Disputed chain of command: Conflict at the helm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards?

Breaches in the chain of command of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have created tensions which could prove disastrous for the cohesion of the IRGC as a military force

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Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard
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Ali Alfoneh
On 1 October 2012 16:10

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has, since the late 1980s, successfully managed to establish a fairly clear chain of command within its structure. The once revolutionary army, in which all members were “brothers” and there were no ranks – although some were admittedly more “brothers” than others – today resembles most military organizations. However, every once in a while the IRGC’s chain of command is disrupted by the civilian political level’s attempts at subordinating the IRGC to its control.

A year ago to the day, I – along with a colleague from AEI – wrote a blog post on Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointing a new representative to the Quds Force, the extraterritorial operations branch of the IRGC. The representative of the Supreme Leader acts as Khamenei’s eyes and ears, and his role in the IRGC resembles that of the political commissars in the Red Army.

Since Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Shirazi had kept a very high profile as Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC Navy prior to his appointment as representative to the IRGC QF, the blog post predicted disruption in the chain of command and clashes between him and Major General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC QF.

A year on, the clashes seem to be between Suleimani and Revolutionary Guards Commander Major General Mohammad-Ali (Aziz) Jafari rather than between Suleimani and Khamenei’s commissar.

On September 29th, 2012 Shirazi delivered his first public interview for a year in which he most importantly dismissed rumors in Israeli and Arab sources on Suleimani’s death at the July 18th bombing in Damascus, and stressed: “He was not even in Syria on that day.”

Shirazi further discussed Iran’s view of the ability of the Syrian regime to defend itself and Iran’s role in Syria, and elaborated on the likelihood of Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Remarkably, Shirazi also made some key statements about the relationship between Khamenei, Jafari and Suleimani:

“Last week he [Suleimani] said 'Should Commander Jafari say anything we will obey,’” Shirazi said and elaborated: “Yes, his [Suleimani's] relationship with the Supreme Leader is close, but it does not mean if the Guards Commander says something he would not follow.”

Shirazi also explained that there exists “subordination and devotion” between Suleimani and Jafari, and that “the devotion is mutual. Mr. Aziz Jafari is devoted to Mr. Suleimani and Mr. Suleimani to him.” Shirazi concluded: “At any rate, there are some who want to weaken these people so that the Guards and the Quds Force are weakened, but no conflict will take place because of chatter.”

Shirazi’s statement for the first time documents that in the formal IRGC chain of command, the IRGC QF commander is meant to report to the IRGC commander. However, Shirazi involuntarily also admits that Suleimani – perhaps at the behest of the Supreme Leader – indeed has bypassed the chain of command by directly reporting to Khamenei rather than to Jafari.

Breaches in the chain of command have in turn created tensions between the IRGC and the IRGC QF – tensions which could prove disastrous for the cohesion of the IRGC as a military force. 

Ali Alfoneh is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Alfoneh

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