The influence and clout of the once formidable Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which directs Iran's external operations, have been faltering under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani.
Since taking the helm on short notice, following the January 2020 assassination of his predecessor, Qassem Soleimani, Qaani has failed to distinguish himself in his new role, and has no significant achievements to his name, observers say.
Iranian leader Ali Khamenei's appointment of Qaani to fill Soleimani's shoes was accompanied by an intensive propaganda campaign led by the regime's media, which sought to play down the full impact of Soleimani's loss.
But behind the scenes, observers said, it was common knowledge that Soleimani's assassination shook the regime to the core.
As Qaani approaches his second anniversary in the position, many Iranians are now convinced that he is not up to the job, as evidenced by the IRGC's diminished influence and impact in the region, they added.
Despite regime efforts to portray Qaani as a veteran commander, sufficiently qualified to press on with Iran's external agenda, his performance has been "weak, or largely unsuccessful", said Iraqi military expert Hatem al-Falahi.
The new IRGC-QF commander has "proved incapable of filling the void left by Soleimani or attaching any achievement to his name", he said, and "the Iranian regime has become convinced that he cannot face the challenges".
Qaani's lacklustre leadership has frustrated the Iranian regime, which has seen Iran's influence and sway decline in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, al-Falahi said.
There are many indicators of failure, he added, but the most obvious of them is "the loosening of Iran's grip on its traditional allies in Iraq" -- its proxy militias.
During his secret visits to Baghdad, Qaani has been unable to exercise authority over the militias, which have begun to "not show absolute obedience" to orders and quibble over details, especially when they affect their interests, he said.
Qaani exhibited unassertiveness when he failed to persuade the militia leaders during a June meeting in Baghdad to cease their rocket attacks and to tone down their escalation against the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi government had asked Iran's leaders to "rein in" their groups.
A coalition of militias calling itself the "Iraqi Resistance Co-ordination Committee" comprising Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Sayed al-Shuhada and small factions linked to Kataib Hizbullah continues to defy and shrug off Iran's instructions.
Rifts and setbacks
Rifts have begun to emerge among Iran-aligned militias in Iraq in recent months as a result of conflicts over tribute money, smuggling outlets and drug trafficking, and as they jockey for power and influence.
Faced with this situation, al-Falahi said, Qaani is not influential enough "to force the militias to bow to his will or think twice about incurring his anger".
"He was for a long time in charge of the Afghanistan and Pakistan dossiers, but he is now dealing with a dossier of higher complexity and a different geography, and he is certainly not a new Soleimani as Iran envisioned him to be," he said.
Qaani does not speak Arabic, he said, and lacks sufficient experience to deal intelligently and professionally with the Iraqi and regional dossiers. He also lacks the expertise to direct arms smuggling operations for the IRGC's regional proxies.
Recent examples of IRGC-QF failures include successful international coalition air strikes near the Iraq-Syria border targeting weapons storage facilities used by Iran-aligned militias and convoys carrying Iranian weapons across the border.
Additionally, Iranian arms shipments destined for the Houthis in Yemen have been confiscated in the waters of the Arabian Sea.
Qaani is "unable to continue driving the project initiated by Soleimani forward or achieve concrete or important results for the IRGC", Iraqi writer and journalist Hilal al-Obeidi said.
"A comparison between him and Soleimani clearly lays bare his deficiency from the radical difference between the two men's work, especially if we list the achievements of each on the ground, their roles and regional and international connections," he said.