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Analysis: Iran Shuffles Revolutionary Guards Leadership

By Vahid Sepehri

PARIS, September 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed on September 1 a new commander of the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), a force that exists separately from Iran's regular army.

The appointment has been interpreted variously for its domestic political or strategic significance, although officials have called it routine.

Head Of Controversial IRGC

News agencies report that the supreme leader appointed Mohammad Ali Jafari (also known as Aziz or Ali Jafari) to succeed Yahya Rahim-Safavi as IRGC commander.

It is worth noting that the IRGC has recently become a focus of U.S. criticism for its allegedly disruptive role in Iraq.

Jafari spoke to the press on September 3 and said the IRGC's role is to "expand" the deterrence capability against "the enemies of Iran and the revolution" without an exclusively military role. He said the IRGC will "hasten" to help other institutions in Iran "where necessary," ISNA reported.

Jafari added that Iran's "environmental conditions" have changed, and the IRGC needs to be flexible in facing new threats to Iran. The new commander assured reporters that the IRGC is better prepared than in the past to face these threats, and with the necessary intelligence on "enemies" and a considerable ballistic capability. He urged "the enemies" to leave the Middle East region and choose instead an "interaction" with Islamic states, ISNA reported.

Military Experience

Jafari, born in 1957, was a brigadier-general in the IRGC who now holds the rank of major general. He fought in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, initially as a member of the Basij volunteer militia before rising through the IRGC ranks.

Jafari spent nearly 15 years (from 1991-92 to 2005) as commander of the IRGC land forces, Iranian media have reported, before being appointed as head of a strategic research center to map out new defensive and military strategies in response to what Iran's leadership has seen as evolving threats in the Middle East.

Jafari reportedly developed many of his ideas and experiences on unconventional, or "asymmetrical," warfare -- which officials have not spelled out in detail -- at the research center. In 1999, he was among 24 IRGC commanders who wrote to President Mohammad Khatami, effectively warning him at a time of public unrest in Tehran that Khatami's liberalizing policies were threatening the Iranian leadership, Radio Farda reported on September 2.

The outgoing IRGC commander, Rahim-Safavi, has been appointed Khamenei's senior adviser on the armed forces, "Kayhan" reported on September 3. He told state television on September 2 that he had been informed of the impending shuffle for over a month, and there was nothing unusual about the end of his tenure. He noted that such appointments "do not last more than 10 years," citing the example of current Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani being moved from the leadership of state television and radio.

Radio Farda cited baztab.com -- which is regarded as close to a senior member of the Expediency Council -- Secretary Mohsen Rezai -- as stating that Rahim-Safavi had expressed a desire to leave his post months ago, given the longevity of his tenure. Ayatollah Khamenei's published note gave no reason for Safavi's removal.

'Asymetrical' Strategies

Radio Farda commented on September 2 that Jafari has extensive fighting experience and reportedly close relations with the commanders of the former Badr force of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It interpreted the appointment as a response to the recent reports suggesting U.S. plans to place the IRGC on its list of terrorist organizations.

Radio Farda and rooz.com highlighted on September 2 and 3 Jafari's work on "asymmetrical" strategies -- including the use of Iranian terrain in mobile-defensive operations -- and activities in recent years that included the transfer of the lessons and experiences of the Iran-Iraq War to younger IRGC commanders, and reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jafari said in Tehran on September 3 that, given "the enemy's" numerical or technological superiority, the IRGC would make use of "asymmetrical" warfare capabilities, which he said were developed in the Iran-Iraq War. He said Hizballah used this type of warfare in 2006, when Israel bombarded Lebanon from the air and by land in a bid to destroy the Iran-backed militia.

Observers have speculated on the domestic and foreign-policy significance of the reshuffle. Radio Farda said on September 2 that Jafari is or was thought to be close to the Expediency Council's Rezai, who used to head the IRGC, and to Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, another former IRGC guardsman and currently the mayor of Tehran.

