war on the rocks

Death of a General: What Shaban Nasiri Reveals About Iran’s Secretive Qods Force

March 23, 2018

When Shaban Nasiri, 59, stepped on an improvised explosive device west of Mosul last year, he was barely known either to the Iranian public or to American experts on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

But Nasiri was a general with more than three decades of service and a founding father of the Guard Corps and its secretive external operation branch, the Qods Force. His career provides a rare lens through which to view the evolution of the IRGC and the Qods Force against the backdrop of the changing military challenges facing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As American policymakers consider how to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, the close study of Nasiri’s life is essential to understanding Tehran’s tactics and agenda. Nasiri’s exploits show how deeply the Guard Corps has become intertwined with influential Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Badr Organization, whose members populate much of Iraq’s Interior Ministry and hold 21 seats in parliament. While conventional wisdom describes Badr as a “proxy” of the Islamic Republic, it is more than that – it is an extension of the Guard Corps. The close ties between the Badr militia and the IRGC highlight how deeply Tehran’s influence runs through Iraq, and how hard it will be to undo.

Nasiri’s Early Years

Before Iran’s 1979 revolution, Nasiri gravitated toward Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist faction, according to official biographies. After heeding Khomeini’s call in December 1978 for Army conscripts to desert their barracks, he joined Islamist militiamen as the Pahlavi monarchy crumbled in February 1979, and registered in the Guard Corps immediately after Khomeini established it later that year. Nasiri had a key role in forming the Corps’ unit in his birthplace of Karaj.

Nasiri’s experience reflects the discord of the provisionary government period. Khomeini established the Guard Corps to act as a counterweight against the Army and defend his Islamic revolution, which served his quest to dominate Iran. The firebrand cleric’s sponsorship of the Islamist students’ takeover of the U.S. embassy in November 1979 triggered a major crisis that accelerated his effort to eliminate rivals, narrow the polity, radicalize Tehran’s foreign policy, and roll out an “Islamic” revolution of Iranian society.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Iraq, the Baathist Saddam Hussein sensed both opportunity and threat in Iran’s turmoil. His motives for war included annexing of disputed territory and possibly moving deeper into Iran’s oil-rich, Arab-majority Khuzestan province, and at the same time he was alarmed by Khomeini’s sponsorship of Shiite Islamists in Iraq and calls for overthrowing the Baathist government. After a summer of border skirmishes, in September 1980, Saddam launched his invasion, beginning the longest conventional war of the 20th century. “War is a godsend,” Khomeini declared, as he took advantage of the external attack to further consolidate power at home and lead a holy struggle to export the revolution.

The Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War (1980 – 1989), which Iranian veterans refer to as the Sacred Defense, fundamentally transformed the Guard Corps from an umbrella organization of pro-Khomeini militias into a conventional military organization that dominates Iran’s security and military policymaking. Its current security blueprint, strategic culture, command network, and critical programs including ballistic missiles and militias were forged during this period, shaped by the horrors of trench warfare, human-wave attacks, electrocuted bodies in marshes, missile attacks on cities, and men and boys gasping for oxygen in air suffocated by chemical weapons.

Nasiri’s service highlights the origins of two important units of the IRGC, both made up of ethnic Arabs: the 9th Badr Brigade – now known as the Badr Organization — and the Nosrat Base, a military intelligence and operations unit. Nasiri honed the intelligence and operational skills of building an Arab militia, which later qualified him to design the earliest training program of the Qods Force – which mostly operates in the Arab world. As these units served as foundations for the Qods Force, they offer a richer understanding of the evolution of the Islamic Republic’s external operations branch.

After Iran expelled Iraqi forces from its territory following the battle of Khorramshahr in 1982, the Iranian leadership rejected Saddam’s truce offer and instead demanded his removal. “The road to Jerusalem goes through Karbala,” proclaimed Khomeini, referring to one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam located in Iraq. The Guard Corps formed an Iraqi unit to help Iranian advances into Iraqi cities and villages and, if necessary, to fight Saddam later.

At the onset of war, the Guard had recruited exiled Iraqis to operate with Iranian forces in intelligence and reconnaissance capacities. These Iraqis were members of the Shiite-Islamist Dawa Party, tens of thousands of whom Saddam expelled following the assassination attempts of Baathist officials in 1980. Between 1982 and 1983, the Guard organized a Martyr Sadr Battalion, after Muhammad Baqir al Sadr, the founder of the Dawa Party tortured to death by Saddam. By 1985, it adopted the name 9th Badr Brigade after its noteworthy participation in Operation Badr. Nasiri was with this unit “from its inception.”

Nasiri also served in the Nosrat Base, a highly classified intelligence base made up of Shiite Arabs from the Guard’s unit in Khuzestan’s Sousangard city. The base was so secret that very few senior commanders and official were even aware of its existence. Nasiri operated there alongside Mohammad Bagheri, who today is the chief of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff.

