Iranians and Lebanese look alike
The Shiite International
The US government cites the expansion of the Iranians and their allies in the Middle East as the most important reason, alongside the Iranian missile armament, for the termination of the nuclear agreement. Indeed, the militias controlled by Tehran pose a threat to pro-Western states; for example in Bahrain, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their allies are increasingly supporting small terrorist groups. In addition, the Shiite militias in Syria are trying to build a new front against Israel, which began to fight these forces in the neighboring country in 2017.
However, the militia’s radius of action is limited to those countries in which they are already active and in which Shiites are strongly represented. Only with the Palestinian Hamas have the Iranians succeeded in establishing relations with a Sunni organization, which, however, have so far not had any military impact. This speaks in favor of not overestimating the dangers posed by Shiite groups.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards
The Shiite International Militia is led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Sepah-e pasdaran-e enghelab-e eslami; "Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution"), the political army of Iran that is supposed to protect the achievements of the Islamic Revolution. It counts around 125,000 men and also has control over the paramilitary volunteer militias (Basij, literally "mobilization"), which are at least 1 million strong and act as auxiliary troops. Since it was founded in 1979, the Guards have been in competition with the regular Iranian army, which comprises around 350,000 men and whose loyalty the founders of the Islamic Republic long doubted. The Guards are consequently not under the government, but under the revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, who makes the decisions on important questions of national security.
The pioneers of Iran's expansion in the Middle East are the Quds (= Jerusalem) units (Niru-ye Quds or Sepah-e Quds) of the Revolutionary Guards. Today this troop is fulfilling the mandate held for a long time by the "Office for Liberation Movements," which worked towards exporting the revolution to neighboring countries. Since the early 1990s, the Quds units have been responsible for political, military and intelligence relations with Iran's Muslim neighboring countries and, above all, for supporting the pro-Iranian actors there. They have an estimated 10,000–20,000 men in their ranks who, although they form a military formation, are mainly charged with training, supplying, financing and leading Iran-friendly forces militarily and ideologically. Their greatest strength lies in their close ties to allies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Badr organization in Iraq and other pro-Iranian groups, which provide the bulk of the Iranian troops in their areas of operation.
The importance of the quds units has increased significantly since 2003 and again since 2011 because the Iranian leadership used the collapse of Iraq and the turmoil resulting from the Arab Spring to expand its influence in the Arab world. An indication of the upgrading of the Quds units is the prominence of their commander Qasem Soleimani, who has led them since 1998. While the force used to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani has probably been directly responsible to the revolutionary leader since 2009. Khamenei is the religious and political leader, Soleimani the military leader of the Shiite International.
When it comes to their allies in the Arab world, the Iranians speak of an "axis of resistance" which is aimed at the common struggle against the enemies of Islam and agents of imperialism (USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others) and for the protection of the Islamic Revolution and its achievements. Despite the rhetorical defensive impetus, which is partly due to the paranoia widespread among Iranian decision-makers, partly to the experience of the Iran-Iraq war 1980-88 and partly to the often hostile policies of the USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it acts the alliance is an expansive project. The fact that the Iranians seem to seize opportunities for expansion - as in Yemen and Bahrain - more opportunistically than to pursue a pre-formulated strategy does nothing to change this.
The Lebanese Hezbollah
The Lebanese Hezbollah ("Party of God") is to this day Iran's most important non-state ally and the prime example of its expansion in the Arab world. The Revolutionary Guards played a major role in the founding of Hezbollah in 1982 and trained numerous fighters of the new group, which received weapons and money from Iran from the start. Hezbollah thanks it with loyal lines and was the first non-Iranian organization to adhere to the concept of the rule of the legal scholar (velayat-e faghih) developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, according to which in the absence of the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi a scholar as its deputy takes over the religious and political leadership of the Islamic state. Until his death in 1989, Khomeini was therefore the supreme religious and political authority of Iran and Hezbollah; today it is his successor Ali Khamenei.
