Grinding, complex sectarian wars remain unresolved in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Restrictions on Iran’s purchase of conventional weapons will be lifted by 2023 under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
A new supreme leader (and therefore new commander in chief) will likely be installed in the next few years. These are the big factors driving uncertainty in how the Iranian military wants to move forward.
The recent reshuffling of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) can give some insight not only into the inner dynamics of Iran’s military structure, but also how Iran intends to use its military in the future. In particular, the appointment of Mohammed Bagheri, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to head the AFGS may be the most telling.
Bagheri’s predecessor, Hassan Firouzabadi, had little military background prior to his appointment and was instead empowered largely by his personal relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Bagheri, however, has a distinguished military career in the IRGC and the AFGS intelligence dating back to the Iran-Iraq War.
Bagheri’s appointment shows a shift away from the singular importance of connection with Khamenei, as seen in Firouzabadi, to individuals who also possess institutional loyalty to the IRGC, revolutionary ideals and strong professional credentials.
The supreme leader can now be more confident of the capability and position of the IRGC and the military under his successor. It cannot be ruled out that the IRGC was pushing for some of these leadership changes, preparing for a post-Khamenei Iran.
Though Bagheri’s appointment has certainly garnered the most attention, his appointment came shortly after two lower-level appointments and then set off a chain of subsequent personnel shifts. These moves have spanned from the No. 2 and 3 positions at AFGS to the logistics deputy and deputy chief of staff for Basiji Affairs, who helps to oversee and coordinate the cross-military activities of the IRGC’s local paramilitary organization.
Perhaps the most interesting of these moves involved the AFGS deputy chief, IRGC Brigadier General Gholam Ali Rashid, who was notably passed over for the top job. Rashid was replaced by Brigadier General Abdolrahim Mousavi from Iran’s traditional regular Army, the Artesh, and appointed the commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Central Headquarters.
Khatam al-Anbiya played a significant role in the Iran-Iraq War by coordinating operations between the IRGC and Artesh, and has been referred to as one the most prestigious positions in the military.
It is worth noting, however, that the AFGS was created to make up for the failings of Khatam, which apparently has not had a commander since the 1980s. It is unclear whether the resurrection of Khatam shows a new emphasis on improving inter-military operational coordination or was more a golden parachute for Rashid that allowed for fresh blood in the critical AFGS deputy position.
While the IRGC has consolidated its power with the new positions, Artesh figures were also able to climb the ranks. Major General Hossein Hassani Saadi and Brigadier General Abdolrahim Mousavi were appointed to the deputy positions of Khatam al-Anbiya and the AFGS respectively, the latter of which had formerly been held by the IRGC.
This is likely an effort to increase inter-operability and cohesion between the forces. The Artesh special forces deployments to Syria in coordination with, if not under the command of, the IRGC demonstrate Tehran’s desire to further develop this inter-service capability. Likewise, IRGC Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi was named the AFGS coordination deputy. Abdollahi has had a distinguished career ranging from the military to Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs.
Beyond improved interoperability, where does Bagheri want to take the Islamic republic’s military? The new commander and those close to him have publicly hit on at least five major themes since his appointment: furthering the capabilities of the Basij, the IRGC’s Quds Force, and cyberforces, while increasing intelligence operations and extending Iran’s naval reach into the Indian Ocean.
U.S. policymakers and analysts have wondered for many years whether Iran will hold to its same post-1979 path of focusing on a mostly defensive and asymmetric military or eventually take a more traditional regional power approach after international restrictions are lifted.
Will the Islamic Republic finally build a more “normal” air force, army and navy under the JCPOA to provide greater operational deterrence against the better equipped Gulf Arab states?
Bagheri‘s initial priorities indicate that the answer is no. His signal of continuity may reflect the IRGC’s ideological preferences, simply being stuck in a military posture that it is difficult to escape, or that the armed forces are not ready for larger changes in the short term.
What would indicate a shift in Iranian strategy as international restrictions loosen? More military exercises focused on anti-access strategies and retaliation capabilities (think ballistic missile tests) would indicate continued preference for asymmetric and defensive posture.
Conversely, the appointment of more Artesh officers to key decision-making positions, or exercises focused on ground maneuvering or Artesh-IRGC combined operations could signal a move toward offensive conventional capabilities. Deep structural changes in Iran’s defense industry organizations, such as the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), in order to provide sustained production of new types of armaments would also be required.
Because the IRGC dominates the senior military leadership and the state’s overall strategic direction, additional shifts within the IRGC leadership could be indicators of a new military posture.
IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari will likely retire in the near term, for example. His replacement and subsequent appointments could be indicative, especially if they come from the more conventional air, naval, or ground forces branches rather than the Quds Force, missile units or intelligence.
Iran’s current unconventional asymmetric military and proxy armies give the United States and our allies enough headaches. Adding more traditional capabilities will only compound the regional security challenge, though there may be an upside. U.S. planners may find a more “familiar” military threat easier to confront.