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The Power Behind Iranian Terror
IRGC Boss Hossein Salami Emerges from Soleimani’s Shadow
For decades, Iran’s shadowy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) had a face: Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani – the dashing and charismatic mastermind of Tehran’s military and intelligence operations across the Middle East. When a U.S. drone strike killed him in Baghdad in January 2020, Iran mourned the loss of a towering national hero.
But there was one Iranian who may not have been so heart-broken: Soleimani’s boss, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s overall commander and, until Soleimani’s assassination, a powerful yet largely faceless bureaucrat in Iran’s sprawling security establishment.
Since then, however, Salami, 63, has stepped forcefully into the spotlight, appearing frequently in public to deliver fiery speeches that threaten the United States, promise Israel’s erasure from the map, and for the past year, laud the IRGC’S harsh internal crackdown on women protesting against conservative dress requirements and abuse by the government’s morality police. What the terror boss lacks in charisma, he’s more than made up for in sheer power.
“Salami probably didn’t shed any tears when Soleimani got killed because while Salami was the IRGC commander, it was Soleimani who was always sitting at the right hand of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei,” says Douglas London, a decorated, 34-year CIA veteran who served in the Middle East. “Salami probably felt he could take advantage of Soleimani’s death and fill the gap with his provocative statements”
Lately, Salami’s rhetoric has focused on the recent buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, which the Biden administration says it ordered to counter the IRGC’s seizure and harassment of international shipping in the strategic waterway. Over the past two years alone, the U.S. Navy has counted 20 instances in which the IRGC has attacked, seized or harassed commercial vessels in the Gulf, describing Iran as a “clear threat to regional maritime security and the global economy.”
In a defiant response in July, Salami ordered IRGC military exercises in the Gulf involving naval and amphibious forces. “There is no need for the United States, its European or non-European allies to have a presence in this region,” Salami declared during the exercise. And earlier this month, Salami’s spokesman escalated the commander’s rhetoric, warning the IRGC “is capable of reciprocating any mischief by the Americans, including through the seizure of their vessels.”
Yet even with Salami’s higher profile, several Western Iran experts, including more than a dozen top former U.S. military and intelligence officials interviewed by SpyTalk, said they knew very little about him beyond his official resume. The CIA, which routinely develops profiles of significant adversaries, declined to provide any insights into Salami’s personal life or whether his private opinions align with his hardline public persona. Such intelligence could be critical as the Biden administration and Tehran move toward a prisoner exchange, the release of frozen Iranian assets and possible limits on Iran’s nuclear program.
According to published Iranian, American and Israeli accounts, Salami was born in 1960 in the small village of Golpayegan in central Iran’s semi-arid Isfahan province. After attending both elementary and secondary schools in the village, Salami passed an entrance examination that earned him a scholarship to the Tehran University of Science and Technology in 1978.
“Moving from a small village in Isfahan province in 1960 to Tehran is like someone moving from a very small place in a rural part of Michigan to Manhattan,” says Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “He did this not because he had family connections or because he was rich, but because he was a clever student and a hard worker.”
But Salami’s university studies in Tehran coincided with the popular revolution against the country’s autocratic ruler, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, which drove him from power in 1979. According to Alfoneh and other Iran experts, there is no evidence that Salami held revolutionary views or participated in the student protests against the shah.
In 1980, Iran’s new Islamic rulers shuttered the country’s universities while they purged secular professors and drew up an Islamic curriculum for students. Then, in September of that year, Iraq invaded Iran. With his university closed and Iran under attack, the 20-year-old Salami, like many other conservative young men, joined the newly formed IRGC in a gesture of both patriotism and pragmatism—the Revolutionary Guard paid a salary and provided room and board, Alfoneh notes.
Salami first saw combat in Iran’s northwestern provinces, where Iraqi-backed Kurdish separatists were fighting their own civil war against Tehran’s rule. A year later, his IRGC division was deployed in the south against the Iraqi invaders. There, Salami witnessed the IRGC’s human wave attacks that cost thousands of lives but ultimately drove the Iraqis from Iranian soil. It was a lesson in both resistance and martyrdom that he never forgot—and learned from.
“In his writings and speeches, Salami is constantly emphasizing the importance of the lessons that must be learned from the Iraq-Iran war and how they apply today for Iran’s security,” says Annie-Tracy Samuel, an Iran expert at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and author of the recently published book, The Unfinished History of the Iran-Iraq War. “He’s always talking about the importance of asymmetric strategies and tactics that will allow Iran to face a stronger opponent.”
