Iranians are used to regarding General Ghassem Soleimani as a symbol of the country’s military might; the media loves to present him as a formidable spirit that leads victorious campaigns against Iran’s enemies. So, when recent photographs were released of the leader of the Qods expeditionary force looking tired and overcome with grief, holding his head in his hands, it came as something of a surprise. Trying to make his way through a crowd of mourners, he looked preoccupied and even disorientated at times.
The recent photographs show Soleimani at the funeral of General Hamid Taghavi, the 55-year-old Revolutionary Guard Corps commander killed by an Islamic State sniper on December 27. According to the website Raja News, which has ties to the Revolutionary Guards, Taghavi was leading operations along the Samarra axis in the Balad area of Iraq’s Saladin province when he was killed by an Islamic State gunman. News sites that regularly publish statements by Islamic State militants say the group has claimed responsibility for the assassination.
The Revolutionary Guards public relations office announced Taghavi’s death on December 28. Such statements are rare, as the Guards routinely avoid going public with news of the demise of one of their commanders.
Soleimani was joined by other high-profile mourners at the Tehran ceremony, including Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guards and the Minister of Intelligence, who all gave messages of condolence, as did the previous intelligence minister. Also present were Soleimani's deputy, Commander Hossein Hamedani, Ahmad Vahidi, a senior Iranian military commander in Syria, and Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the commander of the paramilitary Basij and a former commander of the Qods force.
A Natural Leader who Paved the Way
At the funeral, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme Security Council, praised General Taghavi’s military record. From the first day that the Revolutionary Guards set up a unit in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan and Taghavi’s hometown, Taghavi put himself forward. It was his work in intelligence, and his reputation as the founder of the Iraqi Mojahedin, Shamkhani said, that made Taghavi a commander “who others found easy to accept as a leader.” He also took the opportunity to defend Iran’s military presence in Iraq and Syria.
Basiji Commander Naghdi credited Taghavi with playing a key role in the creation of the Badr Force, a paramilitary Iraqi Shiite organization that was set up during the Iran-Iraq war and consisting of opponents of Saddam Hussein. The group is considered to be the most important pro-Iranian armed organization in Iraq.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Taghavi was the commander of the Guards’ Ramadan Camp in Khuzestan. The unit, which was established in 1984, a year before Taghavi lost both his father and his brother in the war, specialized in operational intelligence and irregular warfare. According to the Guards-affiliated newspaper Javan, its mission was to gather intelligence from behind enemy lines and organize anti-Saddam armed bodies. In other words, it was a prototype for the Qods force. Commander Forouzandeh, one of Taghavi’s comrade-in-arms during the war, celebrated Taghavi, who he said, “organized popular forces in [the Iraqi cities of] Amarah and Basra to attack Iraqi forces.”
The Qods force is responsible for the extraterritorial activities of the Revolutionary Guards, rolling out the Islamic Republic’s security and military policies in the Middle East. Ayatollah Khamenei uses it to achieve his goals in the region, including in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. Ghassem Soleimani was appointed as commander of the Qods in 1997. In recent years his influence has grown — and is no longer restricted to military and security issues in the countries to which he was assigned. “The regional case is completely in the hands of Commander Ghasem Soleimani,” wrote the website Iran-e Hastei [Nuclear Iran], run by Mehdi Mohammadi, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team under former President Ahmadinejad. “In Iraq, the last word— and Iran’s official position —belongs to Soleimani.”
A video clip recently published by Shiite paramilitary group Saraya Al-Khorasani mentions General Taghavi as its founder, referring to him with the Arabic nom de guerre of Aba Maryam, or “Mary’s Father.” The video shows an unarmed Taghavi giving guidance to people under his command, and appearing to be on friendly terms with other commanders. In the clip, he speaks in fluent Arabic, something that is not uncommon for Iranian commanders working in paramilitary or other similar forces in border areas or outside of Iran.
Apart from the video, the Saraya Al-Khorasani group has made no official declaration that it is linked to General Taghavi. But Iraqi affairs expert Reza Veisi told IranWire that although Ghassem Soleimani has operational oversight in Iraq, it is possible that he had some involvement with the group. "Under his headquarters, numerous military branches have taken shape, which are run by Iran and the Iranian military," he said. "Iran provides them with all that they need, from arms and logistics to propaganda and medical services. They all have offices and centers of communication in Iran.”
Staying in Touch
Unlike Soleimani, General Taghavi does not appear to have played a prominent role in the Revolutionary Guards in recent years. According to the Basiji Commander Naghdi, he principally turned away from this kind of work,instead focusing on other projects such as organizing Iranian pilgrimages to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala in Iraq. However, having said that, it is evident he maintained links with old contacts and continued to command influence in Iraq despite having retired.
On October 28, 2014, the website Mashregh News, which has close ties to the Revolutionary Guards, published a list of the most important Iraqi paramilitary groups advised by the Guards, including the Badr force, Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades, Saraya Khorasani, Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front and Imam Ali’s Brigades. According to the Mashregh report, the Saraya Khorasani group took part in operations in the province of Babel (Babylon), 85 kilometers from Baghdad, in October 2014. Among the commanders involved were Hadi Ameri from the Badr force, Dr. Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, the new Iraqi Minister of Interior and a member of Badr’s central committee. Advisors, led by General Ghassem Soleimani, included none other than General Taghavi.
Speaking at his funeral, one Iranian commander — said to be speaking on behalf of Soleimani —described Taghavi’s achievements in recent months: he secured the road from Karbala to Baghdad and was present at operations to push back Islamic State fighters from the border with Iran and to protect country borders on the Tigris river, often leaving his family and home for up to two months at a time. He prepared operations south of Samarra and north of Baghdad. “He was a brave field commander and an expert in intelligence, and in organizing popular and tribal forces,” he said. “Nobody could do the job that he did.”
The account goes some way in showing just how present the Qods and other forces are in Iraq at this point in time. Commanders, including Taghavi, have put three decades of friendship with the Shi’ite paramilitary forces in Iraq to effective use. Taghavi and others might not be household names in Iran, somewhat remote from the everyday machinations of domestic military operations and the changing political scene. But in the shadows, they have prospered. And, just every once in a while, the public gets a glimpse of the scale of the power they command — and how they have helped shape Iran today, as well as its future.