But Hezbollah is much more than just a pro-Iranian militant group with close ties to the Revolutionary Guard. It is also a political movement that provides social and charitable services, and a party that has steadily expanded its influence through successful participation in elections. Despite her military and financial dependence on Iran, these strong roots give her a certain amount of leeway. In July / August 2006, Hezbollah and Israel faced each other for a month in a war during which the organization, with massive Iranian support, managed to shoot down thousands of rockets on Israeli territory. Although Hezbollah suffered heavy losses and the destruction in Lebanon was considerable, the Israeli military did not succeed in crushing the organization. From 2006 onwards, it quickly gained strength and purposefully expanded its influence on Lebanese politics; since 2008 it has secured a de facto right of veto over decisions of the Lebanese government.
In the sphere of influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah is the most important ally. With around 20-25,000 fully trained and active fighters (and 20-25,000 "reservists") it is not only the avant-garde in the fight against Israel, but an important link between Iranians and Arabs. The common Arabic language and culture make it easier for Hezbollah, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis and other Arabs to train militarily and ideologically for the Revolutionary Guard. This became apparent for the first time during the conflict in Iraq, where the Guards, with the help of Hezbollah, sent Shiite groups to fight the American occupation forces from 2003 (and much more intensely from 2006).
Hezbollah became even more important with the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011. For the organization, the possible overthrow of the Assad regime posed an existential threat, because Iranian arms deliveries to Hezbollah have been through the only neighboring country since the 1980s is Iran's state ally. In 2012 and 2013, Hezbollah increased its commitment because the weakness of the regime's troops became more and more evident. In spring 2013, the organization made its intervention public for the first time. In the next few years, Hezbollah units were involved in all major combat missions across the country. At any given point in time, the organization is likely to have between 7,000 and 10,000 men stationed in Syria. The high point of their engagement was the capture of East Aleppo in December 2016, which ushered in the regime's victory over the insurgents.
Despite heavy losses - Hezbollah mourned more than 2,000 dead and several thousand injured - the organization emerged stronger from the Syrian civil war. Firstly, it has learned to fight insurgent groups effectively, which is worthless in the conflict against the militarily superior Israel, but should consolidate its influence in Lebanon. Second, Iran has significantly increased its financial support for Hezbollah, which in the past was mostly around 100 million US dollars a year. At the height of the conflict in Syria in 2015/16, Tehran is said to have supported its ally with more than 1 billion. Thirdly, Iran has also increased the quantity and quality of arms supplies to Hezbollah. In particular, the more than 100,000 rockets of various ranges, almost all of which were delivered after the 2006 war, make Hezbollah the most dangerous opponent of Israel today. Fourth, Hezbollah has intensified its ties to the Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias from various countries in Syria.
The "popular mobilization" in Iraq
The second important ally of the Revolutionary Guards in the Arab world are Shiite militias in Iraq under the leadership of the Badr organization, which have been operating since 2014 under the name of "popular mobilization" (al Hashd ash-Sha'bi). With their help, Iran tries to expand its influence in the neighboring country as much as possible.
In these efforts, Iran benefited above all from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the almost complete collapse of the Iraqi state as a result of the American-British invasion in 2003. In the years that followed, Tehran pursued a two-pronged policy: On the one hand, it supported pro-Iranian forces in Iraqi politics as before especially the High Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which in the first few years was the strongest Shiite party in Baghdad and the most important Iranian ally in Iraq. The Badr Militia, which was part of the High Council and was founded in 1983 in Iran as an Iraqi unit of the Revolutionary Guard, was called the Badr Organization from 2003 and also acts as a party. In 2009 she separated from the High Council. In May 2007 it was renamed "Iraqi Islamic High Council", which was widely interpreted as an act of distancing itself from Iran. The Badr organization maintained its close ties to Tehran and expanded its influence; For example, as in 2005/06, the Ministry of the Interior has been headed by Badr officials since September 2014. Thousands of members of the Badr Corps were accepted into the police force, but remained loyal to their organization.
