Soleimani's enigmatic successor vows revenge on US

The Trump administration has trained its eye on the new leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds force, but may have a hard time targeting a commander expert in delegating behind the scenes and operating below the surface.

Esmail Qaani, a bespectacled, gray-haired 62-year-old man, assumed the top post in Iran’s primary foreign operations military wing just hours after the U.S. drone strike that killed his predecessor, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, on Jan. 3.

Emerging from the background, Qaani’s first major public appearance came standing near Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Jan. 6 as he delivered a tearful eulogy at the funeral for the dead commander.

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In Qaani’s public remarks, the veteran military commander committed to carrying on Soleimani’s agenda and exacting revenge for his death. The U.S. has since responded.

“If he follows a similar path of killing Americans, he will meet the same fate,” U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said in a Jan. 23 interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the London-based, international Arab daily newspaper.

Experts warn that a devastating attack on U.S. interests or its allies is a near certainty, despite a cautious retreat in mid-January from all-out war with the U.S.

Less than a week after Soleimani’s death in Baghdad, Tehran responded with a missile strike on Iraqi bases housing American military personnel, causing no casualties but leading to traumatic brain injuries for at least 64 U.S. service members.

On Jan. 9, President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE declared that “Iran appears to be standing down.”

Middle East observers, however, predict Tehran will seek to carry out a secret attack powerful enough to exact revenge for the devastation of Soleimani’s killing but restrained enough to avoid a large-scale conflict.

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“We have definitely not decreased tensions,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a research associate for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“We still have no off-ramp moving forward, there’s no serious overture on diplomatic relations,” she added. “The strike made it infinitely harder to imagine an Iranian regime willing to sit down at a negotiating table with the United States.”

Qaani served as Soleimani’s deputy for almost 20 years and has had U.S. sanctions on him since 2012, for overseeing the funding and weapons shipments to proxy forces like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Quds force affiliates in Africa.

His quick appointment as the top commander was meant to reassure Iran’s allies and signal to opponents that the Quds force mission in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen would continue uninterrupted.

Described as a highly capable technocrat but lacking the charisma and public popularity that Soleimani garnered, Qaani’s influence will be tested as he tries to shape the future operations of the military wing charged with exporting Tehran’s brand of political Islam.

But his résumé may provide insight into the immediate tasks and priorities of the Quds force.

“He could serve as CEO of any company in the U.S., he is an expert at running large organizations,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, and an expert on the Quds force and its military commanders.

Alfoneh describes the Quds force as highly bureaucratized and able to withstand the loss of its leaders. While Soleimani’s death left an opening atop the organization, it also allowed new individuals with special skill sets to reach higher positions of power.

Qaani’s previous deputy position has since been filled by Mohammad Hejazi, a commander viewed as an expert in suppressing domestic unrest. His ascension comes at a time when mass protests are being held in Iraq and Lebanon against Iran’s influence in the countries.

“That tells me that rather than going and opting to have another Qassem Soleimani, another charismatic leader, the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] has opted for a group of commanders, none of whom are necessarily charismatic. But they know how to do the job. They are experts in their fields of speciality,” Alfoneh said.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Iranian security and political issues, said the Quds force is likely to support attacks on U.S. interests or allies where it can deny accountability and build on American public sentiment to remove U.S. forces from “endless” wars, like in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is a theater to watch because it's Qaani’s speciality. Iran’s east is Qaani’s speciality,” Taleblu said.

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But he warned that the Quds force is also capable of operating farther afield, having orchestrated attacks from Bosnia to Thailand.

“Don’t keep your eye on the Middle East, keep your eye globally, the Quds forces have global ambitions,” he said.

This year will prove precarious for tensions between Washington and Tehran. Elements of the 2015 nuclear deal are set to expire in the fall, opening up Iran to engage in arms sales with China and Russia and provide a financial lifeline to a country that is suffering under the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign of sanctions.

Yet Iran is also under pressure from European signatories to the nuclear deal who have signaled frustration with Tehran boasting of breaching terms of the agreement. The three member states — the U.K., France and Germany — initiated a key mechanism of the nuclear deal to raise discussions with Iran that could lead to a snapback of U.N. sanctions placed on the regime.

U.S. officials say they are open to speaking with Iranian leaders about negotiating a deal to lift its sanctions in return for Tehran, in part, agreeing to abandon enriching uranium as part of its nuclear program, cease funding proxy fighting forces abroad and respect human rights domestically.

Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said Iran’s leaders are more deterred by the shock of Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani, but view their conditions for entering negotiations for a new nuclear deal as a non-starter.

“I think the Iranians don’t know what Donald Trump’s red lines are … and I think they’re going to be careful, at least in the short term, about even using their proxies against the United States in a very direct or confrontational way,” she said.

“The biggest problem we have right now is that it’s not entirely clear what the Trump administration wants or what the strategy is,” Pletka added. “The problem is there are a lot of mixed signals coming out of the administration.”