The move might be interpreted as a stimulus from Khamenei to the Rezai-Qalibaf clique -- a conservative subfaction thought to be a counterweight to the radicalizers around President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Radio Farda observed that Rahim-Safavi is perceived to have become too openly sympathetic to the Ahmadinejad government, when officers are obliged to shun politics.

IRGC Influence

It quoted observers saying that Rahim-Safavi's almost partisan positions had caused unease or even rifts in the IRGC ranks, and the appointment is meant to resolve that.

The Ahmadinejad government has placed a number of IRGC officers in key executive positions. The most recent such appointment was of Alireza Afshar to be deputy interior minister for political affairs and head of the ministry's election headquarters.

But exiled analyst and IRGC founding member Mohsen Sazegara offered a differing interpretation in comments to Radio Farda on September 2. Sazegara associated Jafari with IRGC commanders who have been given key posts in past months. (Those individuals include Alireza Afshar and Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, another deputy interior minister and brother-in-law of Jafari.)

Sazegara said Jafari's appointment strengthens the IRGC's access to political power and deepens its involvement in -- rather than distancing it from -- politics. This interpretation suggests the move is not designed to strengthen one conservative grouping against another, but rather tighten the IRGC's grip on institutions, as a recent state -- not Ahmadinejad -- policy.

In terms of strategy, Sazegara called the appointment akin to putting the IRGC on a war footing -- given Jafari's work in recent years on strategy and the perception of increasing threats against Iran and the IRGC.

Journalist Hossein Bastani told Radio Farda that the IRGC strategic research center and the Imam Hossein University, a military college, have been engaged in research on regional and military threats to Iran. He said those groups had concluded -- observing Iraq in recent years -- that Iran must not allow itself to be disarmed by UN bodies or the international community, as this would weaken it without assuring its protection from a Western attack. Bastani said Khamenei's appointment of Jafari as the IRGC chief indicates his approval of this conclusion and line of thinking, while the timing means he believes them relevant to Iran's situation. Bastani cited Jafari as one of the IRGC's less political commanders, albeit one who is a partisan of the Basij militia's ever-closer affiliation and cooperation with the IRGC.

The IRGC's 'Periods Of Duties'

The reformist daily "Etemad" observed on September 3 that the IRGC has had three broad periods of duties since 1979. Its first was to defend the Iranian system and Iran's territory after the 1979 revolution and the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980.

The second was participating in reconstruction activities after the war's end in 1988. Now, the third, with Jafari's appointment, signals it is once more playing a defensive role in the face of perceived threats from Western states.

The daily quoted Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, a former senior member of the inspectorate of the joint armed forces headquarters, as saying on September 2 that Jafari's appointment could lead to changes among the IRGC officers' corps and to more "tactical" and "lighter" fighting units. Rudaki said he expects the corps to increase its fighting capabilities under Jafari. (It was not immediately clear if this was Mohammad Nabi Rudaki, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.)

Observers appear to regard Jafari as principally a tactician, organizer, and "technical" military man. And his appointment appears to be more a response to perceived external threats than a reflection of domestic politics.

It might be that Jafari belongs to one or another clique, and rivalries could well exist within the military as they do inside conservative ranks. But the Iranian military is not -- in the manner of some Latin American states in the past or Turkey -- prominently involved in domestic politics. Those officers who go on to fill political or administrative positions do so as civilians and are seen as elements with an assured loyalty to the political system more than to the IRGC as a corps. Their appointments are made by civilian or clerical officials, even if the multiplication of these former military men may be said to strengthen a certain mindset -- unquestioning, loyal, tough in the face of potential pressures -- within a system that has often seen itself as besieged by hostile forces.

Moreover, periodic rotation ensures that no official comes to see himself as permanently entrenched in any position or as indispensable. It reminds such officials that they are dependent on those to whom Iran's postrevolutionary constitution has given formal powers.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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