The attributed achievements of Nosrat Base reveal key information about Nasiri’s skills. Then-chief of the IRGC Mohsen Rezai says he tasked the base with designing a breakthrough operation in the Hawizeh Marshes that straddle the Iraq-Iran border. The Nosrat Base gathered intelligence, trained local Arab tribesmen, and designed in minute detail the operation of the 1984 Battle of the Marshes, which served as a foundation for taking the Faw peninsula two years later, one of Iran’s few major gains in the war. After the Battle of the Marshes, Nosrat base expanded recruitment of tribal Arab fighters into a fighting force.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Soleimani’s top operative in Iraq today, says Nasiri was the commander of the Dastqeib Battalion in Badr between 1985 and 1986. In 1985, the Guard decided to fuse forces from the Martyr Sadr Battalion, Nosrat Base and Ramezan Base into what became known as the 9th Badr Brigade, and that was incorporated under the command of Ramezan Base. Ramezan Base veterans later served in the Qods Force. While at Ramezan, Nasiri rubbed shoulders with key operatives such as Hamid Taghavi, a senior Qods Force commander killed in Iraq in 2014, and Iraj Masjedi, a former senior Qods Force advisor and Iran’s current ambassador to Iraq, as well as Iraqis like Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri, today’s Badr chief, an Iraqi parliamentarian, and a former minister.

After a brief deployment with an IRGC Ground Forces division in 1986, Nasiri returned to the 9th Badr Brigade the following year as the head of its headquarters, where he remained until a truce with Iraq. Khomeini – admitting an exhausted Iran could no longer wage “war, war, until victory” — “drank the poison chalice” to end the devastating conflict in 1988. Nasiri’s comrades cite his emphasis on military organization as his distinguishing characteristic and significant contribution to Badr. These revelations show the evolution of the Badr Organization: It was established to meet the short-term – and failed — goal of helping the Islamic Republic conquer Iraq, as well as serving a long-term goal of fighting Saddam. Badr is a creature of the IRGC, made in its image to advance Khomeini’s cause, and Nasiri’s experience during the U.S. war in Iraq shows how the Guard cultivated a critical Iraqi asset.

The Qods Force

Following the Iran-Iraq War, Nasiri did a tour leading operations against smugglers and insurgents in the southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan province. Another Revolutionary Guard commander leading similar counter-smuggling operations in the area was Qassem Soleimani, the future commander of the Qods Force. After this tour, Nasiri was pulled to the newly established Qods Force.

In 1990, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei established the Qods (Jerusalem) Force as a separate branch in the Guard Corps, centralizing pre-existing bases and personnel under one command. The name Qods reflects the Guard’s ideological aspiration to fight Israel and “liberate” Jerusalem.” U.S. officials have described it as the CIA, special forces, and State Department rolled into one. The force has since undertaken a range of activities, including the provision of training, material, financial and logistical assistance to a broad range of militias; and forming Arab, Afghan and Pakistani militias who answer to Tehran.

The establishment of the Qods Force reflects an effort to professionalize the militia program to be better equipped in future conflicts. Throughout the war, Iranian commanders felt the conventional disparity against technologically superior forces, primarily because Iran’s pre-war military depended on procuring arms from the West, and sanctions following 1979 significantly hampered that. That experience contributed to investments in niche means to help bridge the gap including in ballistic-missile, nuclear, and foreign-militia programs.

As with most Qods Force operatives, there is very little available information on Nasiri’s activities. We know that he was a key figure who helped build the unit: Nasiri had a “special role in training” and “putting his war-time experiences at the service of the fresh forces,” according to a commemoration by an IRGC-affiliated media outlet. That further highlights his widely recognized skill set and the importance of his intelligence, planning, and operations experiences during the war as well as recruiting, training, and leading Arab guerrillas into combat.

Nasiri participated in Qods Force operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Africa, including Somalia, Kenya, and Nigeria, some of which – like building a medical facility in Somalia with the Red Crescent — were under the cover of humanitarian work.

He would have been qualified to operate in Iraq during the American invasion of Iraq (2003-2011), but no evidence in open source indicates he fought there. At the time of the invasion, the Islamic Republic believed that it was next on America’s list, and redoubled efforts by the Qods Force to fuel insurgencies against the United States. The Guard Corps in 2005 implemented its “Mosaic defense” doctrine, an asymmetric strategy designed to survive and win against an American invasion. One component of Tehran’s strategy in Iraq was to expand its own influence and help loyal Iraqis, like long-term Badr members, acquire senior positions in Baghdad.

The Syrian War and the Rise of the Islamic State

The Islamic Republic has perceived the Syrian war as an existential threat. It believed that the fall of its Baathist ally, the only allied Arab government in the region, would mean the loss of supply routes to Lebanese Hezbollah and power projection in the Levant. The Qods Force was thus tasked to covertly implement a whole-of-government strategy to prevent the fall of Bashar al Assad by any means necessary, and should he fall, create the conditions for an Alawite-led enclave allied with Iran.

