Iran’s New Quds Force Leader Has A Long History With Afghanistan

It was in the late 1980s when Ismail Qaani -- then a local commander in Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- first became active in Afghanistan.

It was to be the start of Qaani's decades-long involvement in Iran's eastern neighbor, where Tehran has carved up influence by arming and offering political and economic backing mostly to the Shi'ite and Persian-speaking communities.

Qaani on January 3 became the chief of Iran's elite Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the IRGC, established following the 1979 Islamic Revolution to defend the country's theocratic system.

The 63-year-old general succeeded Major General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, early on January 3. He had long served as Soleimani's deputy.

Mysterious Visit

Soon after Qaani's appointment, photos of the media-shy general appeared in the Afghan media from a mysterious trip he took to Afghanistan in 2018.

Qaani was in several photos alongside Mohammad Tahir Zuhair, the governor of Bamiyan Province, a predominately Hazara area in central Afghanistan.

Zuhair told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on January 9 that Qaani introduced himself as Iran's deputy ambassador to the country and said his name was Ismaili. He says he didn't know that Qaani was the deputy chief of the Quds Force.

"We were informed by Kabul that an Iranian delegation was coming to Bamiyan to visit a hospital that was being built with Iranian funds, said Zubair. They went straight from the airport to the hospital. They were at the hospital for around 45 minutes. Then they came to my office. I held talks with them for around 10 minutes. They assured us that the construction of the hospital would be completed.

Afghanistan's acting foreign minister, Idrees Zaman, said on January 7 that Kabul was investigating the "exact nature" of Qaani's visit.

"At this point, I can assure you that he was never the deputy ambassador in Afghanistan, said Zaman.

Qaani also visited Kabul in the same year.

He was among an Iranian delegation that held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, local media reported.

History Of Violence

Qaani's recent trips to Afghanistan are just the latest examples of his activities in the war-torn country.

Born in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad -- less than 200 kilometers from Afghanistan -- Qaani joined the IRGC in 1980.

After the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Soleimani spearheaded Tehran's operations in the west, spreading Tehran's influence in the Middle East. Qaani, meanwhile, led Iranian activities in the east: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. He was also stationed in Iran's Khorasan Province, which shares a border with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

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