Iran has continued to entrench its influence across the Middle East through its militia network. Several Arab countries such as Jordan and Morocco have officially announced that Iran is a source of security threat to their stability and that it uses its armed militias to carry out attacks.
In Jordan, the King Abdullah II revealed that his country regularly faces attacks on the borders from militias linked to Iran. In the other part of the Arab world, the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs Nassir Bourita accused Iran of supporting the Polisario front to carry out armed attacks against Morocco. He has even revealed that Iran is the sponsor of terrorism and creating divisions in the Arab world.
How Iran Created Its Militia Network
The most important militia in Iran’s arsenal is Hezbollah, based in Lebanon. But to understand Hezbollah it is crucial to understand what Hezbollah—and all the other militias used by Iran—actually are. The word “proxy” is often used to describe these militias; this is misleading.
The militias are organic extensions of the clerical regime that seized power in Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Indeed, the name “Hezbollah” (Party of God) has been used for multiple, ostensibly separate organizations under the control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), even before the IRGC was formally announced as an entity in February 1979 and coalesced into a hierarchical structure to rival the regular army (Artesh) during the Iran-Iraq War.
Within Iran after the Revolution, “Hezbollah” referred to the militia, whose members were called the hezbollahi, responsible for beating up the opposition to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime on the streets and of carrying out the power struggle against the opposition within the regime between the clerically-controlled Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and the more Leftist Islamists who had aligned with Khomeini during the Revolution. These street thugs would ultimately be integrated into the IRGC and its branches like the Basij.
The origins of the hezbollahi and the IRGC, however, go back to the early 1970s, to the Soviet-run camps in Lebanon, directly administered by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials, who were controlled by the intelligence services of Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. A Khomeini operative, Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, forged an alliance with the PLO in 1973 to have Islamists loyal to Khomeini trained in these camps, alongside the Islamist-Marxists from the terrorist group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), with which Khomeini had made a tactical alliance.
It was in these Lebanese camps that the core of the IRGC was created, and the difference between “the IRGC” and “Hezbollah” is purely nominal. There is not even a geographic distinction. When Iran undertakes action, because of its transnational wilayat al-faqih ideology, neither the regime nor its loyalists, recognise the state boundaries: personnel and resources are simply moved from area to area as needed, whatever their formal nationality and whether they are theoretically a member of “the IRGC” or “Hezbollah”. This does not just apply in the region—as we shall see—but at home, where, so it is said, “Hezbollah” units of the IRGC have been transferred from Lebanon to help suppress the protests.
The Militia Structure
Since no later than 2008, Iran has dominated Lebanon through the Hezbollah cut-out, building up stockpiles of missiles as part of the effort to eliminate Israel, and since 2013 openly operating alongside the IRGC units that control Syria to fight against the rebellion. IRGC control of Syria has allowed the creation of a plethora of Hezbollah-clone militias from local Shi’a populations—as well as the importation of thousands of Shi’a jihadists from all over the world. This has given Iran a second front against Israel, and has secured supply lines to Hezbollah since Iran already de facto controlled Iraq.
In a lot of ways, what Iran did in Syria through the IRGC, with help from Arab Khomeinists in “Hezbollah”, is a repeat of what happened in Iraq a decade earlier. After the Anglo-American invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, the IRGC moved in quickly—with its Department 1000 and Hezbollah’s Unit 3800—to seize control of the Interior Ministry and begin setting up a militia apparatus to war against the Americans and the new democratic government. Iran already had Iraqis to work with in doing this, specifically the Badr Corps, a group of Iraqi Khomeinists who defected to the Iranian side during the war with Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s.
Badr is led by Hadi al-Ameri, and his superior, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, ran another militia in Iraq, which was more like an elite special forces unit within the IRGC network, Kataib Hezbollah. Abu Mahdi was the overall deputy to Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC’s expeditionary Qods Force, until both Abu Mahdi and Soleimani were killed in an American airstrike in January 2020. That Abu Mahdi had an Iraqi passport and was of Bahraini descent, and yet held such a senior position within an Iranian “state” institution, gives an idea of how the IRGC works as a transnational jihadist movement.
Badr has since 2003 formed the seedbed for any number of other militias in Iraq, the largest of which—not just Kataib Hezbollah, but Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib al-Imam Ali, and Kataib Jund al-Imam—have been incorporated under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi, which is now a formal part of the Iraqi state, a perfect replication of the IRGC model, used within Iran and in Lebanon through Hezbollah, to create a parallel militia that avoids all the political scrutiny of a national army it gradually overshadows.
The Iranian takeover in Iraq has also had considerable material benefits, allowing the Islamic Republic to skim off oil revenues and to get involved in the full spectrum of Iraqi corruption—the scale of which is quite staggering—to evade the sanctions and ensure the militia network remains well-funded.
The final major hot spot for Iran’s militia structure is Yemen. It was for a long time denied that Ansar Allah, or “the Houthis”, were an IRGC creature, but since EER published a report by Oved Lobel eighteen months ago documenting that this is exactly what Ansar Allah is and has always been, stretching back to the time of the Iranian Revolution, other researchers have followed in his footsteps and come to the same conclusion. Ansar Allah gives Iran control of the strategic majority of Yemen, an ability to attack the Gulf states, and a capacity to threaten international shipping.
The fruits of Iranian imperialism—in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—have been won in an organic way that has embedded the IRGC militias in a fashion that makes it most unlikely they can be removed. These bases have allowed Iran to expand proselytising work into Africa and launch terrorism operations against Jews as far away as Argentina. The solution that would solve all these problems at once is the downfall of the Islamic Republic; perhaps this protest movement will succeed in doing just that. Until then, a containment strategy that unites the states which support peace and moderation, prevents Iran expanding any further, and tries to empower local actors who oppose them in each of these theatres, seems like the best path available.
For more on this, see the first episode of our podcast with Danny Citrinowicz.