Brigadier General Esmail Qa'ani (Ghaani) visited Iraq this week for the first time since his appointment as the commander of the IRGC's Qods Force and was secretly welcomed at Baghdad Airport under tight security measures.
Some sources say he left the airport in a motorcade of three cars, but no one knows where he stayed in Baghdad, whom did he meet with and when did he leave Iraq after the visit.
Such information usually surfaces later, in piecemeal and gradually on social networks close to the IRGC in Iran or those linked with Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq.
Details about these visits appears between the lines in reports carried by IRGC-linked news agencies including Fars and Tasnim or in interviews with Iraqi Shiite militia leaders.
Such reports usually portray even the most ordinary visits to a tour de force of IRGC's success and influence in the region.
But how has the IRGC Qods (Quds) Force been performing since the killing of Qassem Soleimani? Has it maintained the same degree of influence in Iraq and Syria and beyond? What dos the future of the force look like?
Failure To Create Accord Among Shiite Militia
Four months after Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi resigned, the Islamic Republic has still not managed to create an accord among its proxy militia groups about who should lead the cabinet in Iraq. Qa'ani has been the Qods Force Commander in 3 of those 4 months. And he has not been able to unite these groups to support an Iran-backed new prime minister.
Former Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani was able to bring together the leaders of the Shiite groups and force them to work together.
The sheer number of these groups and the disputes between their leaders, including Nuri al-Maliki, Haydar al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, Hadi Ameri and Ammar Hakim prevents such an accord.
Soleimani effectively used the differences among these groups to strengthen Iran's foothold in Iraq and make them to work together to accomplish Iran's objectives in the region. But Qa'ani has been less present in Iraq and does not have personal relations with Iraq's powerful Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish players.
Iran’s dwindling financial resources also do not help in the quest to buy off militia leaders and keep loyalty by throwing money around. Its proxies in Iraq are competing over a smaller pie.
Failure in Controlling al-Sadr
Muqtada al-Sadr has always been a key player in the post-Saddam Iraq, with lots of support and influence, and an ideological background which is a combination of Iraqi nationalism and Shiite sectarianism.
Unlike other Shiite leaders, Muqtada does not always listen to the Islamic Republic. At times he has even challenged Iran's leadership and provoked Iraqis against non-Arab Iranians. He has been hard to control and hardly trustworthy for Iran even under Soleimani's command. Iran, on the other hand, has always used Muqtada's anti-Americanism. Soleimani used to gamble on and invest in this characteristic of Muqtada al-Sadr and make deals with him.
In October 2019 Sadr tried once again to ride the anti-Iranian wave during popular protests in Iraq and his supporters were active while some Iraqis attacked Iranian interests including consulates. This came even though he was invited to Iran the previous month and his picture was taken sitting next to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Sadr is currently once again the major obstacle on the way of appointing a pro-Iran prime minister in Iraq. Qa'ani's failure in coming to terms with Sadr will be a major problem for him, the IRGC and the Islamic Republic.
Failure To Find A Replacement for Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis
Hashd-al-Shaabi has still not found an influential leader loyal to Tehran after its commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani, and Qa'ani has not been able to find a man of the same calibre. This is not simply a problem for the militia group. It is also a major problem for Iran and its regional influence.
A military man for 40 years, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis had served with the Iranian military against Saddam's Iraq and many Iraqi militia leaders had served under his command.
The experience of the past three months shows that even if all the various groups agree on one person as their commander, the new man is highly unlikely to be as powerful as Abu Mahdi. This means Iran's influence in Iraq has been badly damaged after Abu Mahdi and Soleimani were killed together. The Qods Force and its new commander need to establish a new relationship with Hashd al-Shaabi and think of a new structure for it.
Challenges and Outlooks
In the meantime, U.S. policy regarding the Qods Force and Shiite militia has become more aggressive and it has somewhat restrained them following the Shiite groups' attacks on the U.S. embassy and other US interests in Iraq.
Qa'ani does not maintain personal relations with key Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite players in Iraq, in the same way he lacks the kind of relationship with Khamenei, IRGC leaders, the Rouhani administration and the Foreign Ministry that Qassem Soleimani used to maintain.
IRGC commanders who once saw themselves overshadowed by Soleimani's popularity with part of the population and the Supreme Leader, now they feel they have superiority over Qa'ani and his Qods Force. The presidential administration and the foreign ministry who used to be over-ruled by Soleimani have found an opportunity to deal with the Qods force from a better position.
Qa'ani and his Qods Force desperately need to show their power after Soleimani's death while they are facing many domestic and regional challenges. But Qa'ani's weakness during the past three months, which has left him with no achievement, might even turn the tide against him in Iraq and the region. On the other hand, an uncalculated radical move against the American forces might invite a more aggressive reaction by the United States.
Once a beacon of Iran's might in the Middle East alongside missile power, The IRGC Qods Force is experiencing the hardest times since its inception 30 years ago.