Although the Badr paramilitary units continued to exist, they did not take part in the armed struggle against the occupation forces. It was initially led by the movement of the militant preacher Muqtada as-Sadr, who represented Iraqi nationalist positions and evaded attempts by Iran to control it. Therefore, from 2005/06 onwards, the Revolutionary Guards started building smaller militant groups that were supposed to fight the US troops. Tehran's goal was to force the United States to withdraw from Iraq as quickly as possible. The American troops subsumed these new opponents under the term "special groups". Some of these groups, such as the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq (Leagues of the Righteous), had split off from the Sadr movement, while others, such as the Kata'ib Hizbullah (Hezbollah battalions), came from Badr's circle. They were trained and guided by instructors from the Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah. They also received weapons, ammunition and money from Iran, where they could also retreat between missions. The groups kidnapped and murdered American soldiers, shot at their bases with rockets and mortars, and carried out attacks with improvised IEDs. The Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFP) used from 2004, which can penetrate armored vehicles, posed a particular threat to the US troops. The "special groups" inflicted heavy losses on the US troops without finding any effective antidotes.
After the American withdrawal in 2011, these militias and their leaders appeared openly. Their rise to a Hizbullah-like "state within the state" did not begin until June 2014, when the state security forces collapsed in the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS). After the leading Shiite scholar Ali Sistani had called for a "holy war", the militia alliance "People's Mobilization" was formed, comprising around 100,000 men. The troops of the "popular mobilization" for their part quickly went on the offensive against the IS and played a major role in the recapture of the lost territories by 2017. The alliance was dominated by the unfaithful militias Badr, Kata'ib Hizbullah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq . The Kata'ib Hizbullah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is officially in command, but the long-standing Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri is considered a strong man in the "popular mobilization". In the background, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds units, also plays an important role. Despite several attempts by the Iraqi government to bring the people's mobilization units under its own control, the militias are today as independent as Hezbollah in Lebanon: They hold territory north and northeast of Baghdad, are present in the capital and in many strategically important locations in the north of the country , control the Interior Ministry and the police and also receive money from the Iraqi government - although their loyalty belongs more to Tehran than to Baghdad. In the elections in May 2018, the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq in particular were able to significantly increase their share of the vote, so that the influence of the "popular mobilization" in parliament and possibly on the next government is secured.
Shiite militias in Syria
When Sunni rebels began an uprising in Syria in 2011, which turned into civil war in 2012, the Revolutionary Guards there too took the opportunity to build a network of misanthropic militias. The Iranians saw the events in Syria as an existential threat because they feared that regime change in Damascus would be followed by one in Beirut, Baghdad and Tehran. To prevent this from happening, the Guards and Hezbollah put together a militia alliance as early as 2011, which, in addition to Lebanese and Iranians, consisted of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani fighters and which quickly gained in strength. Smaller Syrian associations also joined this alliance. In Syria, a multinational force was formed that worked together across national and ethnic borders far more intensively than militant Shiite Islamists had ever done.
The Assad regime came under increasing pressure after 2012 because it lacked soldiers. Even Hezbollah was unable to make up for this deficiency, which is why Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi militiamen joined their Lebanese brothers in arms as early as 2011. The number of Iranian soldiers in the following years is likely to have been 1,000–2,000 men - higher estimates assume 3,000–4,000 men; the guards provided mainly military advisers, trainers and commanders. They pursued two parallel and often overlapping projects: On the one hand, they trained Syrian militias, the majority of which were Alawites and other minorities. On the other hand, they built up an expeditionary force of Shiite fighters from other nations.
The new militia alliance in Syria took shape in late 2011, when the Syrian regime increasingly recruited irregular armed groups. The reason was that the regime troops were severely weakened by the massive desertions of Sunni officers and men. In addition, the state armed forces lacked experience in counterinsurgency and fighting in cities. The Revolutionary Guards, which were extremely experienced in these disciplines, took on the training of the newly established militias, which the regime referred to as the "National Defense Forces" from mid-2012. Their number grew to 100,000 men.
The guards also set up Shiite groups. This was much more difficult, as Shiites in Syria only make up around 1.5 percent of the population and are also spread across the entire country. Their stronghold is the Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zainab, in which there is an important Shiite shrine. The most important group in the early days was called Brigade (Liwa) Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. This unit initially took on some Syrians, but quickly also many Iraqi fighters. Most of the Iraqis who joined it in 2012 and 2013 had previously belonged to the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq and Kata'ib Hizbullah, but also to the Badr organization. Like Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards, they argued that Shiite shrines must be protected from Sunni terrorists.When Hezbollah openly identified itself as an actor in Syria from 2013, the Iraqis also renounced their secrecy. Although many of them were withdrawn in 2014 to fight ISIS in Iraq, their number increased again from spring 2015.
