The Qods Force is the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with exporting Iran’s revolution. In practical terms, this means terror sponsorship worldwide and support for insurgency and proxy groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Bahrain.
Normally, the leader of such a group would like to operate in the shadows and would studiously avoid the limelight. This has not been the case with Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani, a man who has increasingly allows himself to be photographed with the frequency of a Hollywood starlet. Regional Arab leaders fear that Soleimani might be gearing up for a presidential run, taking his place as president (probably in 2021 after four more years of Hassan Rouhani) as the Iranian political pendulum swings back on schedule in favor of the security apparatus.
Perhaps the fatal mistake of the Obama administration—both during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and continuing under her successor John Kerry—was the belief that meaningful political competition in Iran occurred only in the formal political sphere—the parliament, presidency, and perhaps the Office of the Supreme Leader. In reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, more specifically, the Qods Force also wields significant political power.
Lest anyone inside Iran forget, earlier this month Soleimani began opining on Iran’s administration organization. According to the Mehr News Agency, the Qods Force leader argued that Iran’s “current system of administrative structure” was not conducive to Iran and, specifically, its “resistance economy” meeting its full potential.
That Soleimani not only speaks on such issues but that the state-controlled Iranian press also covers his talk suggests the importance of Soleimani and Qods Force go well beyond the military. He is not merely some random blowhard whose opinion is not worth covering.
Inside Iran, this means that Soleimani continues to be a rising force. Outside Iran, the message should be clear: Any diplomat—in Washington, in Brussels, or elsewhere—who believes they can strike effective deals with Iranian diplomats while ignoring the Qods Force and the levers of power it controls is profoundly ignorant of how the Islamic Republic operates. Ordinary politicians and cabinet officials do not hold sway over the Revolutionary Guards; if anything it is the opposite.
Alas, this means nothing good for current diplomacy, no matter what the narrative put out by Ben Rhodes, the political operative whom President Obama placed on the national security council, says: The Revolutionary Guard not only controls Iranian-sponsored terror but also most aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. To negotiate an accord with Iran’s foreign ministry and trust the Revolutionary Guards will comply is about as effective as a foreign diplomat negotiating a nuclear accord with the Washington, DC, city council and hoping the Pentagon will fall into place.