BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- There's been speculation that an Iranian military commander whom the Americans deem one of their most formidable foes may run in the Islamic Republic's presidential election next June.
Analysts say it's a long shot he'll be in the ballot but Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' elite and shadowy al-Quds Force, and his network of generals will almost certainly play a pivotal role in the election -- and beyond.
Some analysts say Suleimani, a rising power within Iran's political and security elite, could throw his hat in the ring for the June 14 presidential election with the blessing of his mentor, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
They've had a close relationship for decades and in January 2011 Khamenei promoted Suleimani to major general, also known as the Pasdaran, the highest rank within the IRGC.
But Oxford Analytica observed in a recent political analysis that Suleimani, 55, "is unlikely to run for president.
"However, he will wield considerable indirect influence over the executive in the more likely event that one of his IRGC comrades becoming president."
Suleimani is a leading figure in a network of military commanders that has dominated the 125,000-strong IRGC, the most powerful force in Iran, since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini unleashed the Pasdaran, his ideological Praetorian Guard, on his rival, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri in the 1980s.
Since then, the IRGC, which played the leading military role in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, has become the most powerful and influential institution in Iran's political system.
It has also acquired immense economic power as well, particularly over the last decade.
Suleimani came to the notice of Western and Arab intelligence services after he took command of the Al-Quds Force sometime between September 1997 and March 1998.
Al-Quds, with some 15,000 men, handles the IRGC's clandestine operations abroad, including Afghanistan, the Balkans, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and works with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Alawite regime in Damascus.
Ali Alfoneh, an Iranian analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, calls Suleimani "Iran's most dangerous general."
Little is known about Suleimani's early relationship with Khamenei. But Alfoneh says it may have begun as early as the late 1970s in Khorasan province. It's clear Khamenei has been a pivotal figure in Suleimani's rise to power, particularly during the war with Iraq.
As Al-Quds Force chief, Suleimani reports only to Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran who appoints IRGC generals, not the government.
Within the network of generals, Suleimani, a decorated hero of the 8-year war against Iraq, has built his own power base.
At its core is an inner circle of at least 21 senior officers. They include Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Aziz Jafari, the overall IRGC commander; Brig. Gen. Ali Fadavi, head of the IRGC's naval arm; and Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Suleimani's al-Quds Force deputy.
Twelve of these men were IRGC divisional commanders during the war against Iraq.
An outer ring comprises some 16 serving or former military chiefs, some of whom have become wealthy businessmen.
Alfoneh concluded in a highly detailed 2011 profile of Suleimani, that the general's "network within the IRGC has been the most important factor contributing to his rise to power."
Iran's growing influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is largely due to Suleimani's largely covert efforts.
The soft-spoken, grey-haired general is the key figure in Iran's clandestine operations in Syria supporting the embattled regime of Tehran's strategic Arab ally, President Bashar Assad.
Suleimani reportedly survived an assassination attempt there but it's not clear who was behind it.
Meanwhile, he appears to have sided with his mentor Khamenei in his power struggle with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose two-term presidency ends in June.
Ahmadinejad has sought to strengthen the presidency by taking some Khamenei's immense power and wants to install one of his own people to succeed him. Khamenei's determined to prevent that.
Saudi analyst Amal al-Hazzani of King Saud University in Riyadh, observes that "Khamenei is deliberately moving Suleimani from the inner corridors of power toward the limelight, in a message intended for those within Iran, specifically President Ahmadinejad."
Hazzani argues that if "Suleimani succeeds as planned in delaying the Syrian regime's downfall, such a success, even if seemingly temporary and ultimately futile, would be an indicator of the rise of Suleimani at the expense of Ahmadinejad."