On September 14, 2011, Iran’s state-controlled media outlets announced that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had replaced Hojjat al-Eslam Esmail Sa’adatnezhad with Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Shirazi as his representative to the Quds Force–the elite unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) charged with conducting clandestine terrorist operations outside of Iran. Because of the Quds Force’s involvement in terrorist activities across the Middle East and its support for proxies actively targeting U.S. forces in the region, the implications of this personnel change and the individuals involved are worth considering.
On paper, Khamenei’s representatives and the ideological/political commissariat over which they preside wield significant power over the IRGC. The representatives act as the eyes and ears of the Supreme Leader and ensure the IRGC’s subordination to the civilian leadership’s control. Shirazi, however, will most likely find his powers severely limited by the strong-willed commander of the IRGC Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani. So long as Shirazi restricts himself to preaching loyalty to the Supreme Leader among Quds Force members, a tolerable cohabitation between Shirazi and Suleimani is quite possible, but should Shirazi dare to challenge Suleimani’s authority over operational issues, clashes between the two men are unavoidable.
The elderly Sa’adatnezhad, Khamenei’s previous representative to the IRGC Quds Force, is a reticent cleric, who made public statements only on very rare occasions. Sa’adatnezhad would, for example, warn against “expressing opinions contrary to the words of the guardian and divine leader [Khamenei],” equating such transgressions to “polytheism,” and asserting that the “identity of Hezbollah is adherence to the guardianship of the jurist [Khamenei’s authority].” Sa’adatnezhad’s low profile and carefully crafted non-military statements made clear that he did not intend to challenge Suleimani’s authority. Accordingly, there are no reports of clashes between Sa’adatnezhad and Suleimani in the open source.
Shirazi, on the other hand, is an altogether different breed of cleric. Shirazi has hitherto served as the Supreme Leader’s representative to the IRGC Navy, and is perhaps best known for asserting in 2010 that Iran was prepared to use IRGC Navy forces to escort humanitarian aid ships bound for Gaza. Shirazi also made news in 2008 when he warned, “The first bullet fired by America at Iran will be followed by Iran burning down its vital interests around the globe … If they commit such a stupidity, Tel Aviv and U.S. shipping in the Persian Gulf will be Iran’s first targets and they will be burned.” Shirazi later reaffirmed this sentiment when he wrote in the Persian-language daily Partow-e Sokhan that “if the Iranian nation becomes angry, they will not let anything be left of America and Israel.”
The substance of Shirazi’s statements may not necessarily clash with Suleimani’s ideology or strategic thinking, but the very fact that Shirazi keeps such a high profile in the Iranian press and frequently involves himself in directing the IRGC’s military activities will undoubtedly provoke a conflict with the commissarial leadership of the Quds Force and Suleimani. The outcome of those conflicts could serve as a measure of Suleimani’s authority in the IRGC Quds Force and the Islamic Republic in general. Should Shirazi’s leadership stimulate any inert division within Iran’s “primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad,” we may soon witness significant changes within the Quds Force command hierarchy, and potential changes to its regional strategy.
Ali Alfoneh is a resident fellow and Will Fulton is a Critical Threats Project analyst at AEI.