Since the elimination in a US air raid on January 3 of Qasem Soleimani, former commander-in-chief of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, former de facto leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Mohammad Kawtharani has been the subject of particular attention. And for a good reason. It is this rather puny man who has been temporarily assigned to take on duties in Iraq that were once the responsibility of Soleimani, the former Iranian number two. This promotion is not by chance. A member of Hezbollah’s first militant generation, Kawtharani has been for many years in charge of Iraqi affairs within the party. Acting as a link between Beirut and Baghdad and holding dual nationality, he has forged strong ties with successive Iraqi heads of government.
He was sent to Baghdad in 2018 as a mediator to meet with paramilitary leaders, support them in their efforts to form a new government and prevent the dissolution of the Fateh Alliance, the political arm of the pro-Tehran factions. During the same year, he again pressured the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi so that the appointed ministers be to the liking of Iran and Syria. In the eyes of Iraqi protesters, he is one of the masterminds of the crackdown on the popular uprising that began in October 2019. However, despite his experience, this sudden shift from shadow to light reveals the state of panic in which the Islamic Republic finds itself in the face of the void left by its iconic military commander. It also reveals Hezbollah’s place, at least for some time, in Iran’s post-Soleimani strategy. For the Islamic Republic, the elimination of its strongman could not have come at a worse time. The country is under pressure from all sides, finds itself in the crosshairs of the Iraqi protest movement, indirectly blamed by the Lebanese uprising and out of breath in Syria. Tehran had to react quickly when its “providential man” died. Its presence in the region is not just a matter of security. Its commitment is ideological; it is almost an existential issue. The “axis of resistance” depends on it. The new commander-in-chief of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, does not have yet the makings of his predecessor, even less concerning the Arab world, which he knows little and does not speak its language, and where he has not yet built strong relations.Of course, he is not lacking strength and has already proven himself as deputy commander. He established important networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and continued to develop them thereafter. But this is little – too little – to carry the torch. With Soleimani’s disappearance, Iran lost the country’s second most powerful man after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most skillful and toughest adversary of the United States, the one who maintained control over Syrian and Iraqi territories with an iron fist and almost transformed them into new “Iranian provinces.” “Above all, Soleimani has instilled a sense of trust and loyalty among Iran’s proxies,” said Afshon Ostovar, assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Soleimani, nicknamed "the ghost", was practically the architect of the consolidation of the “axis of resistance” that must link Tehran to the Mediterranean. He was a national hero and at his funeral, Khamenei could not hold back his tears. With a sharp mind and a keen sense of strategy, he combined his gift of ubiquity with certain predispositions for directing the stage.
Following his death, a question arises: Who will take over his responsibilities? “The assassination of Soleimani caused an earthquake throughout Iran’s hierarchical structure,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a Hezbollah expert and researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Overnight, a stunned Tehran saw its area of influence without the most evocative symbol of its all power. But faced with this new reality, what can be done other than accepting and adapting. Not one person can replace Soleimani. Full stop. But could many? Esmail Qaani may not be able to perform all the duties, but he is supported by a committee of high-ranking members of the Quds Force whose experience is well established. Moreover, he will be able to count on the significant changes that his predecessor initiated within the elite unit. These changes were inspired by the regional situation rather than by the Soleimani's personality and are to survive him by their majority.
This is the case with the gradual transition from a deployment of militia groups according to their nationalities to a “multinational Shiite army," said Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW). The supreme leader himself goes so far as to refer to “fighters without borders.” “Esmail Qaani will certainly not establish in the short term the same level of confidence as Soleimani did. But, Iran’s relations with its proxies are built on money and support, more than trust. As long as both continue to flow, the links will remain strong,” Ostovar said.
“We focused on the man and forgot the organization”
Soleimani’s death was an undeniable loss for the Islamic Republic, but it made us sometimes forget that “supermani” – a nickname given to him by a Lebanese satirist – was part of a system from which he emerged. This applies to certain practices that were intrinsically associated with him, including his command style or his constant way of showing off at the front.
“It is not something that is specific to him. This is consistent with an organizational culture adopted by all commanders within the IRGC,” said Abdolrasool Divsallar, a researcher with the Middle East Direction Program at the European University Institute and an assistant professor at the Milan-based Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. The focus on Soleimani has overshadowed the power of a hybrid structure, characterized by a fuzzy but perfectly controlled operation.“We focused on the man and forgot the organization. That is why it is said today that Soleimani’s duties have been divided among several officers. In fact, this has always been the case,” Alfoneh said.
The new number two in the Quds Force, Mohammad Hossein-Zadeh Hejazi, may play a leading role in this regard. Hejazi, a former commander of the Basij militia within the IRGC – a paramilitary organization much praised by Soleimani to belittle the Syrian army – moved to Lebanon in 2014 to serve as commander of the force of Iran’s elite unit in the country. He is said to have worked hard at strengthening Hezbollah’s militant power, notably through an ambitious project to obtain precision missiles.
In addition to his regional expertise, the man can boast great versatility and sociability. “Hejazi is an extrovert. He is better in dealing with people. Qaani, on the other hand, is rather an introvert,” Alfoneh said. His appointment shows one thing: with or without Soleimani, Iran's policy in the Middle East remains the same. “The assassination of Soleimani did not change Iran’s regional foreign policy. His goals, aspirations and general behavior will continue with the same vigor,” Ostovar said.
Above all, Tehran can count on its most exemplary ally – almost a model for the other proxies – Hezbollah. Benefiting from the aura of his leader, Hassan Nasrallah, Kawtharani becomes the face of Iran in Iraq. The territory is familiar. The Lebanese group has even invested in it economically. “Its presence is considerable in Iraq, through the large number of Lebanese companies and enterprises in the country,” said Ihsan al-Shammari, director of the Iraqi Center for Political Thought.
From Beirut to Qom
Hezbollah, which has been present in Iraq for a long time, is swapping its role in supporting Iran’s strategy for a pivotal role. The first signs of this development came in the wake of Soleimani’s funeral, with the words of Naim Qassem, the party’s deputy secretary general, that the assassination would give Hezbollah new responsibilities in the region. “Following this declaration, Hezbollah became more involved in Iraq,” Hage Ali said. Several meetings took place during the post January 3 tumult. Senior leaders and officials of pro-Iranian groups in Iraq met on January 9 in Beirut. Among them were representatives of the armed factions League of the Righteous, Hezbollah Brigades, Imam Soldiers Battalions, Sayyid of Martyrs Battalions and Imam Ali Battalions. “There was a meeting in Beirut, that is true. A lot of Iraqi officials came here, some met with Kawtharani and others met with Nasrallah,” said Mohammad Afif Naboulsi, the party’s spokesman. “But this was not directly related to Soleimani’s assassination,” he added firmly.
Acting sometimes as impresario, at other times as prescriber, the Party of God had to unite the pro-Iranian militias, beset by many divisions that the death of al-Muhandis has only exacerbated. From Baghdad to Beirut, there is one course of action that must be established: to present a homogeneous Shiite front to force the U.S. to withdraw its troops from the entire region. Kawtharani seems to be acting above all as an executor and communication channel.
“His role is political and relational. He has no militant role,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on security issues in Iraq. Compared to Soleimani, he has neither stature nor influence. And the chief’s seat is already taken. “Hassan Nasrallah has the first and last word,” Naboulsi said. "When Mustafa al-Khadhimi (Iraqi prime minister) or Muqtada al-Sadr (Iraqi Shiite cleric) come to Beirut, it is Nasrallah who sits down with them. Someone like Kawtharani rather deals with routine meetings,” Hage Ali said.
The various post-Soleimani meetings also serve another objective: to push Moqtada al-Sadr, the troublemaker of the Iraqi political scene, on Tehran’s side once and for all. After their meeting in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s number one, the Iraqi militia leaders went to Qom on January 13 where they held talks with al-Sadr. The following day, the populist leader called on Iraqis to rally in numbers against the U.S. presence in the country.
Because of his ability to mobilize crowds, al-Sadr is often compared to Nasrallah, despite that he is not a talented orator and has a checkered history with Iran. But depending on the circumstances, he is of lesser harm to Tehran. He can count on his performance, which is far more significant than that of more conventional Iraqi leaders, who are unable to respond effectively to the challenges that have arisen since the beginning of the year, notably with regard to the appointment of a new prime minister.
“We will be where we need to be”
Hezbollah's expansion beyond Lebanon to embrace Iranian affairs in Iraq is not surprising. It is, in short, only the climax of its rise in power in the region since its active intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime. “This is the most successful model that Iran can now duplicate. I think there will be now more freedom in the management of operations for local actors like Hezbollah,” Divsallar said.
