A New Soleimani:

After Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, chose Ahmad Vahidi (Ahmad Shah Cheraghi) as Interior Minister in his government and he won the confidence of the Islamic Shura Council (parliament) this past August, it was remarkable that the regime made two other decisions to elevate him within the structure of both security and military institutions, simultaneously. On September 9th, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a decision appointing Vahidi as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Three days after that, Raisi issued a decision appointing Vahidi as head of the Internal Security Council with full powers, as the statement said.

It appears that the Iranian regime is moving to strengthen the position of Ahmad Vahidi, the new Interior Minister, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces, and head of the Internal Security Council. He is one of the officials for whom an Interpol arrest warrant was issued for his role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina. The Iranian regime’s move to elevate Ahmad Vahidi and strengthen his position within it at this time presents many indications, which can be clarified as follows:

1- Filling the "Soleimani vacuum" within the Iranian military establishment: The killing of former commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani, on 3 January 2020 in a military operation launched by the United States, created a huge vacuum within the Iranian military establishment in general and the IRGC in particular. The new commander of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, has failed to fill the void left by Soleimani’s absence, causing clear confusion in the management of Iranian foreign operations in crisis countries. Vahidi was commander of the Quds Force before handing over his command to Qassem Soleimani, and hence gained great experience in managing Iran’s foreign operations through the Corps. His appointment as Deputy Commander-in-Chief for Military Affairs at this time could be a new mechanism by which the regime is trying to contain the disruption caused by Soleimani’s killing nearly a year and a half ago.

2- Confronting Israel regardless of failure or success in reaching a nuclear agreement: Iran believes that escalation with Israel will continue whether or not the negotiations with international powers in Vienna to shore up the nuclear deal succeed or fail. In either case, Israel does not seem satisfied with the continued activity of the nuclear program at this level, especially after Iran successfully produced about 10 kilograms of 60% enriched uranium and about 84 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium, and has used advanced centrifuges to help accelerate and upgrade enrichment processes, such as IR4 and IR6.

At this point, Iran is not ruling out that Israel will continue to carry out security operations within its territory, as it did in operations over the past period, when it attacked the Natanz reactor twice in July 2020 and April 2021 and assassinated the head of the research and development unit in the Ministry of Defense, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in November of the same year. Prior to that, it succeeded in seizing the Iranian nuclear archive in January 2018. The regime considers one of the main reasons enhancing Israel’s ability to carry out specialized intelligence operations to be the lack of necessary coordination between various security agencies, so much so that Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC commander and Secretary General of the Expediency Council, said on 14 April 2021: "Iran suffers from security contamination." He indicated that the lack of coordination and escalation of the conflict between security agencies allowed Israel to carry out those operations.

3- Preparing to reach understandings with violent organizations in Afghanistan: Although Iran has refrained from expressing reservations about the Taliban’s success in taking power in Afghanistan on August 15, there are Iranian concerns about the potential security implications of this, especially related to terrorist organizations enhancing their activity and capabilities in the coming phase. In this regard, Iran seeks to preserve the understandings it previously reached with those organizations, especially Al-Qaeda, which prevented it from being subjected to terrorist operations by the group over the past 20 years, despite the presence of its elements and fighters in surrounding countries, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Notably, many reports indicate that Ahmad Vahidi in particular succeeded in establishing channels of communication with Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Indeed, he was the reason Iran received a number of Al-Qaeda leaders and fighters during the period of the American war in Afghanistan, as Iran sought to exploit that to achieve two goals: First, to possess leverage against Al-Qaeda to prevent it from attacking its territory or interests abroad, which was achieved. Second, to enhance Tehran’s ability to bargain with other powers, especially the United States, in light of the latter encroaching on Iranian borders after the American occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

4- Arranging the transition in the event of the Supreme Leader’s absence from the scene: Those decisions may also indicate that the regime is trying to prepare early for the transitional phase that could follow the disappearance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from the scene at any time. The regime seeks to secure a smooth transition of power that does not cause an internal crisis, especially in light of the strong internal and external pressures the regime is under. Hence, the regime has deliberately strengthened the internal grip of the IRGC on various arenas to support the latter’s ability to facilitate a transfer of power that in any case will not be far from its calculations and interests. It may, in the end, be forced to intervene directly to choose who will take the position of Supreme Leader after Khamenei.

That may not be separated from the ascension of Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency at this time, in a way that reflects an attempt to strengthen the position of what could be called the "Khameneiites" within the regime, especially since the leader could desire to continue the influence of his family within the regime. Mojtaba, the eldest son, could be one of the candidates to succeed him.

5- Challenging international powers seeking to impose sanctions on Iranian figures: By strengthening the powers of Vahidi and some other officials, the regime seeks to underscore its defiance of international powers’ criticisms of such steps. It is trying—in this context—to indicate that the sanctions imposed on some figures will not prevent it from elevating them to positions of power in the state. The appointment of Vahidi himself to the post of Interior Minister was the subject of external criticism, led specifically by Argentina, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on August 11 stating that "the government headed by Alberto Fernández considers the appointment of Ahmad Vahidi to a position in the Iranian government, and specifically the Ministry of Interior, to be an affront to Argentine justice and the victims of the terrorist attack against the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, in reference to the Jewish center bombed on 18 July 1994, as a result of which Interpol issued an arrest warrant for Vahidi.

In light of this, it can be said—in the end—that Ahmad Vahidi’s rise and the strengthening of his position within regime institutions suggests that the regime is trying once more to replicate the experience of Soleimani, who was responsible for managing Iranian foreign operations overall. His elevation represents a sustained approach by the regime, even if tension with international powers were to be reduced in the event of a new nuclear deal being reached.