Going to Sea
In September of 1985, Salami was promoted and transferred to an IRGC naval unit, which pioneered amphibious and naval operations in the Iraqi marshlands and around Abadan and the port city of Khorramshahr on the Shaat al Arab waterway.
When the war ended inconclusively in 1988, Salami decided to make a career for himself in the IRGC. While many of his fellow Revolutionary Guardsmen left the corps and went to work in construction companies owned by the IRGC, Salami’s superiors sent him back to university to complete his degree in mechanical engineering. In 1992, he was appointed commandant of the IRGC’s staff college, where he served for the next five years and led the formulation of the IRGC’s asymmetric warfare curriculum.
It was there, says the Arab Gulf States Institite’s Alfoneh, that Salami cultivated valuable relationships with senior IRGC officers who would later smooth his rise through the ranks. “He became part of the IRGC’s old-boy network,” Alfoneh says.
In 1997, Salami was promoted again, this time to the IRGC’s deputy operations chief, a position he held for the next nine years. During this period, bitter personal clashes erupted between Iran’s political leadership and certain IRGC commanders, but Salami proved politically adept at navigating those rivalries. In 2006, he was elevated to command the IRGC’s air force, which oversees the country’s formidable missile and drone battalions
Underpinning those programs was another critical lesson from the Iraq-Iran war: the importance for Iran of developing a home-grown arms industry. Alfoneh says that under Salami’s leadership, the IRGC’s aerospace branch managed to reverse-engineer two U.S.-made cruise missiles that it had obtained from Afghanistan. Their work paved the way for the IRGC’s weapons factories to manufacture knockoffs that U.S. military officials concede are comparable to the American version.
“That’s because Salami managed to use all his contacts to funnel money into his program,” Alfoneh says.
Jason Brodsky, an expert on Iran’s military at United Against a Nuclear Iran, a Washington-based group that advocates a hard line on Tehran, says that during Salami’s tenure as the IRGC’s air force commander, he built up Iran’s missile arsenal to make up for its parts-starved squadrons of outdated F-4 Phantom warplanes left over from the shah’s days. Salami presided over the successful tests of numerous medium- and long-range missiles, some of which could carry multiple warheads, avoid radar detection and reach Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.
“Our hands are always on the trigger, and our missiles are ready for launch,” Salami bragged, according to a 2020 profile written by Brodsky. On another occasion, he warned that “Iran can affect the flow of half of the world’s energy as soon as it wishes.”
In 2009, Salami’s success as the IRGC’s air force commander earned him a promotion to become the Guard’s deputy commander, the organization’s second highest-ranking post.
Hailing Iran’s strategic reach far beyond its borders a few years later, he boasted about the IRGC’s support for Shiites in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and urged Shiites in Bahrain to rise up against the country’s minority Sunni monarchy. He crowed that the IRGC had armed Hezbollah, its proxy militia in Lebanon, with 100,000 missiles that were aimed at Israel.
Hezbollah’s commanders “are just waiting for the command, so that when the trigger is pulled, the accursed black dot will be wiped off the geopolitical map of the world once and for all,” Salami said in one of his many tirades against Israel. He also taunted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “Netanyahu should know there is no way for him except fleeing the region, and so he needs to learn how to swim in the Mediterranean Sea.”
But in 2014, Salami found himself at loggerheads with President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who sought to curb the IRGC’s political influence. When Rouhani began negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers, Salami publicly opposed any agreement that would constrain Iran’s nuclear program or allow foreign inspections of its nuclear facilities, Brodsky says. Even after the nuclear deal came into force in 2015, Salami dismissed it, saying, “We don’t pore over resolutions. It is our duty to expand our power, and nobody can give us orders.”
Salami saw his hawkish views vindicated in 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew from the “defective” nuclear accord and imposed a raft of unilateral economic sanctions to cripple Iran’s economy.
A year later, shortly after the Trump administration designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, Supreme Leader Khamenei elevated Salami to become the Revolutionary Guard’s commander-in-chief. His promotion came with a seat on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, where Salami’s defiant posture toward the United States soon dominated the country’s top policy-making body.
Not long after Salami took command of the IRGC, Iran resumed its uranium enrichment program, inching toward the production of 90 percent bomb-grade nuclear fuel. And in his first speech as commander, Salami seemed eager to leadi the IRGC into a global confrontation with the United States.
“We have to expand our capabilities from the region to the world so that the enemy has no safe point,” he said.
But despite Salami’s grandiose vision for the IRGC, mishaps and attacks closer to home kept him preoccupied with damage control.
