Iran general Esmail Ghaani steps out of Qassem Soleimani's shadow to lead proxies

While much still remains unknown about Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, Western sanctions suggest he's long been in a position of power in the organisation. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEHERAN (AP) - A new Iranian general has stepped out of the shadows to lead the country's expeditionary Quds Force, becoming responsible for Teheran's proxies across the Mideast as the Islamic Republic threatens the US with "harsh revenge" for killing its previous head, Qassem Soleimani.

The Quds Force is part of the 125,000-strong Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary organisation that answers only to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard oversees Iran's ballistic missile programme, has its naval forces shadow the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and includes an all-volunteer Basij force.

Like his predecessor, a young Esmail Ghaani faced the carnage of Iran's eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s and later joined the newly founded Quds, or Jerusalem, Force.

While much still remains unknown about Gen Ghaani, 62, Western sanctions suggest he's long been in a position of power in the organisation. And likely one of his first duties will be to oversee whatever revenge Iran intends to seek for the US airstrike early Friday (Jan 3) that killed his longtime friend Maj Gen Soleimani.

"We are children of war," Gen Ghaani once said of his relationship with Maj Gen Soleimani, according to Iran's state-run Irna news agency. "We are comrades on the battlefield and we have become friends in battle."

The Guard has seen its influence grow ever-stronger both militarily and politically in recent decades. Iran's conventional military was decimated by the execution of its old officer class during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and later by sanctions.

A key driver of that influence comes from the elite Quds Force, which works across the region with allied groups to offer an asymmetrical threat to counter the advanced weaponry wielded by the US and its regional allies. Those partners include Iraqi militiamen, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels.

In announcing Gen Ghaani as Maj Gen Soleimani's replacement, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the new leader "one of the most prominent commanders" in service to Iran.

The Quds Force "will be unchanged from the time of his predecessor," Mr Khamenei said, according to Irna.

Maj Gen Soleimani long has been the face of the Quds Force. His fame surged after American officials began blaming him for deadly roadside bombs targeting US troops in Iraq. Images of him, long a feature of hardline Instagram accounts and mobile phone lockscreens, now plaster billboards calling for Iran to avenge his death.

But while Maj Gen Soleimani's exploits in Iraq and Syria launched a thousand analyses, Gen Ghaani has remained much more in the shadows of the organisation. He has only occasionally come up in the Western or even Iranian media. But his personal story broadly mirrors that of Maj Gen Soleimani.

Born Aug 8, 1957 in the north-eastern Iranian city of Mashhad, Gen Ghaani grew up during the last decade of monarchy. He joined the Guard a year after the 1979 revolution. Like Maj Gen Soleimani, he first deployed to put down the Kurdish uprising in Iran that followed the shah's downfall.

Iraq then invaded Iran, launching an eight-year war that would see 1 million people killed. Many of the dead were lightly armed members of the Guard, some of whom were young boys killed in human-wave assaults on Iraqi positions.

Volunteers "were seeing that all of them are being killed, but when we ordered them to go, would not hesitate," Gen Ghaani later recounted. "The commander is looking to his soldiers as his children, and in the soldier's point of view, it seems that he received an order from god and he must to do that."

He survived the war to join the Quds Force shortly after its creation. He worked with Maj Gen Soleimani, as well as led counterintelligence efforts at the Guard. Western analysts believe while Maj Gen Soleimani focused on nations to Iran's west, Gen Ghaani's remit was those to the east like Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, Iranian state media has not elaborated on his time in the Guard.

In 2012, the US Treasury sanctioned Gen Ghaani, describing him as having authority over "financial disbursements" to proxies affiliated to the Quds Force. The sanctions particularly tied Gen Ghaani to an intercepted shipment of weapons seized at a port in 2010 in Nigeria's most-populous city, Lagos.

Authorities then broke into 13 shipping containers labelled as carrying "packages of glass wool and pallets of stone." They instead found 107 mm Katyusha rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons. The Katyusha remains a favoured weapon of Iranian proxy forces, including Iraqi militias and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

An Iranian and his Nigerian partner later received five-year prison sentences over the shipment, which appeared bound for Gambia, then under the rule of dictator Yahya Jammeh. Israeli officials had claimed the rockets would be shipped onto militants in the Gaza Strip, while Nigerian authorities alleged that local politicians could use the arms in upcoming elections.

Also in 2012, Gen Ghaani drew criticism from the US State Department after reportedly saying that "if the Islamic Republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would have happened on a much larger scale." That comment came just after gunmen backing Syrian President Bashar Assad killed over 100 people in Houla in the country's Homs province.

"Over the weekend we had the deputy head of the Quds Force saying publicly that they were proud of the role that they had played in training and assisting the Syrian forces - and look what this has wrought," then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nunland said at the time.

In January 2015, Gen Ghaani indirectly said that Iran sends missiles and weapons to Palestinians to fight Israel.

"The US and Israel are too small to consider themselves in line with Iran's military power," Gen Ghaani said at the time. "This power has now appeared alongside the oppressed people of Palestine and Gaza in the form of missiles and weapons."

Now, Gen Ghaani is firmly in control of the Quds Force. While Iran's leaders say they have a plan to avenge Maj Gen Soleimani's death, no plan has been announced as the country prepares for funerals for the general starting Sunday.

Whatever that plan is, Gen Ghaani likely will be involved.

"If there were no Islamic Republic, the US would have burned the whole region," Gen Ghaani once said.

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