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'Target Me But Not IRGC' Says Iran Special Forces Commander

Major General Qassem Soleymani, Commander of Iran's IRGC Qods Force

Iran’s Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards’ Corps (IRGC) Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleymani, has voiced his displeasure at the recent criticism by President Hassan Rouhani against the ever-growing influence of the IRGC.

“One must not compare the IRGC with a flawed person like me. Target me, but not the corps: had the IRGC not been there, the country would not have been there either. This, in essence, is true forever,” said Soleymani, addressing a crowd of veterans in his local city of Kerman on July 4.

The Qods Force, under the command of General Soleymani, is a special unit responsible for operations outside Iran’s borders. The unit has been criticized by Iran’s neighbors for what has been labelled as Tehran’s interference in the region and stirring up the turmoil.

Do you want to have your news agency and cultural headquarters? Do you want to have your own financial company? That is fine with us, but do not take people’s space.
President Hassan Rouhani referring to IRGC's growing empire during his presidential campaign in May 2017

Since his recent re-election, President Rouhani has become more vocal in his criticism of the IRGC’s interference in various fields, such as the economy and foreign policy. Rouhani’s foreign diplomacy team has also been critical of some of the stances taken by IRGC commanders.

In an implicit reference to the IRGC, Rouhani complained on June 22 about relegating a big chunk of Iran’s economy to a government that “has guns, as well as media, and nobody dares to compete with it.”

That remark prompted a wave of attacks against Rouhani that peaked during a recent rally marking Qods Day, when a mob chanted: “Rouhani, Banisadr, happy union to you!”

Former President Abolhasan Banisadr was sacked by the ex-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeyni due to fundamental disagreements in 1981. Banisadr has always called the incident a “Coup d’etat” against his “legal” government.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, also made a reference to the incident and his website curiously published a clip highlighting Banisadr’s story during the first years of the 1979 revolution.

Building on to the same analogy, General Soleymani said: “Arguments from bygone days must not be revived again. Today, the IRGC is standing tall to sacrifice itself to defend the country and the nation and there is no difference between the higher parts and lower parts of the city,” said Soleymani, in a reference to the bi-polarization between political factions and social classes said to be in effect in Iran.

Arguments from bygone days must not be revived again.
Major General Qassem Soleymani, Qods Force Commander

During the bloody clashes that followed Banisadr’s removal from power by Ayatollah Khomeyni’s circle, Iran was highly polarized. The political faction close to the Supreme Leader dubbed themselves as “Hezbollah”, party of God, and the other side as “Hezb al-Sheytan”, party of the devil.

“If we are mojaheds and aspire for the greatness of Iran, we have to observe this principle [and refrain from dividing the country],” concluded Soleymani.

The Qods Force commander called for unity at a time when the rift between the two main political wings of the Islamic Republic of Iran appears to be reaching new levels. Many compare the increasing tension to former President Mohammad Khatami's second term and, in a more pessimistic outlook, former President Abolhassan Banisadr's 17 months in office.

Although Khatami was never sacked but, just like Banisadr, the Supreme Leader shunned him towards the end of his presidency.

Despite the fact that Khamenei and his senior commander have both voiced concerns against bi-polarization of the country, the actions and words of their own camp seems to be intensifying the rift between the two political factions in the Islamic Republic.

There is a huge difference this time though: in the absence of a full-fledged war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the advent of social media, it might not be as easy to replicate the situation. The Islamic system cannot silence all dissenting voices as effectively as it used to during those years.

All that said, what we have learned from the past is that the rift will keep growing unless the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei decides otherwise which is not the case – for now.