Esmail Qa’ani was officially appointed as the new commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) instead of Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated on January 3. During his swearing-in ceremony, Qa’ani declared that the revenge for Soleimani’s death will be just and “manly” despite the fact that the Americans killed him in a cowardly manner. After Qa’ani assumed the position of the commander of the Qods Force, Seyyed Mohammed Hussein Zadeh Hejazi was appointed as the deputy commander of the Force. Hejazi, who since the late 1980s assumed several senior positions within the IRGC, served in recent years as the commander of the Lebanon Corps of the Qods Force. As part of this role, Hejazi was personally involved in overseeing the project to increase the precision of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal.
Iranian-Syrian deliberations: in mid-January, a delegation headed by the Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, visited Tehran and met with senior Iranian regime officials, chief among them the president of Iran, his first deputy and the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Last week, the Iranian minister of education paid a visit to Damascus and signed a memorandum of understanding with his Syrian counterpart concerning cooperation between the two countries in the field of education.
A Syrian opposition website reported that the IRGC recently established a new military base in the Albu Kamal region near the Iraq-Syria border. In parallel, the Syrian news website, Ayn al-Furat, published information about the bases staffed by pro-Iranian militias in the Deir Ezzor region near the Syria-Iraq border, where Iran stores several dozens of medium-range surface-to-surface missiles. The redeployment of Iranian forces on the Syria-Iraq border was apparently meant to mitigate the impact on the ongoing attacks against targets linked to Iran and Shi’ite militias operating under the guidance of the IRGC in the region.
The Iranian ambassador to Iraq met with the head of the supreme political council of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in northern Iraq and discussed political developments in Iraq and the region. The ongoing contact between Iranian authorities and representatives of the Kurdistan region of Iraq may indicate an Iranian intent to try to influence the position of the Kurdish leadership concerning the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. This is after senior Kurdish officials from northern Iraq expressed support for maintaining U.S. presence in Iraq.
The Appointment of a New Deputy Qods Force Commander
On January 20, 2020, the Commander of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, appointed Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Zadeh Hejazi, as the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force. Hejazi replaced in this role Esmail Qa’ani, who was appointed as the commander of the Qods Force after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
Hejazi, born in Isfahan in 1956, joined the IRGC shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and served in several senior command posts in the IRGC, including the deputy commander of the Basij arm of the IRGC, the commander of the Basij (1998-2007), and the chief of staff of the IRGC (2007-2008), deputy commander of the IRGC and the commander of the IRGC’s forces in the Tehran district (2008-2009). In 2009-2014, he served as the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces for preparedness, logistics and industrial research (Tasnim, January 20). In 2007, his name was added to the list of Iranian officials under sanctions due to his involvement in human rights abuses, and particularly the repression of protests that erupted following the presidential elections in the summer of 2009 (the “Green Movement.”)
In August 2019, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) declassified information showing that Hejazi was serving as the commander of the Lebanon Corps of the IRGC’s Qods Force. His name, along with two other Iranian officers, were revealed as the individuals leading the project to increase the precision of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal in Lebanon.
On January 20, Qa’ani was officially appointed as the commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force. In a swearing in ceremony in Tehran, Qa’ani declared that Iran must face its enemies who only understand the language of force. He remarked that the Americans did not dare to face Soleimani in the battlefield and killed him in a cowardly, but the revenge for his death will be just and “manly” (Tasnim, January 20).
Iranian Involvement in Syria
On January 12, a delegation headed by the Syrian Prime Minister, Imad Khamis, arrived for a visit in Tehran and held talks with senior Iranian officials. The delegation also included the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid al-Muallem, and the Syrian Minister of Defense, Ali Abdullah Ayyoub (Mehr, January 12).
In the meeting with the Syrian prime minister, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, stated that the removal of the United States from the region must be a top priority to end instability and insecurity in the Middle East. He claimed that Trump and his advisers assessed that Soleimani’s assassination will lead to the disintegration of the “Resistance Front” in the region, and asserted that his assassination will have the opposite effect of bolstering the Front and increasing hatred among most of the peoples of the world and the region toward the United States. He added that Soleimani’s death will increase the determination of the “Resistance Front” to struggle against the ongoing aggression of the “Zionist regime.” The Syrian prime minister expressed his condolences for Soleimani’s death and appreciation for Iran’s support to Syria in the campaign “against terrorism” (Tasnim, January 13).