When Nasrallah officially acknowledged the engagement of his men in Syria in a 2013 speech, he harangued the crowd with a solemn “we will be where we need to be.” The phrase became a motto, displayed everywhere, in banners, on the signs, even in songs. It is in Syria that the pro-Iran Lebanese-Iraqi alliance has so far grown the most. “In addition to the Iraqi scene and the fight against the Islamic State (IS), there is also the Syrian scene, which is at the heart of cooperation between the Lebanese Shiite party and the Iraqi Shiite groups,” al-Shammari said.
Tehran has extremely strong ties with the Lebanese faction. For many years, Soleimani was the needed link between the supreme leader and Nasrallah. According to his own claim, Soleimani spent most of the 34 days of the 2006 war in Lebanon, while Israeli bombs rained down on part of the country. For many Lebanese, the late Iranian strongman is a true icon of the “resistance,” to the point that a giant statue was dedicated to him, after his death, in the village of Maroun el-Ras in southern Lebanon.
Nasrallah has repeatedly praised his Iranian tutor, referring to the “psychological, spiritual and intellectual harmony” that united them. “General Qasem Soleimani was a close friend of Imad Mughniyeh (Hezbollah’s militant leader killed in 2008 in Damascus) whom he held in high esteem. However, the same does not seem to be the case for Nasrallah. Soleimani reproached him for having provoked the 2006 war without Tehran’s prior permission,” Alfoneh said.
After Soleimani, the Hezbollah leader is the most popular man within Iran's regional network. He is seen as the spearhead of the resistance against Israel; the one who, at the dawn of the new millennium, liberated southern Lebanon and, in 2006, gave the Israelis a hard time. He is the only one who can assert an almost indisputable authority. “There is a kind of imperial reasoning among the Iranians, which sometimes translates into the designation of one of the men in the region whom they really treat as one of their own.
"Nasrallah is one of them,” Hage Ali said. But if Hezbollah is now one of the trump cards, it cannot alone respond to Iran’s hegemonic impulses, especially since the Party of God also faces its own challenges domestically. “Hezbollah is not intended to replace Qasem Soleimani,” Naboulsi said. In Iraq, Hezbollah enjoys a certain prestige among the pro-Tehran militias, but this relationship is not, strictly speaking, hierarchical. “There is a difference between Hezbollah, perceived as a faithful friend that actively supports them, and the guardians of the revolution, who are considered to be the bosses,” al-Hashimi said.
Unlike Soleimani, who managed to forge deep, complex and partly fear-based ties with Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties, the Lebanese movement has influence only on the factions affiliated with Tehran. “The weight of Hezbollah must be nuanced in general. Its sphere of influence is limited to pro-Iranian Shiite parties,” al-Shammari said.
Rather than filling the absence of a man with easily identifiable personalities, Tehran might favor a return to its roots; to the culture of secrecy that has long characterized the functioning of the Quds Force before Soleimani took it over. Under the aegis of the latter, an elite unit with a rather clandestine operation has become a formidable force of popular mobilization. Without Soleimani, the spectacular character that had been pegged to it is bound to dissipate. “The Iranians are going to move towards a more decentralized regional command style. They will not have a big head like Soleimani who can be easily identified and eliminated,” Divsallar said, referring to a method that has been widely tested in the past. During the deadly conflict between Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988, the Pasdaran paramilitary organization had acquired its leadership style and an ability to fight in asymmetrical contexts, notably by delegating decision-making to small groups operating partially independently against much larger forces.
There is no shortage of less personalized command style. The Quds Force can thus conduct its operations in a more discreet, secure and harmonious manner with other institutions, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). Soleimani had indeed attracted a great deal of criticism within MOIS. Leaks of documents generated by MOIS officers stationed in Iraq between 2013 and 2015, in the midst of the war against IS, attest to this. They expressed concern about the brutal tactics of the commander and his militias, and accused Soleimani of alienating Sunni Arab communities, thereby creating the ideal conditions for a new US presence. These accusations remained unanswered.
In the “Iranian Empire,” the limits of Soleimani’s reign were overshadowed by the character’s brilliance in the eyes of the supreme leader, combined with his aura with some of his subjects. His death highlights this, ushering in a new chapter, but at the heart of the same book. Soleimani was able to demonstrate a quasi-imperial conquering zeal in his regional commitments, to the point of being confused with the Iranian “civilizing” mission of exporting the revolution. From this point of view, his legacy – as heir to the Iran-Iraq war – will survive him. It is a question for the Islamic Republic to adapt itself to his absence and make readjustments without compromising on the basics. As for the Quds Force, it is its raison d’être that is at stake.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 4rth of June)
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