While the Abu-al-Fadl-al-Abbas Brigade quickly lost its importance, other Iraqi Shiite militias came to the fore from 2013 onwards. The Haraka Hizbullah an-Nujaba, which fought as an offshoot of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq in Aleppo in 2016 and in East Syria in 2017, was particularly strong. Kata’ib Sayyid ash-Shuhada, the Syrian branch of Badr and Kata’ib Hizbullah, also made a name for itself as a powerful formation. In the following years, the number of Iraqi fighters in Syria was always around 5,000, a contingent with which the weakness of the Lebanese Hezbollah could be compensated somewhat. Most of the Shiite foreigners, however, were Afghans who were brought from Iran to Syria by the Revolutionary Guards and intervened in the war under the name of "Liwa al-Fatimiyun". The Pakistani »Zainabiyun« also became part of the militia alliance, which as of 2015 comprised around 20,000 foreign fighters. They were particularly heavily involved in the battle for Aleppo, which ended in December 2016 with the capture of the entire eastern part of the city. In the following months, the unfaithful militias were also heavily involved in the fighting against IS in eastern Syria, where they conquered the city of Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border in 2017 together with units advancing from Iraq.
The Revolutionary Guards and their allies have thus created a land connection that enables them to send larger quantities of fighters, heavy equipment, missiles and other weapons from Iran via Iraq to their partners in Syria and Lebanon with a lower risk of detection. This factor is all the more relevant as the Israeli Air Force has intensified its attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian convoys and fixed facilities in Syria since 2017.
Should the fighting in Syria end soon after the capture of Idlib, the question arises as to the future of the Iranian presence. Since the Assad regime is likely to continue to suffer from a shortage of soldiers, it is likely that the guards and their militias will be needed. The close cooperation between the Assad and anti-alien militias often makes a clear distinction difficult. This could be an indication that Guardsmen have become part of the Syrian armed forces. On this basis, Iran could expand its influence in Syria in the long term.
Iran, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen
The support of the Revolutionary Guard for the Yemeni Houthi rebels is a special case, because as Zaidis they belong to a Shiite denomination that has little contact with the so-called Twelve Shiites, who form the majority among the Shiites in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. The Houthis are also not committed to the (Twelve Shiite) concept of the rule of the legal scholar and the ideology of Khomeinism, which are the connecting link between the Revolutionary Guards and their allies in northern Arabia. Rather, it is the common "anti-imperialism", the opposition to Saudi Arabia and the isolation of the Houthis that have led to the fact that Yemen has also become the operational area of the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Tehran took the opportunity to create problems for Saudi Arabia by supporting the Houthis.
The Houthis had already waged a guerrilla war in their strongholds in Northern Yemen from 2004 to 2010. Their opponent at the time, the regime of President Ali Abdullah Salih (ruled 1978–2012), discredited the rebels as agents of Shiite Iran from the start. The Saudi Arabian leadership followed this line of argument and sided with the Yemeni government. When the insurgents captured Sanaa in September 2014 and advanced south, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened militarily in March 2015. Saudi Arabian politicians justified this intervention with their concern that a "Yemeni Hezbollah" could emerge on the southern border of the kingdom and declared that they would not tolerate such a development.
Iran probably sent aid early on, but it must have been very modest. It was only in stages, especially from 2011 onwards, that the Iranians became more active, without their support ever coming close to that which they are giving to militant groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Ships intended to bring Iranian weapons to Yemen were seized on several occasions in 2013 and 2014. The increase in these incidents since 2014 indicates that the Revolutionary Guards stepped up their support after the Houthis took Sanaa. There was also accumulated evidence that Hezbollah instructors were helping the Houthis to form an even more powerful force. Iran also supplied missiles that the Yemeni rebels are using to bombard Saudi Arabia. While they primarily targeted cities and areas near the border in the early days, they have attacked the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh several times since 2017. Although the projectiles did not cause any significant damage, they convinced the Saudi Arabian government again of the dangerousness of the Houthis.
