Brigadier General Ismail Ghaani is a Specially Designated National by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force (IRGC-QF), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization responsible for Iran’s proxy conflicts in the Middle East.“Anti-Terrorism Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 27, 2012, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20120327.aspx; Zachary Cohen, Hamdi Alkhshali, Arwa Damon and Kareem Khadder, “US drone strike ordered by Trump kills top Iranian commander in Baghdad,” CNN, January 3, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/02/middleeast/baghdad-airport-rockets/index.html. The IRGC-QF has played an active role in providing training and weapons to extremist groups including Iraqi insurgents, Lebanese Hezbollah, and others.Dexter Filkins, “The Shadow Comander,” New Yorker, September 23, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander. Following the death of former IRGC leader, Qasem Soleimani—who was killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020—Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quickly appointed Ghaani as Soleimani’s replacement.Tara John, Julia Hollingsworth and Rob Picheta, “Iran's top general Soleimani killed in US drone strike,” CNN, January 3, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/middleeast/live-news/baghdad-airport-strike-live-intl-hnk/index.html. By the end of 2021, however, reports emerged that Ghaani had lost control over the Iran-backed Iraqi militias, which were openly defying his orders.Suadad al-Salhy, “Betrayed by Iran? Iraqi armed factions given ‘slap’ with Kadhimi drone attack,” Middle East Eye, November 29, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-iran-kadhimi-drone-attack-armed-groups-betrayed; Jared Malsin, Ghassan Adnan, and Benoit Faucon, “Iraq Struggles to Control Iran-Allied Militias Believed Responsible for Attack on Prime Minister,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraq-struggles-to-control-iran-allied-militias-believed-responsible-for-attack-on-prime-minister-11636475084.
Upon Ghaani’s appointment, Khamenei described him as “one of the most distinguished Revolutionary Guard commanders.”“Khamenei Appoints Hardliner General to Replace Soleimani,” Radio Farda, January 3, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/khamenei-appoints-hardliner-general-to-replace-soleimani/30358646.html. Ghaani fought in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, leading the Nasr-5 and Imam Reza-21 brigades.Zehra Nur Duz, “Iran’s supreme leader names new commander of Quds Force,” Anadolu Agency, January 3, 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/iran-s-supreme-leader-names-new-commander-of-quds-force/1691311. A close aide and confidante to Soleimani, Ghaani served as an intelligence official in the IRGC-QF and was the deputy commander of the unit for more than 20 years.“Khamenei Appoints Hardliner General to Replace Soleimani,” Radio Farda, January 3, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/khamenei-appoints-hardliner-general-to-replace-soleimani/30358646.html.
On March 27, 2012, the U.S. Department of the Treasury listed Ghaani as a Specially Designated National for his role in overseeing financial disbursements and weapons shipments to Hezbollah and IRGC-QF elements in both the Middle East and Africa, particularly the Gambia.“Treasury Targets Iranian Arms Shipments,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 27, 2012, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1506.aspx.
As Soleimani’s successor, Ghaani wields political influence in Iraq, where Iranian-sponsored militias participate in the government. Ghaani reportedly made trips to Iraq to meet with government officials prior to the nomination of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in April 2020, though he claimed Iran would not interfere in Iraqi domestic affairs.“Iran welcomes Iraq’s new prime minister,” Al-Monitor, April 13, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/04/iran-welcome-iraq-prime-minister-kadhimi.html. In December 2020, Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi told Iranian media that all Iraqi factions, political parties, and resistance groups have positive relations with Iran, which does not interfere in the internal affairs of the Iraqis. Masjedi’s comments came shortly after Ghaani held meetings in Iraq with Khadimi, Iraqi President Barham Salih, and other officials.“All Iraqi political factions hold positive ties with Iran,” Mehr News Agency, December 5, 2020, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/166768/All-Iraqi-political-factions-hold-positive-ties-with-Iran.
Ghaani is also an influential Iranian figure in Syria, where he is considered one of the key figures in Iran’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.“Khamenei Appoints Hardliner General to Replace Soleimani,” Radio Farda, January 3, 2020, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/khamenei-appoints-hardliner-general-to-replace-soleimani/30358646.html. Ghaani’s first international trip after his promotion was to Aleppo, Syria, in March 2020. Syrian National Reconciliation Committee member Omar Rahmon told Iranian media that Ghaani’s visit signaled Iran’s continued support for the Syrian regime.“Commander Ghaani’s visit to Aleppo sends significant message: Syrian politician,” Mehr News Agency, March 10, 2020, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/156591/Commander-Ghaani-s-visit-to-Aleppo-sends-significant-message.
