Little is known about the life of the successor of Qassem Soleimani, who was killed on January 3, 2019, by an American attack near the Baghdad airport in Iraq. Information is limited, but General Esmail Ghaani, who has always been in the shadow of his well-known predecessor and who is now the new leader of the Al Quds militia of the Pasdaran, dedicated a large part of his life to his military career. He was Soleimani’s number two for around 20 years, and many believe that he will have a hard time gaining the same level of influence in the Middle East.
According to the Corriere della Sera, Ali Khamenei chose him as a clear representative of continuity and described him as “one of the most important military commanders” in the country. Conservative and faithful to the strictest part of the Iranian political hierarchy, Ghaani is an uncompromising man with clear opinions. In addition, according to some, he would also reflect a balance between forces within the division of the Revolutionary Guards, which makes him an ideal candidate for collecting what’s left of the leader who preceded him (whom many believed was unprejudiced). His nomination has generated conflicting opinions. Many believe he does not have the right experience for such an important role while for others his name represents a courageous fighter who defended the nation from Iraqis in the ‘80s.
There are few photos of Esmail Ghaani, who was born in Mashhad (in North Khorasan) in 1957 and raised during the final years of the Pahlavi monarchy. Today, he is a man with a seemingly gentle appearance who wears glasses and has a beard streaked with grey. On the day of Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran, he was next to the Supreme Leader crying for the most important shahid that contemporary Iran has ever had (at least officially). Since 1997, he has been deputy commander of the Al Quds division, a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards that holds a leading role in the (foreign) politics of the country. Chief commander Rahim Safavi appointed him. In his previous role, he oversaw financial disbursements to paramilitary groups, including Hezbollah, and followed events in the East. Officer Ghaani’s career was analogous to that of Soleimani. Like him, he started very early, at little more than 20 years old, and like him he dedicated his life to it. But unlike his powerful predecessor, he did not become as noticed nor respected in the same way.
At 22 years old, a young Ghaani entered the Revolutionary Guards, a formation created after the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to safeguard the newly born theocracy, established in 1979 from the ashes of the regime of Shah Pahlavi. Ghaani’s decision was a crucial step that many other young Iranians also took at that time, dedicating their lives to a military career in defense of the nation. Joining the Pasdaran was not just a question of being drafted but was rather a true vocation, more like a spiritual aspiration than a job to do. Young Ghaani was then deployed to fight the Kurds and immediately after was sent to the frontlines against Iraq, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the region, which had strong symbolic value for the Islamic Republic.
Based on the little information we have about him, during the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Ghaani proved to be particularly courageous, with a spirit of initiative and rather rare audacity. For this and especially for his determination, he managed to rise in rank and was entrusted with the responsibility of two important divisions: the Nasr 5 and the Reza 21. Publicly, Ghaani stated that a good commander considers his soldiers children, and on more than one occasion he demonstrated his closeness to them (even though he never enjoyed the same popularity that General Soleimani did).
At the end of the conflict with Saddam Hussein and due to what he demonstrated during the war, Ghaani took on positions of a certain degree of importance within the Islamic Republic. Over the years, he has managed issues with Afghanistan, Pakistan and even the fight against drug traffickers in the area. According to some information provided by sources close to the opposition of Tehran, Ghaani was also the head of the Fourth Ansar Corps. Immediately after, he moved to the Al Quds militia, which is considered the connecting link between what matters in the Islamic Republic and the allied movements. Within the mechanisms of power that he was a part of, he built very important relationships, which he has maintained throughout his life and which have allowed him to climb the ladder of power rather quickly.
On May 25, 2012, in the region of Houla, in the province of Homs, Syria, two villages were attacked. 108 people died, including 49 children. Investigators from the United Nations concluded that the victims had lost their lives due to hasty executions by a civilian militia called Shabiha (considered by Syrian activists and some human rights organizations to be an instrument of Bashar al Assad for smothering dissent. According to the spokesperson for the United States Department of State, Victoria Nuland, Ghaani was accused, along with the Al Quds division, of training the militants responsible for the attack. In the following days, in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency (Isna), Ghaani declared that many massacres had been avoided thanks to their presence in Syria. The interview was deleted from the Isna website in just a few hours, but some traces of his words remained in some news reports. According to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian journalist and expert on the Middle East, that was the first instance that a high-ranking official had admitted that the Al Quds division was operating in Syria.
According to Nicola Pedde, director of the Institute for Global Studies, the profile of the new head of the Al Quds militia has a much more extreme image than that of Soleimani. Ghaani, who is much more inclined to conflict, must now use all his energy to rebuild a relationship with the Shiite communities of Lebanon and Iraq. And he will have to symbolically protect Tehran after the death of Soleimani. The new commander announced his intention to continue the road paved by his predecessor. “We will continue on this bright path with strength,” Ghaani said, as quoted by Irib, the Iranian state tv. “We are children of war,” he said once, referring to his relationship with Soleimani and evoking an image in which many Iranians who supported the Islamic revolution see themselves. “We are partners on the battlefield and we became friends in battle,” he said, again speaking about Soleimani.
In recent years, Ghaani has bitterly criticized the involvement of the United States in the region, especially after the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. On various occasions, in fact, he has used rather aggressive rhetoric against America and its citizens. During a commemorative ceremony for Iranian martyrs on July 5, 2017, he accused the United States of having (uselessly) spent millions of dollars in Iraq and in Afghanistan in an attempt to attack the Islamic Republic. After Trump’s decision to leave the 2015 nuclear agreement, Ghaani, as a high-ranking representative of the Al Quds division, stated that “we are not a warmongering country. But any military action against Iran will be punished. Trump’s threats against the country will damage America. We have buried many like Trump and we know how to fight against America.” Immediately after the killing of Soleimani, according to the Guardian, Ghaani told Al Jazeera: “Be patient and you will see the lifeless bodies of Americans throughout the whole Middle East.”
Translation by Alexa Ahern