Analysis

U.S. Sanctions, Internal Pressure May Curb Trenchant Threats by Iranian Guards' New Chief

Recently appointed Hossein Salami dreams of regional domination, but his elite military organization is running low on cash

File photo: Undated photo released by Sepahnews, the website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, showing Gen. Hossein Salami speaking in a meeting in Tehran, Iran.
Sepahnews via AP

As Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps comes under increasing external pressure following its designation as a terrorist organization by the United States, the appointment of hardline Hossein Salami as its commander, announced Sunday by Iranian media following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's decision, is seen as necessary in the Iranian context.

The 59-year-old Salami, who served as deputy commander under Mohammmad Ali Jafari, had been seen as his natural successor. With his appointment, Salami gains control over the most important military force in Iran, consisting of approximately 130,000 combatants and operatives, with land, air and sea branches and special Quds forces, operating overseas in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and other locations throughout the Middle East.

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Speaking to Iranian media, Salami has made a name for himself threatening Israel, the United States, European countries and even Saudi-aligned Bahrain, and he is considered an avid supporter of the notion of exporting Iran's Islamic revolution and extending Tehran's influence over neighboring states in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

In 2016, addressing Shi'ites in Bahrain while touring occupied Aleppo in Syria, Salami offered them a similar future. The conquest of Aleppo, Salami claimed, was "a first step toward the liberation of Mosul, Bahrain and Yemen."

File photo: Gen. Hossein Salami, second right, salutes as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives at a graduation ceremony of the Revolutionary Guard's officers in Tehran, Iran, May 20, 2015.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

In early 2019, Salami threatened to erase the "Zionist regime," in comments quoted by Iranian TV. "If Israel takes any action to wage war against us, this will inevitably lead to its annihilation," he said after airstrikes in Syria attributed to Israel. "Any new war that Israel launches will end in its destruction."

Salami, who is now also in charge of Iran's ballistic missile program and the IRGC's intelligence agencies, also threatened Europe in 2017, when he said that Iran can extend the range of its missiles to over 2,000 km, which could reach the continent. "So far we have felt that Europe is not a threat, so we did not increase the range of our missiles," Salami explained, adding that "if Europe wants to turn into a threat, we will increase the range of our missiles."

He argued that Iran doesn't seek war, but that its defense and missile capabilities provide Tehran with "security and independence" in conducting its foreign affairs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also became a target of Salami's criticism, when he spoke publicly of the possibility of toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad. "Erdogan is unable to realize his intentions of toppling the Assad regime," then IRGC deputy commander said.

Despite the appointment of threat-spewing Salami, who wants to show the IRGC has a new boss, this is a difficult time for the organization. Its addition to the U.S. terror watch list - which is intended to dragoon Tehran and expected to hurt the Guards, already financially constrained and struggling to maintain its presence in the region - adds to internal pressure by Iranians who object its foreign involvement and its cost to Iranian taxpayers.