Tehran appoints new IRGC chief commander

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Hossein Salami as the new chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on April 21, replacing Mohammad Ali Jafari after almost 12 years in command. Salami previously served as deputy commander to Jafari for a decade. 

Khamenei then appointed Jafari as director of the Hazrat-e Baqiatollah Social and Cultural Base, tasking him with “expanding and explaining the education of Islamic revolution based on the lines defined in the second step statement,” referring to the so-called edict for the next stage of revolution. 

The latest appointment is a clear demotion for Jafari. Previously, Khamenei has appointed a number of top commanders as his advisers after their tenures. For instance, Jafari’s immediate predecessor Yahya Rahim Safavi, former defense minister Hossein Dehghan, and former Armed Forces General Staff chief Hassan Firouzabadi all serve in Khamenei’s close circle.

One of the reasons could be that Jafari recently made the IRGC appear weak. Before the reported US designation of the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), Jafari threatened US forces in the Middle East, saying that Tehran would take “reciprocal measures,” and that US forces in “western Asia” would no longer have today’s “peace.” 

After the US designation, Jafari was more cautious. Tehran designated CENTCOM as a “terrorist group.” Jafari said that “America’s stupid leaders should be sure that the IRGC’s defensive and offensive capability would be far more than the current level, and the growth in the corps’ capabilities will prove to the world that America’s sanctions and measures will have no credibility.” 

The reactions of the military establishment were similar to that.

In 2017, before the US designated the IRGC for terrorism pursuant to Executive Order 13227, Jafari and IRGC commanders also threatened US forces in the region – only to be more cautious after the designation. Jafari warned that the US would have to empty its bases within the 1000-kilometer range of Iran. That threat has not materialized. (For more, please see FDD’s Long War Journal US to designate the IRGC, affiliates as terrorists and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard threatens the US over terrorism designation)

Tehran signaled it would push the nuclear envelope in response to Washington’s designation. On April 9th, coinciding with “nuclear day,” Iran announced the unveiling of a cascade of 20 advanced IR-6 centrifuges. President Hassan Ruhani warned the US that Tehran could unveil the more advanced IR-8 centrifuges if the US continued its “oppression.”  

On 20 April, a day before being removed, Jafari appointed a new commander for IRGC Protection, which is tasked with protecting sensitive sites, figures, and non-military flights. That raised the spectre of whether Jafari was aware of his impending removal. 

IRGC chief commander is usually a ten-year post. Jafari received a three-year extension in 2017.

With a background in operations, Salami’s previous positions include Nuh Naval Base operations commander in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Command and Staff College (DAFOOS) director, IRGC Joint Command operations deputy, IRGC Air Force chief (before it became Aerospace Forces), and IRGC deputy commander. He belongs to a network of Iran-Iraq War veterans who dominate the Islamic Republic’s military and security decision-making. 

Salami has cultivated a reputation of hardline positions on foreign policy. Earlier in the year, Salami said that Tehran’s strategy was to “wipe out Israel from the world’s political geography.” He also warned that “if Europeans or others want to pursue the missile disarming of the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will be forced to go toward a strategic leap,” adding that Tehran had no “technical limitation” to increase missile ranges and accuracy. He has warned against “backing down” or “negotiating” with the US.

Salami has not put himself out there and taken positions on domestic Iranian politics to the extent of Jafari, which may have also played a role in the swap. Both signed the 1997 letter that expressed support for then-chief commander Mohsen Rezai after his controversial removal, as highlighted in The IRGC Command Network by AEI.

 Salami however did not sign the infamous 1999 letter that warned then-President Mohammad Khatami of overthrow if he did not crush the student uprising. Jafari oversaw the Guard Corps focusing on internal unrest, most notably the 2009 post-election protests. Salami has had harsh words for imprisoned leaders of the 2009 Green Movement – as have virtually all Guard Corps commanders.

 Jafari’s open meddling in civilian affairs can seen elsewhere. Last year, in response to President Trump’s offers for negotiations over the nuclear program and sanctions, Jafari declared in an open letter that “the people of Iran” would “never allow their officials permission for negotiations and meeting with the Great Satan.”

It remains to be seen how outspoken Salami will be in the future.

Amir Toumaj is a independent analyst and contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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