (pictured at top with Vahidi). The charge was recently confirmed by Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, the Guards' deputy chief, who told the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) that the Quds Force is in Syria, but that they are there to prevent the massacre of the people. A few hours after publishing this report, ISNA removed it from its website.

Ahmad Vahidi

7f0bc96f711989520b982a01ea4b3376.jpgAhmad Shah Cheraghi, universally known as Ahmad Vahidi, has been an important military/intelligence figure right from the Islamic Republic's inception in 1979. Born on June 27, 1958, in Shiraz, he has a B.S. in electronics and an M.S. in industrial engineering. He is currently a doctoral student in strategic management at Tehran's Imam Hossein University.

Vahidi joined the Guards in 1979 and the Quds Force when it was formed in 1983. After Mohsen Rezaei's appointment as Guard chief in 1981, he appointed Vahidi deputy chief for intelligence, as well as commander of the Balaal base, which was used for planning and directing operations outside Iran, particularly in Iraq. Vahidi organized the Guards' intelligence directorate and created separate divisions for Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, the nonpeninsular Arab nations, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and North Africa, as well as one for special operations. He played a key role in organizing the Ministry of Intelligence, which was established on August 18, 1984.

In the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, President Ronald Reagan approved a plan whereby Israel would supply Iran with TOW antitank missiles and other arms, in return for which Iran would persuade the Lebanese Hezbollah to release seven American hostages held in Lebanon. In August 1985, Israel delivered 96 of the missiles, and one hostage was released. Then, Colonel Oliver North, who was working for the U.S. National Security Council, altered the plan so it became a direct sale of arms to Iran at a marked-up price. The profits were earmarked to aid the Contra forces who were fighting to overthrow the leftist Nicaraguan government of President Daniel Ortega in a campaign that Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch describes as consisting of "bloody abuse of human rights, of murder, torture, mutilation, rape, arson, destruction and kidnapping." This led to the delivery of over 1,000 TOW missiles to Iran in February 1986; by the end of the year, the total had reached 2,000. The United States also supplied Hawk antiaircraft missiles and spare parts for the missiles Iran had previously purchased.

On May 25, 1986, Reagan's national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, and North flew to Tehran under fake Irish passports. They brought a cake in the shape of a key (to "unlock" relations between the two countries), a Bible, and spare parts for 60 Hawk missiles; according to the following account, a gift set of pistols was also part of the package. In his memoirs, former President Rafsanjani writes,

Messrs [Mohsen] Kangarloo [an adviser to then Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi] and Ahmad Vahidi, who is in charge of the intelligence unit of Sepah, came to my office and presented a report on the U.S. delegation to Tehran and the U.S.-made Hawk missiles. They had brought with them one quarter of the parts for the [240] Hawk missiles that Iran had purchased before the Revolution. Mr. McFarlane, special adviser to Reagan, and other influential figures are members of the delegation. They have brought a Colt and cake for our leaders, and would like to meet with the leaders. It was decided not to meet with them, not to accept the presents, but talk to them through [Dr. Hassan] Rowhani [a close aide to Rafsanjani; later Iran's chief nuclear negotiator] and Mehdi Nejad [an aide] about [buying] other weapons.

Three days later McFarlane and North left Tehran without meeting any significant figure in the leadership.

After the end of the Iran-Iraq War, many Guard commanders who wanted to remain with the military were commissioned and given ranks commensurate with their experience and bravery during the war. Vahidi was made a lieutenant brigadier general (he was later promoted to brigadier general). It is widely believed that Khamenei appointed Vahidi as commander of the Quds Force in 1990, a post he is said to have held until 1997, although this is not mentioned in his official biography. Regardless, there is no question that Vahidi was deeply involved with the Quds Force for a long time. He reportedly brought in the most experienced and seasoned Guard fighters and intelligence officers, turning it into a formidable special unit for operations beyond Iran's borders.

In July 1990, Saddam Hussein's army invaded and occupied Kuwait. An international coalition force led by the United States drove the Iraqi army out. The subsequent revolt of Iraq's Kurdish region was aided by the Quds Force, as was the case during the Iran-Iraq War. During the Balkan war in the first half of the 1990s, the Quds Force provided weapons and training to the Bosnian Muslims who fought Serbian fascist forces.

