Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shuffled the country’s military leadership on Nov. 19, appointing Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan deputy commander of the army, or Artesh. Pourdastan had previously led the army’s ground forces. His new appointment is significant in part because Pourdastan is one of the rare senior army commanders who has not been shy about directly engaging in Iran's political and ideological battles, and in part because of the possible intentions behind Khamenei's move.
In Iran, the army consists of regular ground, air and naval forces, which, together with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the police force, represents the country's total armed forces. The three are jointly headed by the General Staff, which reports to Khamenei as commander in chief. The well-known paramilitary Basij is part of the IRGC. The army, as Iran’s regular military, is supposed to work side by side with the IRGC, which was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and tasked specifically with “safeguarding the revolution.” In practice, however, the IRGC and the army have repeatedly clashed, most famously during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. In recent years, Khamenei has built up the IRGC as his power base and made it into one of the most formidable military organizations in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the army and the police have remained somewhat less ideological and more professional.
At first glance, Pourdastan's appointment might seem like a simple career upgrade, but his is an interesting case. After being appointed head of the army’s ground forces in 2008, he exhibited a taste for a larger-than-usual public profile. In this regard, he has repeatedly expressed grandiose plans reminiscent of those typically associated with the IRGC. For instance, he has thrown out the idea of developing a “national helicopter,” to be designed and built in Iran, and spoke of merely “waiting for an order” from Khamenei to “liberate Jerusalem.” Moreover, Pourdastan has never demurred from boasting about the Iranian army's presence in Arab countries, emphasizing that the forces under his command are working closely with the IRGC in Iraq and Syria. Of particular note, it was Pourdastan who announced the “first joint war games of the army and the IRGC” and declared in a public show of loyalty to the political system that the army “sees itself as having a debt to the Islamic Republic.”
None of this has gone unnoticed by hard-liners. For instance, in April the chairman of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, praised Pourdastan in a Friday sermon, calling him an “example of the masterpiece that the Imam [Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] created by changing the army and turning all of its forces into revolutionaries.” The most controversial part of Pourdastan’s resume, however, is his association with the political strategist Hassan Abbasi. A long-time member of the IRGC, Abbasi heads its affiliated Center for Borderless Security Doctrinal Analysis.
Abbasi is primarily known for his conspiracy theories on a wide range of issues. He is a regular fixture at Tehran’s annual “Conference on Hollywoodism,” claims the American film industry is a Zionist conspiracy and has attacked the ancient shahs of Iran because of their dealings with Jews. He also considers the cartoon character Yogi Bear to have insulted the biblical and Quranic Prophet Noah and views the TV series “Lost” as “propaganda for US-style liberalism.” Moreover, attacking the most popular spectator sport in Iran, Abbasi declared that soccer is “not a sport, but a tool of politics headed by [former US Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger” and part of the “operations of world Zionism, led by Kissinger.”
Pourdastan is reportedly an Abbasi disciple, and according to Abbasi, has listened to tapes of his speeches for years. Last summer, when Abbasi was forced to apologize after criticizing the army for “not doing much,” Pourdastan wrote him an open letter, praising his “courage and spirit,” calling him a “kind and revolutionary teacher” and declaring “my fondness for you remains as strong as ever.” At the same time, the head of the Iranian navy criticized Abbasi for what he called his lack of knowledge about the matter at hand.
Gauging the true extent and significance of Pourdastan’s influence is not easy, especially since discussion of such is taboo in Iran. Reached by Al-Monitor via phone, Ardeshir Noorian, the head of the parliamentary subcommittee on defense, declined to comment on Pourdastan’s appointment. Al-Monitor also was unsuccessful in obtaining a comment from Esmail Kowsari, who previously headed the same subcommittee.
Mohammad Rabiee, an IRGC spokesperson, told Al-Monitor that Pourdastan’s appointment was a “routine measure that should not be turned into a news item,” warning that “the enemy” might be behind the “magnifying” of the development. Other members of the Iranian military and the IRGC contacted by Al-Monitor said Pourdastan’s wartime record was stellar, but declined to elaborate any further.
Regardless, Pourdastan’s promotion could be seen as an attempt by Khamenei to further cement his control over the army. This seems to also ring true in regard to the supreme leader’s decision in June to appoint Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri to head the armed forces' General Staff. Bagheri was among the two dozen IRGC commanders who sent a letter to President Mohammad Khatami in the aftermath of the 1999 student protests, declaring that they were “losing patience” and warning that they would step in if Khatami proved “unable to calm tensions.” Bagheri replaced Hassan Firouzabadi, who had held the post since its creation in the immediate aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. Of note, Firouzabadi was one of the few top officials who retained his post throughout the years of Khamenei’s rise to power.
There is no doubt that Khamenei is the strongest man in Iranian politics. He has shown adept facility in building a power base in all the country's institutions, especially the armed forces. Given the apparent ongoing competition between the army and the IRGC, it seems he is maneuvering to harmonize the two forces.