Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has replaced General Mohammad Ali Jafari as commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) after 11 years, just two weeks after the US designated the Guards a terrorist organization. 

On Sunday, April 21, Khamenei appointed Major General Hossein Salami as the new commander-in-chief, signaling a new era of IRGC leadership. 

The appointment shows Ayatollah Khamenei’s inclination toward a new generation. First-generation commanders including Gholam Ali Rashid, the current commander of Khatam-al Anbiya Central Headquarters and former deputy chief of the General Staff of Armed Forces, and Mostafa Izadi, former commander of the IRGC's Ground Force, were both overlooked.

Apart from the personal preferences of the leader of the Islamic Republic, the political weight of the Guards has become so strong that Ayatollah Khamenei decided not to select generals such as Rashid or Izadi to lead the Guards because they are known as military figures alone — and in certain respects they follow their own independent judgment when it comes to politics.

Ever since Ayatollah Khamenei became the Supreme Leader, the Guards’ first generation of commanders have either left the IRGC or have been driven out and, little by little, room has been made for the advancement of second- or third-generation commanders such as Hossein Salami. He came to fore during the last years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and is now replacing the first-generation commander Mohammad Ali Jafari. Since the end of the war, he has served in various capacities, including the Operations Commander of the Nooh Navy Base, the Deputy Operations Commander of the Guards’ Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commander of the Guards’ Air Force.

Salami was not known to the public prior to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. During the war he appeared on television as a military expert, explaining the forces’ positions and their maneuvers and using maps as a visual aid.

Mohammad Ali Jafari has held the position of IRGC commander-in-chief for the last 11 years and is considered to hail from the first generation of its generals. The end of his tenure means that Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the expeditionary Quds Force, is the only first-generation commander to now hold a top position. There had been some speculation that he would succeed Jafari, but it could be that Ayatollah Khamenei sees Soleimani’s role in the Quds Force as key — and in particular the public relations function of that role — and that appointing him to be the overall head of the IRGC would not be beneficial.

In 2017 General Jafari had reported that his commission had been renewed for another three years. However, the fact that he has been replaced before the end of that period should not be interpreted as unusual because that three-year extension in itself was unusual. Ayatollah Khamenei’s appointments for roles in institutions under his supervision are, as a rule, for a period of 10 years. However, what has come as a surprise is the fact that this shift in command has come only two weeks after the United States placed the Revolutionary Guards on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.


A Reorganization of the Revolutionary Guards?

Following the Trump administration’s decision to classify the Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, the IRGC has been forced to make some changes, so the new appointment is likely part of this, and General Jafari himself may have thought a change in command would help usher in other changes, and that it would be easier than bringing in a new commander midway through the process. 

The IRGC was also fundamentally reorganized under General Jafari after he came in as commander. He replaced divisions with province-centric brigades — which some experts believe helped secure even more power for the Guards. 

The appointment of Salami takes place in the tensest environment since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC from 1997 to 2007, and Jafari both had their own share of challenges, threats and tensions, but they both came into power at a time of relative normality and calm.  

Salami’s appointment might also have some public relations repercussions. Although he is not as charismatic as the first-generation commanders, he has become a well-known figure in recent years through TV appearances and speeches. 

In his speeches, Salami has repeatedly threatened the United States, Israel and even Europe. Recently he threatened that if European countries continued to press for the “missile disarmament” of Iran then the Islamic Republic would be “forced to seek a strategic leap” in its missile program. This statement can be interpreted as a threat to increase Iranian missiles' range. At the moment, Iranian medium-range missiles, which have a range of 2,000 kilometers, are able to target Saudi Arabia and Israel, and even have the potential of reaching EU countries as well.

Salami has issued several threats to foreign powers in recent years. In September 2018, Salami said to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Practice swimming in the Mediterranean because very soon you will have no other way but to escape to the sea.” Recently he said he prefers to watch the “Great Grape Ape Show” cartoons than listen to Netanyahu. And in a television interview in 2015, he said Iran was “prepared to confront the Americans” — using the phrase “worst case scenario” in English. [Persian video].


The Politics Factor

In addition to military considerations, politics within the Revolutionary Guards must have also played a deciding role in the choice of the new commander-in-chief. For Ayatollah Khamenei’s closest allies, Salami perhaps has the advantage of lacking a political identity and record. This means that the political organs of the Guards can function independently and continue undisrupted.

During General Jafari’s command, Gholamhossein Gheybparvar was appointed as commander of the paramilitary Basij Organization, Abdollah Haji-Sadeghi was chosen as the Supreme Leader’s representative to the IRGC, and Hossein Nejat was selected as the deputy of the Guards’ Intelligence Organization. They will continue the political activities of the Revolutionary Guards, independent of the new commander-in-chief.

The Revolutionary Guards’ role in suppressing protests and the persecution of dissidents and political groups is unlikely to change.

Salami has come in as commander with a lower military rank than Gholamali Rashid, Mostafa Izadi and Ghasem Soleimani. Along with his appointment as top commander of the IRGC, he has now also been promoted to major general. A new generation of commanders will serve under him, just as Mohammad Ali Jafari appointed new commanders when he came in to lead the Guards, among them Alireza Tangsiri for the Guards’ Navy and Amir Ali Hajizadeh as commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force.


Related Coverage:

How Will Listing the Guards as a Terrorist Organization Change Iran?, April 19, 2019

Mohsen Rezaei: Loser of War, Economics, and Politics, April 19, 2019

Iran used Red Crescent as Cover for Revolutionary Guards, April 17, 2019

Trump Designates Revolutionary Guards a Terrorist Organization, April 10, 2019

IranWire's Revolutionary Guards infographic 

IranWire's Revolutionary Guards interactive diagram

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps: Structure and Missions, April 9, 2019

The IRGC Security and Intelligence Agencies, April 9, 2019

The IRGC Ground Forces, April 9, 2019

The IRGC Quds Force, April 9, 2019

The IRGC Navy, April 9, 2019

The IRGC Aerospace Force, April 9, 2019

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