The First Deputy of the Iranian President, Eshaq Jahangiri, stated in his meeting with the members of the Syrian delegation that private Iranian companies are keen to participate in Syria’s reconstruction. He remarked that to expand economic ties between the two countries and increase cooperation between them, they should, as soon as possible, sign long-term agreements concerning strategic cooperation and accelerate the banking cooperation between Tehran and Damascus (Fars, January 13).
On January 14, the Syrian prime minister with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani stated that Iran will never forget the crime the United States committed by killing Qasem Soleimani, and that the people of the region should act with assertiveness to end the American military presence in the region. He called the accelerate the implementation of agreements signed between Iran and Syria (Mehr, January 14).
On January 17, the Representative of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Abolfazl Tabataba’I, delivered the Friday prayers sermon at the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine in Damascus and addressed the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. He remarked that the Americans could not bear the eradication of ISIS by Soleimani and feared that in the next stage, Soleimani would also eliminate the “Zionist regime” and therefore decided to assassinate him. The representative of the Supreme Leader in Syria declared that Soleimani’s killing will engender a new atmosphere in the region that will eventually produce the departure of the Americans from the Middle East. The blood of the martyrs, killed by the United States, will pave the way for the eradication of the “evil American empire” in the region and entire world, he proclaimed. The cleric threatened that no place will be safe for Americans in the region and that they must flee it before additional incidents happen to them (Tasnim, January 18).
A pro-opposition Syrian news website reported that the IRGC established a new military base in the area of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side of the Iraq-Syria border. According to this report, thus far, the IRGC transferred about 120 fighters from pro-Iranian militias operating in Iraq through the Albu Kamal border crossing to the new base, which is located on a mountain overlooking the town of al-Salehiya and contains bunkers and underground tunnels. In addition, the IRGC began establishing observation outposts and posts for snipers around the base (Step News, January 20).
At the same time, the pro-opposition Syrian outlet Ayn al-Furat reported (January 15) about positions manned by pro-Iranian militias in the Deir Ezzor region near the Syria-Iraq border, where Iran is storing medium-range surface-to-surface missiles. According to this report, Iran transferred dozens of missiles to outposts in the city of Albu Kamal, the village of Sbeikhan, the town of Mahkan and the city of al-Mayadin.
On January 22, the Iranian Minister of Education, Mohsen Haji Mirzaei arrived for a two-day visit in Syria. During the visit, he met with senior Syrian officials, chief among them, the Prime Minister, Imad Khamis. During the visit, Mirzaei signed a memorandum of understanding with his Syrian counterpart, Imad al-Azb, concerning cooperation in the field of education. In addition, the minister visited Iranian schools operating in Syria. Upon his arrival in Damascus, Mirzaei stated that Iran is willing to assist in rehabilitating Syrian educational institutions that were damaged throughout the civil war (Asr-e Iran, January 22).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Mousavi, stated during his weekly press conference that Iran updated the government of Iraq and the Iraqi armed forces before launching the attack on the Ayn al-Assad base in western Iraq carried out by the IRGC on January 8, in retaliation to Qasem Soleimani’s assassination. He averred that Iraq sovereignty matters a great deal to Iran, adding that Tehran opposes the intervention of foreign countries in Iraq’s affairs (ISNA, January 20).
In mid-January, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, met with Kosrat Rasul Ali, the Head of the Supreme Political Council of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and discussed developments in Iraq and the region and the relations between Iran and the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Mehdi Shoushtari, the Iranian Consul to Sulaymaniyah attended the meeting as well (Fars, January 14). The relations between Iranian authorities and representatives of the Iraqi Kurdistan region are taking place against the backdrop of openly stated support of the Kurds in northern Iraq for continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and their opposition to an American withdrawal from the country.
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
A member of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Khalil al-Hayya, stated in a briefing to journalists in Gaza that Iran did not halt its support to the “Resistance” in Palestine for even one day, providing money, weapons and expertise, and that the relationship between Hamas and Iran was never severed. Addressing the criticism made concerning the visit of the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, Ismail Hanniyeh to Iran to participate in Qasem Soleimani’s funeral, Al-Hayya stated that Hanniyeh will visit any country willing to welcome him (the al-Kawthar TV channel, January 21).