U.S. officials have suggested that Ghaani could be assassinated like his predecessor.“‘General Soleimani was truly a general of peace and security,’” Tehran Times, February 9, 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/445002/General-Soleimani-was-truly-a-general-of-peace-and-security. Ghaani is known for his criticism of the United States and Israel, promising “very difficult days” ahead for both countries.“IRGC Quds Force chief: Warship incident is a response to U.S. crimes conducted by American elements,” Tehran Times, July 14, 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/450037/IRGC-Quds-Force-chief-Warship-incident-is-a-response-to-U-S. He has accused the U.S. military of being tired and worn out and declared the United States should expect punishment from God for its crimes.“Hard days waiting for US, Zionist Regime: Ghaani,” Mehr News Agency, July 14, 2020, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/160975/Hard-days-waiting-for-US-Zionist-Regime-Ghaani. Weeks after his appointment to the Quds Force leadership, Ghaani held phone calls with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leader Ziad al-Nakhalah. Referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Ghaani told Haniyeh Iran is ready to confront and foil the United States’ plot in the region with the cooperation of the Palestinian people.“Ghaani, Haniyeh discuss US new plot for Palestine,” Mehr News Agency, February 2, 2020, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/155179/Ghaani-Haniyeh-discuss-US-new-plot-for-Palestine. After the death of former PIJ leader Ramadan Shallah in June 2020, Ghaani pledged Iran would continue to follow in Soleimani’s path by standing by “the Palestinian resistance and all resistance combatants” and continuing to strengthen “the Axis of Resistance.”“Ghaani vows to stand by Palestinian resistance movement like martyr Soleimani,” Mehr News Agency, June 20, 2020, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/159991/Ghaani-vows-to-stand-by-Palestinian-resistance-movement-like. According to Nakhalah, Ghaani “has a great role in supporting the resistance, especially in the present time.”“Al-Nakhalah deplores Zionists' plan for West Bank annexation,” Mehr News Agency, May 19, 2020, https://en.mehrnews.com/news/158881/Al-Nakhalah-deplores-Zionists-plan-for-West-Bank-annexation.
Ghaani’s role has been to convince Iraqi militias that it is not in their best interest to fire rockets in locations that maintain U.S. forces—particularly in the Green Zone which was hit with a rocket on January 26, 2020 and the Erbil airport in northern Iraq on February 16, 2021.Martin Chulov, “Iraqi militias grow in power as Iran’s military strongman proves too weak,” Guardian, July 26, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/26/suleimani-successor-fails-to-convince-at-summit; “Rocket attack on Iraqi airbase where US defense company operates,” Guardian, February 20, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/20/rocket-attack-iraqi-airbase-us-defense-company; “US embassy in Iraq hit by rocket attack, wounding at least one,” Guardian, January 26, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/27/us-embassy-iraq-rocket-attack-injuries; Bethan McKernan and Julian Borger, “Rocket attack on US airbase in Iraq kills civilian contractor,” Guardian, February 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/16/rocket-attack-us-airbase-iraq-kills-civilian-contractor. However, following the inauguration of the Biden administration in January 2021, the militias have continued and even intensified displays of violence, demonstrating Ghaani’s inability to adequately control the Iranian-aligned Iraqi militia groups to the same capacity as his predecessor. Furthermore, according to media sources, Ghaani allegedly does not have the same expertise as his predecessor and does not have a rapport with Khamenei or his office—a critical element of his role as commander of the Quds Force.Martin Chulov, “Iraqi militias grow in power as Iran’s military strongman proves too weak,” Guardian, July 26, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/26/suleimani-successor-fails-to-convince-at-summit.
These allegations were exacerbated following a November 7, 2021, drone attack on the Baghdad home of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Suspicions fell on Iran-backed militias, particularly Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH). The militias and Iran denied involvement in the attack, which lightly wounded Kadhimi and wounded seven members of his security detail. Ghaani visited Baghdad on November 8 and denied Tehran had any connection to the attack.Hamdi Alkhshali, “Iraqi Prime Minister survives exploding drone assassination attempt,” CNN, last updated November 8, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/06/middleeast/iraq-prime-minister-drone-attack-intl-hnk/index.html; “Iran-backed militia behind attack on Iraqi PM -security officials, sources,” Reuters, last updated November 8, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-backed-militia-behind-attack-iraqi-pm-sources-2021-11-08/; Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Powerful Iranian general visited Iraq after attack on PM,” Associated Press, November 8, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-religion-iran-iraq-tehran-8cfe754e681581f511f430f4bd31e776. Following the attack, reports emerged of fractures between Iran and its proxies. AAH and KH have reportedly openly defied orders from Ghaani. AAH commander Qais al-Khazali and KH commander Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi allegedly told the Iranians that Tehran’s support for Kadhimi receiving a second term in Iraq’s October 2021 elections broke the allies’ bond. Some security analysts in Iraq allege Ghaani has lost control over the Iraqi militias.Suadad al-Salhy, “Betrayed by Iran? Iraqi armed factions given ‘slap’ with Kadhimi drone attack,” Middle East Eye, November 29, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-iran-kadhimi-drone-attack-armed-groups-betrayed; Jared Malsin, Ghassan Adnan, and Benoit Faucon, “Iraq Struggles to Control Iran-Allied Militias Believed Responsible for Attack on Prime Minister,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraq-struggles-to-control-iran-allied-militias-believed-responsible-for-attack-on-prime-minister-11636475084. In February 2022, U.S. General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Middle East Institute Ghaani “does not exercise the same degree of control over Iranian-aligned militia groups” as Soleimani did. The declaration followed months of growing speculation Ghaani is losing control over Iran-backed militias in Iraq.Joyce Karam, “Iran’s Quds force commander struggling to control proxy militias, top US general says,” National (Abu Dhabi), February 3, 2022, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/us-news/2022/02/03/irans-quds-force-commander-struggling-to-control-proxy-militias-top-us-general-says/.
- Extremist entity
- Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
- Type(s) of Organization:
- Military, terrorist, transnational, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations:
- Islamist, Khomeinist, Shiite, state actor
- Commander of the Quds Force
The IRGC is an Iranian government agency tasked with defending the regime against internal and external threats. The IRGC uses secret police methods against its opponents within Iran, and terrorist tactics against its enemies abroad.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury listed “Esmail Ghani” as a Specially Designated National on March 12, 2012.“Treasury Targets Iranian Arms Shipments,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 27, 2012, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1506.aspx.