One of the most important events during Vahidi's tenure with the Quds Force was the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. On July 18, 1994, a huge explosion at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina killed 85 people and wounded 250. In August 2003, the British government arrested Hadi Soleimanpour, who was Iran's ambassador to Argentina in 1994, but he was released three months later and returned to Tehran. After years of investigation, two Argentinean prosecutors accused the Islamic Republic in October 2006 of directing the operation. The following November, Interpol published the names of six people, five of them Iranian, and put them on the Interpol Red Notice List (contrary to what some have claimed, presence on the list is not equivalent to an arrest warrant): Generals Rezaei and Vahidi; Ahmad Reza Asghari and Mohsen Rabbani, diplomats in Iran's Buenos Aires embassy at the time of the bombing; then Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian; and the Palestinian Imad Fayes Moughnieh, who was assassinated by Israeli operatives in Damascus on February 12, 2008.

After Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997, Khamenei appointed then Brigadier General Soleimani as Quds Force chief, and Vahidi was transferred to the Ministry of Defense. Khatami appointed Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, who also served with the Guards during the Iran-Iraq War, as defense minister, and Shamkhani appointed Vahidi as his deputy for planning. He remained in that post until 2005 when Ahmadinejad was elected president. He appointed Brigadier General Mostafa Mohammad Najar as defense minister and Vahidi as his chief deputy. Vahidi also chairs the Political, Defense, and Security Affairs Commission of the Expediency Discernment Council, which is headed by Rafsanjani.

After Ahmadinejad's "reelection" in 2009, he nominated Vahidi as the new defense minister, as Najar had been nominated for the post of interior minister. Internationally, Vahidi's nomination provoked protests; at home, the Majles confirmed his appointment with 227 votes out of a possible 286. Argentina's chief prosecutor Alberto Nissman condemned the appointment due Vahidi's alleged involvement in the Buenos Aires bombing. Then State Department spokesman Philip Crowley called the Iranian parliament's endorsement of Vahidi "disturbing" and "precisely the wrong message."

436x328_16942_151424.jpgDue to the allegations, Vahidi remains a controversial figure. In May last year, Argentina's government and its Jewish community protested his invitation to Bolivia to take part in a ceremony. He was ordered to leave Bolivia, and Bolivian President Evo Morales apologized to Argentina's Jewish community for having hosted him.

Vahidi has been a major proponent of Iran becoming self-sufficient in the production of a wide range of conventional weapons. Iran has a relatively robust arms industry, and during his time at the Ministry of Defense, Vahidi has pushed to increase production of tanks, missiles, and armored personnel carriers. The first Iranian fighter planes, the Saegheh and Shafagh, are in the final test stages before entering service. The former is almost entirely based on the old American fighter F-5, but with more powerful engines and larger wings. The latter is an improved version of Saegheh, which is said to have some radar-evading ability. Neither is at the level of the latest U.S. fighters, but Iran's advancement in this area has been impressive. According to a report released by the Pentagon on June 28, "Iran's military doctrine remains designed to slow an invasion; target its adversaries' economic, political, and military interests, and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities while avoiding any concessions that challenge its core interests"; it concluded that the Islamic Republic possesses a "formidable force defending Iranian territory."

Vahidi is considered loyal to Khamenei. When the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei became too public to ignore, he acted as the Supreme Leader's observer in the president's cabinet and reportedly submitted a memorandum to Khamenei informing him of the chaos within the cabinet.

In public, Vahidi has always been a hardliner. Appearing on a nationally televised program last July, he was asked about the possibility of an Israeli attack. He responded, "The Zionist regime is in complete isolation, and does not have the power to attack Iran, unless it has decided to commit suicide, because [if it does] it will be hit very hard and will be destroyed."

On June 27 this year, the 25th anniversary of Iraq's chemical weapons attack on the town of Sardasht in West Azerbaijan province, Vahidi accused the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain of helping Iraq to manufacture the chemical bombs (the accusation is credible). The attack killed 110 people and wounded 8,000. In total, Iraqi chemical strikes against Iran killed at least 2,600 people in the short term and injured approximately 100,000, many of whom continue to suffer and die as a result.

The experience of such attacks, aided by the Western powers, have shaped the worldviews of men like Vahidi. They have been in the middle of wars and are keenly aware of their consequences for Iran.

End of Part 1 | Part 2 describes the strategy-making roles of Rear Admiral Ali Akbar Ahmadian, Brigadier General Seyyed Mohammad Hejazi, and Guard chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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