I have to admit that I am quite mystified by the never-ending search for finding the one person that “really” makes policy in Iran. The latest example of this search can be found in David Ignatius’s Washington Post column in which we are informed that it is really not the “bombastic” Ahmadinejad but the “soft-spoken” commander of the Qods Force of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, “who plays a decisive role in his nation's confrontation with the United States.” Soleimani’s name has in fact been in the news for a while because of his reported role in brokering the cease-fire that restored calm in Basra in March.
Perhaps it is the history of the United States’ dealings with most Middle Eastern countries (Israel and Turkey excepted) and the tradition or habit of dealing with one man as the ultimate decision maker that creates the hope or aspiration to find the one person that holds the key to Iran’s policy making process. Or perhaps it is the tendency, when in doubt or short evidence, to go with the fad of the moment.
I understand that it is now in vogue to talk about the IRGC in general and the Qods Force as the THE power in Iran (with consequential impact throughout the Middle East). I have not found this argument to be very convincing. My take continues to be that the military in Iran has traditionally been and continues to be under civilian control, even if the Guards hierarchy as well as its individual members have and do play an important role in Iranian politics. The birth of the Islamic Republic was inextricably linked to the Iran-Iraq War and as such it should not be surprisingly to anyone that the body and individuals that played important roles in that war continue to be influential. Ironically, to my mind, the comparable country in this regard has always been Israel, another Middle Eastern political system born and bred in war.
In any case, even if there has been a rise in the power of hard-line IRGC men, I find the focus on one individual quite unpersuasive, particularly since the sources that have talked about Soleimani’s key role in Iran are all from outside of Iran (in the case of Ignatius' piece, the source is one “Arab who meets regularly with Soleimani”).
This is not to say that someone like Soleimani has no influence in Iran's decision making process. From what I understand, although I cannot be sure, Soleimani sits in the committee for regional affairs of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council-- consisting of him as well as the chief of intelligence of IRGC, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs (who also heads the Foreign Ministry's Iraq Desk), Mohammd Reza Baqer, a team of experts on Iranian-Arab relations and Iran's ambassadors to Arab countries (Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in the case of Iraq). Focusing in particular on developments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, the task of this committee is to advise on the appropriate policies to be pursued. But the final decision makers are civilians (some well known because of their institutional positions and others like the head of supreme leader Khamenei's security office, the cleric Asghar Hejazi or his chief of staff Mohammad Golpayegani - also a cleric - wielding less publicized influence).
Furthermore, regarding Iran’s Iraq policy, I just can't believe that Soleimani wields more (or for that matter less) influence or has more input in the decision making process than let us say the current head of IRGC, Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jaafari, who prior to his current position was in charge of setting up IRGC's Strategic Center, a center tasked with drawing up a new command structure and military strategy, preparing the country for the changing regional environment and the kind of foreign military confrontation it may have to face; or Iran’s Iraq ambassador Kazemi Qomi, reportedly himself a former Qods force member.
These key individuals and many others must be in constant interaction to set and reassess policies that are partially shaped by a long-term interest in a relatively calm Iraq that maintains close political, economic, and security relations with Iran and also developed in reaction to Iraq’s complex domestic dynamics and US plans for that country.
Within this context one does not need to search for a scheming and all powerful individual like Soleimani to figure out that the Iranian leadership as a whole, in all its contentious variety, would have to be engaged in constant conversation and planning (and at times improvisation) about how to stunt plans that would make the US military presence in Iraq permanent or make that country a launching pad for an attack on Iran (rejection of this possibility was by the way precisely the assurance Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was repeatedly giving Iranian leaders in his current visit to Tehran).
One also doesn’t have to be a genius to guess that, hunkered down in a security and paranoid mode due to the escalating economic and political pressures (not to mention military threats) faced in the past couple of years, the Iranian policy makers are trying very hard to convince the Bush Administration, from my point of view hopefully successfully, that an attack on Iran will be costly.