The IRGC’s Growing Role in Iran’s Government

With the U.S. presidential election approaching, the Trump administration has increased the pace of sanctions designations on Iran. While such penalties are aimed to build economic leverage against Tehran, a pattern has emerged in the recent U.S. actions. The United States is seeking to blur the distinction between Iran’s armed and elected states to document publicly that they are two sides of the same terror coin.

Last month, the United States sanctioned Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi. For over a decade, Tehran has installed members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in this ambassadorship. Masjedi and his immediate predecessors, Hassan Danaeifar and Hassan Kazemi Qomi, were IRGC-Quds Force officers prior to their arrival at the helm of the Iranian embassy in Iraq. According to some accounts, before becoming ambassador, Masjedi was Soleimani’s advisor, managed the Iraq file for the Quds Force, and was earlier chief of staff of the IRGC’s Ramadan Headquarters. Before his ambassadorial tenure, Danaeifar was director of the Headquarters for Iran-Iraq Economic Relations, which reported to Iran’s president. Kazemi-Qomi was head consul for the Islamic Republic in Herat, Afghanistan and chargé d’affaires in Baghdad. In fact, the current commander of the IRGC-Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, used to travel with delegations and identified himself as the deputy ambassador to Afghanistan while he served as Soleimani’s second-in-command. The common denominator here is the insertion of IRGC-Quds Force operatives in Iran’s diplomatic postings.

While some observers argue the sanctions are duplicative, the U.S. counterterrorism sanctions against Masjedi under Executive Order 13224 are unprecedented. It appears to be the first time since 2003 that Washington has sanctioned an Iranian ambassador to Baghdad. In doing so, it is seeking to expose how the regime exploits diplomatic posts for IRGC-Quds Force activity. In fact, Tehran continues to use Iraq as a model for other postings. Iran’s government recently named a new ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Eyrlou. This was the first time since 2015 that Iran had sent an ambassador to Sanaa. Eyrlou’s predecessor Hossein Niknam left in 2015 after a bomb exploded outside his residence in late 2014. The official biographies of Eyrlou and Niknam are similar. Eyrlou is described as a veteran Iranian diplomat, who previously headed the Yemen desk in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as a special aide to Iran’s foreign minister. Before Niknam was ambassador, he served as chargé d’affaires at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad.

But recent evidence has emerged that Eyrlou may be an IRGC-Quds Force officer himself, with a similar background to Masjedi. Iranian media reports feature his resume, which curiously only dates back to 2014. A report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, however, may shed more light. It documented the interrogation of a Hezbollah operative who was captured during the Second Lebanon War. He revealed that an Iranian named “Hassan Irlu” provided anti-aircraft training to him at an IRGC training camp near Karaj in 1999. Yemen’s government has also written to the U.N. Security Council, alleging that Eyrlou is indeed an IRGC-Quds Force operative who was “closely involved with its late commander Qassem Soleimani.” There are even photographs of Soleimani appearing at a memorial ceremony for Eyrlou’s family. The U.S. State Department also appeared to confirm Eyrlou’s IRGC links in a tweet. A former information minister for the Houthis claims that Eyrlou was also responsible for financial allowances for the militia before he became ambassador. This is similar to Masjedi’s skill sets, as both men have been involved in the financing and training of IRGC-Quds Force-linked militias. If these reports of Eyrlou being an IRGC-Quds Force officer are accurate, this is indicative of the guardsmen’s continued practice of embedding its officers in diplomatic assignments in sensitive theaters.

It extends beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a separate announcement last week, the U.S. Treasury Department levied counterterrorism sanctions against Iran’s Oil Ministry and its Minister of Oil Bijan Zanganeh. Washington justified the decision to do so because of the regime’s utilization of the ministry to “facilitate the [Quds Force’s] revenue generation scheme,” specifically to procure U.S. dollars. When Zanganeh, who has served as oil minister for two Iranian presidents, was appointed in 2013, his arrival raised hopes of what The Economist dubbed a “new golden age” for private investment and the arrival of technocrats in the ministry after the tenure of former Commander of the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters Rostam Ghasemi as oil minister. But instead, despite President Hassan Rouhani’s attempts to restrain the influence of the IRGC, the IRGC continues to use Iranian government organs to serve its interests. The new U.S. sanctions highlight this trend.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.