Some 21 months after a United States drone strike killed Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, a noticeable shift in the balance of power within the Iranian military system has taken place.
The Quds Force is still the main Iranian organization that handles Tehran’s radical proxies in the Middle East, supplying them with arms, funds, training and other forms of continuous assistance.
However, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which has its own elite air force and navy, has stepped up its involvement in Iran’s “gray zone” operations, in which the Islamic Republic launches attacks throughout the region, pinpointing Israel, Saudi Arabia and other targets it identifies as furthering its objectives.
Although the Quds Force is part of the larger IRGC, the guards also have their own parallel elite military independent of Iran’s regular military. The IRGC receives the best strike capabilities that Iran’s sprawling military industry has to offer.
And now, with the IRGC’s role in Iran’s shadow war growing more dominant, those capabilities have been put to use. The IRGC’s Aerospace Force has become more active in assisting Iranian proxies and in launching attacks from Iran itself.
For example, the July 29 explosive drone attack on the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, which killed two personnel on board, was launched directly from Iran.
The ship is owned by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, which is chaired by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer, creating a highly tenuous link to Israel but one that the IRGC judged to be sufficient to launch a deadly attack on the vessel.
It seems likely that had the attack been approved two years ago, Soleimani would have insisted that a Quds Force proxy organization, such as the Houthis in Yemen, would have carried out the attack.
This does not mean that Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, is not traveling around the Middle East and ensuring that the Quds Force’s proxy projects continue; he most certainly is.
Still, the Quds Force has lost some of its dominance over Iran’s shadow war activities, and some sort of contest between it and the IRGC appears to be underway.
Increasing control over the Iranian economy
In 2019, the U.S. State Department designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in line with a directive from the Trump administration; today, the organization looks like it’s only growing further into that role.
As a result, withdrawing the designation as part of future nuclear negotiations would be a grave error and would ignore the IRGC’s destabilizing on-the-ground activities, including the use of deadly force on civilian targets in a deliberate manner.
The IRGC has also been increasing its control of the Iranian economy—extending all the way to Iran’s energy sector, major infrastructure programs, nuclear program, petrochemicals, banking institutions and construction companies.
Its political power is also on the rise, as was demonstrated after a leaked audio recording that surfaced in April this year featuring bitter complaints by former Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif over the dominance of IRGC in setting Iranian policies.
Soleimani’s vision of creating a network of Iranian proxies—and nourishing them with arms, funding and training—has taken somewhat of a blow since his removal. But Tehran is still able to proceed with the late general’s overall plan and doing so on a daily basis, with some adaptations.
As a result, the Israeli-Iranian shadow war looks set to continue to rage with the IRGC likely to play a bigger role than in the past, thereby increasing the risk of direct Israeli-Iranian fire exchanges in the framework of the “gray zone” struggle.
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