The expansion continues: The Gulf States and Israel
After the unprecedented expansion of armed forces in the Arab East, led or supported by Iran, the question arises whether this has now come to an end. On the one hand, the religious division in the Middle East makes it very unlikely that the Iranians will be able to win many new allies. The economic crisis in Iran and the consequences of the new US sanctions are also likely to limit Tehran's room for maneuver. On the other hand, the fact that representatives of the Revolutionary Guards and the pro-Iranian militias are cultivating an increasingly aggressive anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi Arabian rhetoric suggests that they see future targets for confrontation in these two states.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia
In the island state of Bahrain, militant groups supported by Tehran have already started the armed struggle. Since protests by the Shiite majority of the population were quashed there in 2011, a conflict has been simmering that has been fought primarily in the Shiite villages around the capital Manama, where young people have been exchanging blows with the security forces for years. The Revolutionary Guards exploited these tensions by training young men in the camps of the Shiite International in Iran and Iraq and sending them back to Bahrain from 2012 at the latest. They also sent weapons and materials to build IEDs and EFPs, which were used multiple times in deadly attacks against police. The most famous pro-Iranian groups are the Saraya al-Ashtar and the Saraya al-Mukhtar. Their leaders sometimes live in Iran.
As a result of the activities of these groups, the security situation in Bahrain has once again deteriorated significantly from 2017 onwards. The Revolutionary Guards show here that they are able to effectively support militant groups even in a country with strong security forces who massively restrict the freedom of action of their opponents. The main aim is likely to be to be able to exert influence in the event of renewed protests.
In addition, support for Bahraini groups is likely to follow an anti-Saudi impetus. In the east of Saudi Arabia - on the coast opposite Bahrain - there are around 2 million Shiites who are perceived by Riyadh as the "fifth column" of Iran. When protests broke out there in 2011 and 2012, the security forces largely regained control, but there were several riots in the period that followed, first after the execution in January 2016 of the preacher Nimr an-Nimr, who had become the figurehead of the Shiite protest movement. His execution sparked a diplomatic crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and representatives of the Shiite International used the case as an opportunity to make furious threats against Saudi Arabia and its ruling family. Armed clashes occurred again in the summer of 2017 when security forces attacked a stronghold of the protests in the old town of Awamiya, then evacuated and tore the center down. Even if no terrorist group allied with the Revolutionary Guards has appeared on the scene in Saudi Arabia, opposition members have been using the weapon more and more frequently in recent years. This is an indication that parts of the opposition are ready for armed struggle.
A second possible escalation could affect Israel. The hostility towards the Jewish state unites all components of the Shiite international. The anti-Israel stance has even enabled the Revolutionary Guard to forge close ties with the Palestinian Hamas, which went through a serious crisis between 2012 and 2017 but has since been restored. However, it is questionable whether the Iranians will be able to support Hamas to a similar extent as they did until 2012 with money, weapons and training, because the Egyptian state controls the border with the Gaza Strip much more effectively today than it did in the past.
It is much more important for the Revolutionary Guards that they and their clients are present in Syria. There they have even set up a military infrastructure with bases, arms stores and factories, which indicates that Tehran is considering opening a new front against Israel after the end of the conflict in Syria and giving even more support to the Lebanese Hezbollah. Israel is trying to counteract this expansion with air strikes and has received a promise from Russia to keep the Guards and their allies away from the Golan border. As long as the Assad regime does not take action against its Shiite allies, however, a second front can be expected to emerge alongside southern Lebanon. The new strength of Hezbollah and the continued presence of the Shiite International in Syria should make war, at least between Hezbollah and Israel, inevitable. The battlefields would be Lebanon and Syria; the trigger is likely the attempt by the Israelis to destroy positions of the Shiite International in both countries. However, interest in stabilization in Syria is still too great on both sides.
Germans and Europeans should not ignore the danger posed by the Shiite International. While it is right to defend the nuclear deal, the Iranian expansion in the Middle East poses a problem for Western allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and thus also for the Europeans. The fact that they follow Washington's equally false cancellation of the nuclear agreement has a positive side effect: it will be more difficult for Tehran to finance its expansion policy in the future. Despite all the differences with the USA, Europeans should not in principle shut themselves off from American sanctions measures against individual groups or leaders of the Shiite international. The Lebanese Hezbollah or the Iraqi Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq are terrorist groups that are listed as such in all western countries.
© Science and Politics Foundation, 2018
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The current reflects the author's opinion.
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