Iran Names Fiery Chief to Lead Elite Force Targeted by U.S.

(Bloomberg) -- Iran named a new commander known for his bellicose rhetoric against his country’s enemies to lead the Revolutionary Guard Corps, two weeks after the elite military force was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed General Hossein Salami, 58, to replace General Mohammad Ali Jafari, according to a decree. Salami’s fiery speeches during Friday prayers are among his hallmarks. No reason was given for Jafari’s replacement after more than a decade at the Guards’ helm.

The U.S. slapped the terrorism label on the force in another bid to deter foreign companies and governments from doing business with Iran by threatening criminal prosecution of anyone providing “material support” to the Guards. It’s the latest in a series of steps Washington has taken to ramp up pressure on Iran since President Donald Trump quit the multinational nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic last year and reimposed sanctions.

“The Supreme Leader is moving his chess pieces around as a reaction to the administration’s posture,” said Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, describing Salami as “well versed in the exercise of brute force” and “very much an operations guy.” He “picked Salami because he foresees a confrontational footing with the U.S. and he wants a hardliner’s hardliner,” Handjani said.

The Guards, created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to bolster the regime, is deeply embedded in the country’s economy and was already under heavy sanctions before the terrorism designation. Salami joined the force during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and held a number of posts in its ground, air and naval forces, according to state-run media.

As the deputy head of the Guards before his new appointment, Salami was already in charge of much of its internal affairs, according to Fars news.

His trademark rhetoric has included warnings that "our missiles are ready to launch” and “Israel will be razed” if a war is initiated against Iran. While he won’t be a policy maker -- the Guards answer directly to Khamenei -- he will be a high-profile and pugnacious figure as Iran pushes back against new U.S. pressure on the force.

Iranian officials say the entity is a vital institution that helps protect Iran from external threats and ensure its national security and sovereignty.

Trump has turned confronting Iran into a cornerstone of his Middle East policy, pressing Arab states and European allies alike to isolate the Islamic Republic and weaken its influence in the region. The U.S. government said on Monday that it won’t renew waivers that let countries buy Iranian oil without facing American sanctions.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.