Who was IRGC’s diplomat Hossein Amirabdollahian?

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian died on May 19, 2024, in a helicopter crash, along with the country’s President Ebrahim Raisi. Here’s his profile written in 2021 when he was appointed foreign minister.

Who was IRGC’s diplomat Hossein Amirabdollahian?

Iran's former foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian. (Credit: AFP)

On Oct. 12, 2020, the Qasem Soleimani Foundation launched in a ceremony in Tehran a book on Hossein Amirabdollahian’s memoirs of the Syrian war. The book entitled "Sobh-e Sham" narrates his experience in the war, with a final section devoted to the “irreplaceable” role of Qasem Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in a US raid in Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2020.

The statements of the then “former diplomat” made his project look like an execution of wills: “About a year before he died a martyr, he [Soleimani] told me ‘I don’t have much time and opportunity to write my memoirs ... but try to write as much as you can of your own about Syria and save it for future generations.’”

A picture immortalized the event: Amirabdollahian, in a suit and surgical mask, hands a copy of his work to the daughter of the deceased.

Amirabdollahian, known for being close to the IRGC, took charge of the foreign ministry a week ago in the government led by hardline conservative President Ebrahim Raisi. It was a crowning achievement of a more than 20-year career, during which he has been closely involved in several regional issues.

His appointment was a symptom of the parallel state’s victory over the country’s elected institutions, and of putting aside the tensions that have animated the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979. The Supreme Guide and the IRGC that subjugated it are on one side, the governments that have a certain popular legitimacy — albeit through restricted elections — on the other.

“The foreign ministry has gradually been sidelined, and the so-called parallel institutions, notably the Pasdaran, have been given more room to maneuver in the foreign policy-making, particularly in the region,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Former Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a January interview that his role in Iran’s regional policy had been “close to zero.”

‘Full of zest’

Born in 1964 in Damghan, a city in the Semnan province, Amirabdollahian had a long-standing role in the Middle East. He was deputy head of mission at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad from 1997 to 2001. He became best known in 2007 for his role in the historic talks between Tehran and Washington on stabilizing Iraq, four years after the US invasion. The talks were fruitless but underlined the IRGC’s trust in the diplomat still in its junior ranks.

Appointed ambassador to Bahrain sometime later, he tried to defuse tensions with the ruling Sunni elites in this predominantly Shiite country. In 2009, however, he quickly remedied the ill-judged remarks of the then-parliament speaker that reduced Bahrain to “Iran’s 14th province.”

He rose to prominence under the second term of office of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the populist conservative president. When the region was in turmoil in 2011, Amirabdollahian became deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. At the time, forked tongues quickly insisted that the title of al-Quds Force representative to the cabinet would suit him better.

The Syrian and Yemeni uprisings raised considerable security and ideological challenges for the Islamic Republic, which threw all its weight behind Bashar al-Assad on the one hand and the Houthis on the other. That is not to mention Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is the most accomplished model of Iran’s paramilitary know-how, and essential to the survival of the Damascus regime. Soleimani maneuvered like a fine strategist to consolidate his empire in the area linking Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Amirabdollahian was tasked with silencing differences in implementing the carefully thought-out policy and acting as an intermediary between the IRGC and the ministry. During these decisive years, he had regular face-to-face meetings with Hassan Nasrallah, whom he said he met in 2010.

“It is interesting that even when you talk to him at 3 a.m., he’s so full of zest that you’d think it was 6 a.m.,” he told the IRGC-linked Tasnim News Agency in 2008 about Nasrallah.

When he took office in 2013, the Hassan Rouhani-Mohammad Zarif tandem replaced the entire team of advisors, except for Amirabdollahian, IRGC’s safe bet. It was out of the question for the new administration to embarrass itself with a conflict with them, as its main objective has always been to negotiate with the West to ease the sanctions hampering the country’s economic development.

In 2016, however, he was dismissed by Zarif. The hardline media blamed the move on a US request. After he refused to accept the post of ambassador to Oman, Amirabdollahian became an advisor on international issues to two successive parliament speakers.

‘Executive branch of the IRGC’

Today more than ever, the rivalries between a deep state that watches over the system’s red lines with an iron fist and its civilian facade are set to cool down. The regime shed all pretense by ensuring the victory of Raisi (who is very close to Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei) in a presidential election that disdained candidates and voters alike.

Similarly, the appointment of Amirabdollahian (who favors a hostile, uncompromising approach to Washington) as foreign minister was supposed to usher in a less tense period between the IRGC and the government.

“We can expect closer cooperation and less friction,” said Azizi. “It is safe to even say that Raisi’s presidency, a foreign ministry headed by Amirabdollahian or another, resembles the IRGC’s executive branch regarding regional policies.”

A fervent supporter of an East-oriented policy advocated by Khamenei, Amirabdollahian was nevertheless forced to play on all fronts: Defending Iran’s deepened relations with Russia and China and growing distance from the West while making progress on two priority issues for Tehran. These were to revive the Vienna Agreement and restore ties with Riyadh, which were severed in January 2016.

The maximum pressure policy that the US imposed has dealt a terrible blow to an already ailing economy. Easing sanctions was a matter of urgency.

“Hossein Amirabdollahian has been critical of the nuclear deal because he considers that Washington [and the Europeans are] not keeping [their] promises,” said analyst Maysam Bizaer.

“But he is not so much a critic of the deal itself as of how it has been implemented. In his view, Iran has not responded effectively to the failures of Western countries,” Bizaer added.

Although he was never a member of the IRGC, the latter perceived Amirabdollahian as one of them. He could have benefitted from greater leeway than his predecessors in the talks with the US. He was certainly a tougher interlocutor, but a freer one too.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Edited by Yara Malka.

On Oct. 12, 2020, the Qasem Soleimani Foundation launched in a ceremony in Tehran a book on Hossein Amirabdollahian’s memoirs of the Syrian war. The book entitled "Sobh-e Sham" narrates his experience in the war, with a final section devoted to the “irreplaceable” role of Qasem Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s elite Quds Force, who was...