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Iranian media confirm Quds Force involvement in foreign conflicts

Qassem Soleimani, IRGC Quds Forces Commander, attending National AGIR Commanders Conference. (Mahmoud Hosseini/Tasnim News Agency)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Iran’s hard-line establishment is trying to ensure through a state propaganda campaign that the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its assassinated commander are not forgotten.

Major General Qasem Soleimani — the late commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force — was targeted and killed by a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on January 3.

Since then, Tehran’s conservative clerics and hard-line media have been paying tribute to the memory of “Martyr Soleimani,” as he’s now referred to in Iran.

One apparent part of the campaign is a recent report published by the hard-line, semiofficial Fars News Agency — which is affiliated with the IRGC.

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It details some of the origins and operations of the once highly secretive Quds Force that Soleimani had commanded from 1998 until his death.

‘Fighters Without Borders’

The two-part report focuses on the so-called “fighters without borders,” a term used by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to refer to the elite Quds Force and its work as the IRGC’s foreign-operations branch.

Significantly, the report outlines the secret involvement of the Quds Force in a series of foreign conflicts that Tehran previously has been discreet about.

Those conflicts include the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, described by Fars as the “first serious battlefield” of the Quds Force.

They also include conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Syria.

Fars reported that the Quds Force has had “an impact” upon what it called “the axis of resistance” against Israel in countries that include Yemen.

But it did not specify details about Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Analysts tell RFE/RL the Fars report was aimed at enhancing the image of the Quds Force and its slain commander — a military strategist who many have suggested will be hard for Tehran to replace.

Analysts also note that the report comes at a time of heightened pressure on Iran’s conservative establishment — including crippling U.S. sanctions as well as anger within Iran over the country’s worsening economy, corruption, and the IRGC’s recent downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet that killed 176 people.

“I think what they’re doing is trying to take ownership of the Quds Force and Iran’s foreign operations as a way of showcasing Soleimani’s successes,” said Afshon Ostovar, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

“In order to make Soleimani’s legacy meaningful, they have to expose some of what he was involved in,” Ostovar told RFE/RL.

Ostovar concludes that the Fars report marks “an interesting turn for Iran and the IRGC because, just five years ago, some of this stuff was not acknowledged at all.”

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute, says the Fars report is “significant” because a semiofficial Iranian news agency is admitting some of the foreign activities carried out by the Quds Force.

“I see it as the regime’s attempt at getting some attention in Western capitals,” Alfoneh said. “Under pressure from economic sanctions, they want to remind everyone of their ability to strike back.”

Fars does not go into details about specific Quds Force operations such as the way it recruits fighters, how it builds alliances with proxy militias in other countries, or how it disperses military and weaponry.

But it does highlight what Fars called “achievements” by the Quds Force in “fighting terrorism” and in “pressuring occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to leave the region.”

Bosnian War

The report claims the Quds Force played an “effective role” in empowering Muslim fighters in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the early 1990s.

“The Quds Force created infrastructure that provided logistical support for the transfer and organizing of volunteers from different nationalities for the battle in Bosnia,” Fars reported.

“The infrastructure was also used to facilitate the transfer of Bosnian fighters to Iran for training,” the report said.

The report also claims the Quds Force first became involved in Afghanistan during the 1980s by supporting mujahedin fighters who were battling Soviet forces.

It says the Quds Force countered the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s and then worked against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

It also claims that in 2008 during a three-week conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the Quds Force provided militants from groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad with “rocket parts” that were smuggled through Sudan and Egypt.

The report also includes a rare admission that the Quds Force, widely credited in Iran with fighting Islamic State (IS) extremists, helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suppress street protests against his government.

“With the coordination of Quds Force officials, experts from the [Iranian] police became involved in teaching and educating Syrian police in how to deal with street riots,” the report said.

“Some equipment” also was given to Syrian police to help control crowds of anti-Assad demonstrators, it says.

Fars credited the Quds Force for the defeat of IS extremists in Syria and Iraq — noting that its military victories there were achieved under “the leadership and guidance” of Soleimani.

An online information campaign that boosted Soleimani’s profile during his life and contributed to his image as an Iranian national hero has continued since his death.

That campaign has disseminated text articles, videos, and social-media posts — including an Instagram post by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in which the slain Quds Force commander is being embraced by the Shi’ite saint Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Another video recently released in the information campaign shows Soleimani playing with his grandson.

The Iranian information campaign also has attempted to raise the profile of one of Soleimani’s daughters, Zeinab Soleimani.

She had given a fiery speech at his January 6 funeral procession in Tehran — warning that his death “will bring darker days” for the United States and Israel.

It’s extremely rare in Iran for women to address crowds at state-sponsored events.

Iranian media report that Zeinab Soleimani also addressed Friday Prayers in the slain commander’s hometown of Kerman on January 10 while holding a “weapon.”

Photos of the event show her holding what appears to be a carbine rifle with a fixed bayonet.

On January 28, Iranian state media also reported that Soleimani’s daughter met recently in Beirut with the leader of Lebanon’s Hizballah movement, Hassan Nasrallah.