Iranian President Hassan Rohani sounded threatening Friday when he declared that Iran and other “free nations” would take revenge on the American “criminals” who killed Qassem Soleimani. But when Rohani visited Soleimani’s family, his solemn face didn’t betray the difficulties that racked relations between the president and the late head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force.
According to one report from 2018, Rohani lashed out at Soleimani during a meeting that included several senior Guards, accusing him of hiding the truth from the president and even from the supreme leader. Soleimani left the room.
Rohani based his charges on reports that Soleimani had misrepresented Iranian failures in Syria and Yemen and, more importantly, hadn’t removed Iranian instructors and soldiers from the T4 air base in Syria that Israel had bombed twice.
Earlier that year, when the two met during Friday prayers, Soleimani warned the president about the “folly of not increasing the budget allotted to Quds.” His threatening tone led to a loud altercation; only the intervention of Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, calmed things down.
The power struggle between Rohani and Soleimani began as soon as Rohani was elected to his first term in 2013. It peaked during the controversy over the nuclear agreement, which Soleimani strenuously objected to until he was forced to accept Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ruling against criticism of the accord.
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Khamenei’s order wasn’t always strictly followed. A public dialogue between Rohani and the Revolutionary Guards in 2015 reflects the fissure between them, especially between Rohani and the Quds force. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij paramilitary force that operates under the Guards, addressed Rohani without mentioning his name: “Among us are fake revolutionaries who do not worship God, who talk about terminating the struggle [against the West] in the name of reason because they’ve lost their youthful zeal. They are unwise because they lack vigor.”
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These words came in response to Rohani’s resounding criticism of the radical leadership and the Revolutionary Guards. As he put it, “Are we strong because we possess all kinds of weapons yet are dependent on others to supply our wheat, rye, meat, cooking oil and sugar? There are those who think that because we have missiles, we are strong.”
Rohani complained to Khamenei that the Guards were disparaging him. According to reports from Iran, Khamenei replied that he didn’t control the Guards. Rohani realized which way the wind was blowing but didn’t forgo further criticism.
In recent years he has set his goals on reducing the economic heft of the Guards, which control half of Iran’s economy. Without mentioning names, he declared that too much power leads to corruption. The Guards realized who he was referring to and warned that they would expose corruption cases that Rohani and his associates were involved in.
Soleimani didn’t only have a prickly relationship with Rohani. Soleimani’s former boss, former Guards chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, considered Soleimani a tough rival. In April 2018, reports suggested that Khamenei would replace Jafari with Soleimani, while other reports said Soleimani would be fired and the Quds force fully integrated into the Guards.
Neither of these options materialized, but it seems Jafari understood Soleimani’s subversive potential. This past April, Jafari was sacked; the accompanying announcement was terse. His replacement, Hossein Salami, was close to Soleimani and has expressed tough positions on the United States and Israel; the latter “should be erased from the map,” Salami said.
This jousting over ego and status, which happens in politics and the military in every country, puts some question marks over the status of the Guards, especially the Quds force. The ideology-driven strategy isn’t expected to change, but the balance of power between the regime’s military arms may undergo a shake-up empowering one group at the expense of another.
In terms of internal rivalry, Soleimani had the upper hand. He knew how to win budgets and backing for his forces, sometimes at the expense of the army’s budgets. He also didn’t hesitate to encroach on the turf of the political leadership.
Soleimani’s replacement, his deputy Esmail Ghaani, hasn’t stood out so far politically; it’s unclear who is political supporters are. Without them he’ll find it hard to sustain the Quds force the way Soleimani did. Will he know how to win financial backing from Rohani and the new commander of the Guards, or will he become an obedient soldier?
This question is on the minds of both the Revolutionary Guards and the leaders of the regime, perhaps occupying them more than the question of how to avenge Soleimani’s assassination.