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Why Khamenei Changed The Guards' Commander And What It Means

Top revolutionary guards commanders including Hossein Salami (C) meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on September 16, 2015.
Top revolutionary guards commanders including Hossein Salami (C) meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran on September 16, 2015.

Who is the new chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) and why did Iran’s Supreme Leader decide to appoint a new leader now? Why did he choose Hossein Salami instead of another senior officer?

These are questions that three prominent Iranian analysts have answered on Radio Farda's Persian website. Hossein Salami, they say is a "bragging" character, who is going to act mainly as IRGC's spokesman rather than its commander. One analyst points out that Salami is prone to miscalculations and he might bring about an escalation of tensions with Iran’s adversaries.

Radio Farda's expert on IRGC and the military, Morad Veisi writes, "No Iranian commander has threatened the United States, Israel and Europe more than Salami". He has been the face of IRGC on Iran's state TV, pointing fingers at the ayatollahs’ "enemies" in various talk shows during the past 10 years when he was the IRGC's deputy commander.

Veisi adds that "Now Salami is the commander-in-chief of a force that has repeatedly practiced a confrontation with America in numerous military exercises in southern Iran during the past decade."

Veisi also notes that Salami shares Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's view about the challenge from within. They both see the threat of another major protest movement to be as important as foreign threats; specially as the economy worsens and people face more hardship.

Another Iranian analyst, Reza Haqiqatnezhad, writes about the political backdrop against which Salami has been appointed IRGC's top commander.

Haqiqatnezhad notes that under its previous commander, IRGC moved from a force which was involved in domestic politics and economy to an organization highly active in the areas of internal security, culture and diplomacy.

Like Veisi, Haqiqatnezhad also observes that Salami is less of a political man than his predecessor, although at times he has taken the hard line against domestic dissent.

According to Haqiqatnezhad, Khamenei is planning to reduce tensions between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the IRGC which escalated several times during the past year, most recently during a series of accusations and counter-accusations former IRGC Commander Jafari traded with Rouhani over how to tackle the recent flood disaster in various parts of Iran.

He notes that Salami has no serious track record of confrontational behavior against the Rouhani administration, and that this is in line with Khamenei's new policy of de-escalation of internal tensions while U.S. pressures on Tehran have been mounting.

This might explain why the Supreme Leader made the change now; at the height of foreign pressures, when he needs more internal unity.

However, Haqiqatnezhad notes that in spite of having served as IRGC's deputy commander for 10 years, Salami has not been efficient and powerful enough to build his own network and that he is not likely to be able to bring about too much change in the areas of soft power, regional diplomacy and internal security which are currently IRGC's main non-military missions.

As an absolutely obedient commander and a vocal advocate of aggressive military diplomacy and Iran’s missile program, IRGC is likely to become more military than political under Salami, says Haqiqatnezhad.

With America focusing on IRGC's regional ambitions and missile program, Salami is going to have hard days ahead, specially that he is more of a boastful, bragging spokesman rather a real commander, he maintains.

Meanwhile, another foreign-based Iranian analyst, Ali Afshari, writes that it was probably the increasing pressure from America that prompted Khamenei to appoint Salami as IRGC commander, as a man with a harsh rhetoric, whose main function so far has been creating agitation in an ongoing psychological war.

Afshari writes: "If Salami's appointment was meant to nullify U.S. aggression, this is an objective hard to achieve, as Salami, in spite of being too vocal, lacks an average understanding of political and military matters; and his presence as IRGC commander, will heighten the risk of decision-making based on miscalculations."

Salami was not a powerful, experienced and well-known officer during most of his career. He did not play an important role during the 1979 revolution or in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, says Afshari.

His ascent to prominence is very typical of the pecking order in the last 20 years when Khamenei established himself as the only decider of high-level promotions. For Khamenei, having officers with weaker backgrounds is a way of ensuring loyalty. Salami was never an important person and never had extensive working relationship with reformists whom Khamenei does not trust, says Afshari.