There is contradictory information about the exact time Nasiri deployed to Syria. Some IRGC-affiliated media outlets say he operated in Syria “for a long time” and deployed sometime after the 2011 uprising, while a colleague told the media that Nasiri was in Somalia between 2011 and 2013/ or 14 and that he deployed to Iraq and Syria after that. Nasiri’s brother and son seem to corroborate the latter account. What is clear is that Nasiri was “close” to Soleimani, operated as an “adviser,” and was present in the Damascus and Aleppo areas. Nasiri’s years of experience in intelligence and combat, fluency in Arabic, and recruiting and leading Arab militias made him well-qualified to operate in Syria.

The 2014 Islamic State advance in Iraq deeply alarmed Iran. Nasiri was among the Iranian commanders who deployed there to quickly augment the staff ranks. Nasiri’s experience with Iraqis, according to his brother, qualified him to help train, and organize the Popular Mobilization Forces, a multi-sectarian and ideologically diverse conglomeration of militias dominated by Guard-backed formations, among which the Badr Organization is the largest and most dominant. Nasiri also operated in Iraq as a field commander. He participated in battles defending Samarra and Karbala against, and taking Tikrit from, the Islamic State in the early phases of the war.

After 2014, Nasiri spent the majority of his time in Iraq. He would sometimes “personally pay for a trip to Iraq,” particularly “when he saw that operations have ceased or are stuck,” according to his son. The son may be embellishing to protect his father’s legacy as a volunteer for the Islamic Republic. But if he is telling the truth, his comments reveal the strain on the Qods Force’s financial coffers, a result of heavy involvement in two regional wars and stringent sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic over its illicit nuclear program.

In May 2017, Nasiri accompanied a reconnaissance convoy in Mosul that fell into an Islamic State booby trap. He died within a few hours, according to Muhandis and other official accounts. Qassem Soleimani delivered the keynote address at a commemoration for Nasiri in July 2017.

An often overlooked or exaggerated subject is the messianic beliefs promoted by the Revolutionary Guard. Nasiri, according to his son, was a devout Muslim and believed in a strain of millennialism that aligns with that of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former commander believed that the 12th Imam Mahdi — who according to Twelver Shiite tradition will herald the apocalypse at a time of his choosing — would establish his government in Iraq. Revolutionary Guard commanders and clergy have openly expressed similar views that the wars in Syria and Iraq create the groundwork for the Mahdi’s arrival. These sanctify the Guard’s involvement in the war as a religious duty and bind it to a vision during times of existential crises at home and abroad. Calling combatants “shrine defenders,” referring to holy Shiite shrines in Syria and Iraq, underscores the religious and spiritual aspect of the wars for the Guard Corps.

Conclusion

Nasiri was part of a command network that forged deep ties during the Iran-Iraq War and had risen to dominate top positions in Iran’s military and security apparatus. Notably, a significant portion of his military career was spent training and leading Arab militias. Conventional wisdom and IRGC propaganda describe the export of the “Hezbollah model” to the Arab world. While this is still true, it overlooks the role of Badr – a “proxy” — in shaping the foundations of the Qods Force and its earliest expeditionary deployment. An Iranian commander from Badr built the first training program and taught the first class of the Qods Force. And it was another Iranian commander with an intelligence background from Badr, Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, who led Iran’s military expedition to the Balkans and the Bosnian war in the 1990s – the Qods Force’s overlooked involvement in that war shaped later deployments.

The Badr Organization has been a successful project for Tehran: membership is estimated at 20,000 and its top members hold senior positions in the Iraqi government. It has several brigades in the PMF. Badr separated from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in 2012 and formed its own political party. Today, it holds 21 seats in parliament and is set to run in the upcoming May elections. Ameri today leads a coalition of Iranian-backed groups called Fath al Mobin (Manifest Victory) that briefly formed an alliance with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and is poised to shape the next Iraqi government. Badr’s members have also long dominated the Iraqi federal police. They have engaged in sectarian killings and abuses against civilians during the and the war against the Islamic State.

Nasiri’s experience shows how closely intertwined the Badr Organization is with the IRGC. These ties underscore the sheer difficulty of undoing Iran’s influence in Iraq and building a fully independent Iraq, though that does not mean that Western policymakers should pull the plug on Baghdad and decline to challenge the Guard’s presence. The Revolutionary Guard is replicating its militia model to expand its influence abroad. Today, these militias constitute the foundation of the Islamic Republic’s influence in the Middle East. The success of Iran’s activities requires men who can recruit, train, lead, fight, and if necessary, die with the Guard Corps’ foreign legion. Men like Nasiri weld these bonds.

 

Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Find FDD on Twitter at @FDD and Toumaj @AmirToumaj.

Image: Mashregh News