In the aftermath of the January 2020 assassination of Quds Force commander Soleimani, an IRGC missile crew on high alert mistook a Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737 for an American cruise missile and shot it down, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. “Never in my life have I felt so ashamed,” Salami told parliament. While the IRGC soldiers responsible for the downing were punished with jail sentences ranging from three to 13 years, no senior commanders were fired or disciplined.
That same year, more embarrassments followed. Israeli Mossad operatives carried out a series of attacks inside Iran, setting off powerful bombs at a missile facility near Parchin and the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Israeli agents also assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist and stole Iran’s entire nuclear archive from a warehouse in downtown Tehran.
While such incidents underscored the ability of Israeli operatives to strike inside Iran at will, Salami apparantly took no corrective action until June of last year. In the wake of the assassinations of three senior IRGC officers by suspected Israeli agents, he dismissed the IRGC’s long-serving intelligence chief Hossein Taeb, a cleric with no previous intelligence experience. Salami replaced Taeb with General Mohammad Kazemi, a veteran intelligence officer.
For the past year, Salami has been overseeing the IRGC’s campaign to crush nationwide protests that began in support of women rebeling against laws requiring them to wear hijab head scarves but soon morphed into large anti-government demonstrations. Firing into crowds, the IRGC’s Basij militia have killed hundreds of protesters so far and arrested thousands. More than a dozen of those arrested have been executed.
The University of Tennessee’s Samuel says Salami’s threats against Israel amount to little more than bluster. “The leader of the IRGC isn’t dumb,” she says. “He knows he’s facing a stronger opponent. I don’t think he believes Iran can wipe Israel off the map. He needs to say those things to remain in the good graces of the supreme leader.”
The same goes for Salami’s vows to drive U.S. forces out of the Persian Gulf, says Norman Roule, a former national intelligence manager for Iran.
“Ignore the bluster,” Roule says. “Salami is a professional military man. He’s a hardliner, but he’s also a realist. He knows his military is no match for U.S. forces. He adopts an asymmetric strategy and pushes his forces as far as he can without crossing over into war with us.
“So he’ll swarm a commercial ship in the Gulf with small, fast boats, or he’ll land his forces by helicopter on a ship, take it over, and force it to sail into an Iranian port before the U.S. Navy can get there,” Roule adds. “In other words, he’ll play chicken with us, with the goal of humiliating the United States,” he says. “That’s Salami’s game.”
But Douglas London, author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, a memoir, notes that despite the renewed tensions in the Persian Gulf, relations between the Biden administration and Iran appear to be improving. The two countries recently reached a tentative agreement under which five Americans detained in Iran will be swapped for five Iranians held in the United States after $10 billion in frozen Iranian assets are transferred from South Korea and Iraq to a bank account in Qatar. Under the watchful eyes of U.S. Treasury officials, Iran will be permitted to draw from the account to pay only for food, medicine and other humanitarian needs.
U.S. and Iranian officials say the agreement, which came together after more than two years of indirect negotiations, could be completed by the end of September. And some observers say the deal could open the way for an additional agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear program.
The question now, London says, is whether Salami will go along with any deal that reduces tension between Tehran and Washington.
“The IRGC has the most to lose from any sort of peaceful agreement,” he says. “The IRGC benefits when Iran is under the most pressure. They are the ones who get the money to resist, to go around sanctions. And with that money comes influence and power. The less they’re needed, the less power and influence they wield.”
So far, Salami has remained quiet on prisoner swap agreement. Meanwhile, Iran’s state-controlled media have portrayed the deal as both “honorable diplomacy” and a triumph for the hardline government of President Ebrahim Raisi. Veteran Iran watchers point out the deal never could have advanced this far without a green light from Supreme Leader Khamenei. They also note Salami’s vocal opposition could cost him his job.
But Roule, the former national intelligence manager for Iran, disagrees with London, saying the IRGC plays a far-more nuanced role in government decision-making.
"Agreements with the U.S. are constructed so as to not—repeat not—compete with IRGC equities," he says. "The IRGC will publicly oppose engagement with the U.S., but they don't privately block agreements." Nor, Roule adds, do such agreements rule out the the IRGC's support for Iran's regional proxies or its aggressive posture toward U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
"There is a difference," he says, "between engagement and improved relations."
London not only won’t venture a guess at Salami’s next move; he’s also not confident the deal itself will go through.
“These things fall apart so easily,” he says, adding: “Negotiating with Iran is just such misery.”
To which Salami might say: “From your mouth to Allah’s ears.” ###
This piece has been updated with additional views from Norman Roule. It also corrects a statement that the group, United Against a Nuclear Iran, “lobbies lawmakers and officials to take a hard line on Iran.” It “advocates and educates,“ a spokesman said. “it is incorrect to characterize its activities as lobbying.”
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