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Soleimani's Ghost Still Overshadowing His Successor

IRAN -- Brigadier General Ismail Qaani, the new commander of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, undated

On January 5, 2020, two days after A U.S. drone killed Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad Airport, websites close to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) published a poster headlined, "Qaani, the same as Soleimani."

The Friday Prayer Imams across Iran immediately echoed the slogan that "Qaani is another Soleimani," maintaining that eliminating the charismatic Chief Commander of the IRGC's extraterritorial Qods Force had not changed anything.

Meanwhile, another poster emerged claiming that Qaani is the acronym for Qassem Soleimani.

A year after all these efforts to present Ismail Qaani as the spitting image of his well-advertised predecessor, it seems that the new commander of the Qods Force has failed to drag himself out of Soleimani's long shadow.

However, from the day Qaani named as Soleimani's successor, it was predictable that he could not outshine his notorious predecessor.

Soleimani's dominance over the Qods Force and Iran's regional policies in the past decade had been so overwhelming that none of the IRGC commanders, including Qaani, had the opportunity to shine by themselves.

Renowned as the "Man in the Shadows," Qaani has been less involved in the much-publicized media coverage of the devastating Iran-Iraq war and the bloody hostilities in Syria. He has always been upstaged by his more charismatic colleagues, such as Soleimani, Hossein Hamadani, or even Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh, who is currently the Deputy Coordinator of the Qods Force.

Qaani's absence in the wars' publicity does not necessarily mean that he did not play a role in these two deadly conflicts. Some reports say that Qaani has had a pivotal role in creating Iran's proxy, Fatemiyoun.

"Fatimid Banner," also known as Fatemiyoun Division, or Afghanistan's Hezbollah, is an Afghan Shi'ite militia formed in 2014 to fight in Syria on the side of the forces loyal to Basha al-Assad.

Nonetheless, Qaani's absence in Iran's war propaganda inside and outside the country presents him as a less charming commander than his comrades. In the foreign arena, for example, in Lebanon, Soleimani was always presented as "powerful" as the Secretary-General of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in decision-making and planning.

Iran's propaganda machine has never given Qaani such a stature.

In his latest remarks about Qaani, the Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General praised his experience but stressed that Qaani "needs time and should not be expected to do too much."

Qaani's second problem is that he does not have the character of Qassem Soleimani to present himself as an illustrative personality. He does not know how to pose in photos as an attractive figure. Furthermore, he is neither a good orator nor has a background and record suitable for propaganda, and has never been presented as a "weighty" figure in Iran's political arena.

Earlier, when Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed Qaani as the commander of the Qods Force, the state-controlled media showered him with praising titles such as "Master Mind of the Qods Force," "Sardar Shami" (the Syrian Warlord), "Architect of the Qods Force's Intelligence," and more.

However, the official media's generous praises faded one after another, and Qaani returned to be one of the many IRGC commanders and the same old "Man in the Shadows."

Qaani's third problem in becoming an outstanding figure is the fact that Iran still needs Qassem Soleimani's presence for its propaganda. The propaganda focused on Soleimani's daughter, Zeinab, the mythical narratives about the fallen commander, founding numerous organizations to commemorate him, publishing dozens of books, and producing films and documentaries to pay homage to him have pushed Qaani further out of the spotlights.

He needs at least another year or two to pull himself out of the shadow of the state propaganda on his predecessor.

The fourth problem for Qaani to emerge as fearsome as Soleimani is Iran's repeated vow to revenge the fallen commander's death. The promise of a "hard revenge" for losing Soleimani has become an eternal mantra for the Iranian authorities, particularly for the IRGC commanders, including Qaani.

Iran's propaganda machine has always needed such symbolic vows, as it did even in the time of Soleimani.

A clear example of such promises goes back to the time of the war with ISIS. In the fall of 2017, two months after Soleimani's pledge to eradicate ISIS, the IRGC media launched a massive propaganda campaign with the slogan "The True Promise," claiming he had kept his promise.

Being familiar with such propagandas' specifics, Soleimani wrote a letter to Khamenei on December 11, 2017, announcing the "end of ISIS' domination." Still, it appears that Qaani does not know much about such propaganda and media games.

From this perspective, the failure of fulfilling the promise of "hard revenge" has raised questions and dissatisfaction among supporters of the regime and struck a heavy blow on Qaani and his reputation as the Chief Commander of the IRGC's Qods Force.

Of course, Qaani has tried to strengthen and organize his private network in the Qods Force through calculated changes, including Mohammad Hejazi's appointment as his sidekick and replacing the representative of the Islamic Republic Supreme Leader to the Qods Force, Ali Shirazi.

Nevertheless, Qaani's efforts to consolidate his position have not come easy, since several commanders are still in high places in the IRGC's extraterritorial force who might challenge him. Among them are Qods Force Deputy Coordinator, Mohammad Reza Fallahzadeh, and Soleimani's former top adviser, Iraj Masjedi, who has controlled the Iranian embassy in Iraq for years.

Therefore, the "Man in the Shadows" might need more Qods force changes to consolidate his position.

Amidst these internal struggles and challenges, the revelation that Qaani needs to obtain a visa for traveling to Iraq, disputes between Iranian-affiliated militant groups in Iraq, and the new Iraqi Prime Minister's stronger will to confront Iraqi militias supported by Iran, and the vacuum created by the death of the Iraqi militia commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, have hit Qaani's managerial position hard, showing him to be shakier than initially estimated.

The existence of such problems is critical for Qaani as the Chief Commander of the Qods Force. It has also directly and significantly impacted the structure of the vast network Qassem Soleimani spent about 15 years and billions of dollars to organize and nurture.

The death of Qassem Soleimani is unlikely to bring about a strategic shift in Iran's regional policies, including fostering militant groups, interfering in the Middle Eastern countries' domestic politics, and escalating sectarian strife.

After all, implementing these strategic policies requires a broad network and calls for a dominant commander. Qaani has not shown such dominance so far.

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    Reza Haqiqatnezhad

    Reza Haqiqatnezhad was a well-known journalist in Iran until he left the country a few years ago and he is now a political analyst at Radio Farda.