January 19, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran Taps Quds Force Official as Envoy to Iraq

January 19, 2017 | Policy Brief

Iran Taps Quds Force Official as Envoy to Iraq

Iran has appointed a high-ranking officer from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) extraterritorial branch, the Quds Force, as ambassador to Iraq. Brigadier General Iraj Masjedi, a senior advisor to Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, replaces Hassan Danaeifar (who himself is a Quds Force officer). In appointing Masjedi, Iran is signaling its commitment to ensure that its political and military influence will continue to dominate its western neighbor.  

The Quds Force oversees the training, funding, and equipping of IRGC proxies and terrorist cells abroad, but it is more than that. As Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal writes in his book The Iran Wars, it combines “an intelligence and paramilitary arm with diplomatic and economic responsibilities. It is a CIA, Pentagon, and State Department all rolled into one.”

Soleimani reports directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters regarding Iranian foreign policy. In 2007, Treasury designated both Soleimani and the Quds Force for terrorism under Executive Order 13224.

Headquartered out of the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, the Quds Force oversees key Iranian activities in Iraq, including support for predominantly Shiite militias, coordinating front companies like the Headquarters for the Restoration of Holy Shrines, cajoling Iraqi politicians into pro-Tehran positions and alliances, and attempting to co-opt Shiite clerical networks.

The pro-Tehran prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, pursued sectarian policies that marginalized Sunnis in politics and the military during his time in office (2006-2014). These policies fed into the resentment that contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.

But as so many other times in Iran’s post-revolution history, it saw opportunity in another country’s crises. After the Iraqi army disintegrated in the wake of the Islamic State’s conquests, the Quds Force and IRGC-backed militias stepped in to fill the void. The latter joined the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the umbrella organization of Iraqi militias formed following the 2014 fatwa of the Iraqi-Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to drive the Islamic State from the country. IRGC-backed militias now dominate the PMF. In November 2016, the Iraqi parliament officially incorporated the PMF into the Iraqi state, making it a legal military force separate from the national armed forces.

Masjedi’s military background provides insight into Iran’s designs for Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), he established his credentials at the Ramezan Base, where he coordinated special operations behind enemy lines and worked with Iraqi insurgents. A number of these Iraqi insurgents have risen to key positions in the post-Saddam era. During the U.S. occupation, Masjedi was involved in directing Quds Force operations against U.S. and coalition forces – operations that killed at least 500 U.S. troops. Masjedi vowed last year that Iran would fight in Iraq and Syria until the last “takfiri” fighters are killed, and last month praised the PMF as the “IRGC’s next step.”

The IRGC aspires to transform the PMF into an Iraqi version of itself, or of Lebanese Hezbollah, as part of its bid to erase all traces of U.S. influence in the country. Masjedi will work to ensure that the IRGC-backed network of politicians and entities emerges victorious in post-Islamic State Iraq. The incoming U.S. administration should prioritize supporting Iraqis who seek a brighter future over those aligned with the dictatorship next door. 

Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj.