Iran’s expansionist designs meet US intrigue

A growing network, which includes Pakistani and Afghan Shia groups, could help establish Iranian footholds in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Alarming trend. Members of Shia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq march during the Quds Day gathering in Baghdad, last July. (AP)
Alarming trend. Members of Shia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq march during the Quds Day gathering in Baghdad, last July. (AP)

BEIRUT - The leader of Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada (KSS), an Iraqi Shia militia that is closely linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), says he’s ready to send fighters to support Houthi rebels battling Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen

KSS Secretary-General Abu Waala al-Wa’eli proclaimed: “I declare I am a soldier standing at the signal of Sayyid Abdelmalik al-Houthi,” the leader of the Iran-backed Shia tribal rebels known as Ansar Allah. It is fighting the Saudi-backed Yemen government forces in Yemen’s 3-year-old civil war.

“I announce that Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada is a faction among your factions, O Ansar Allah,” Wa’eli said.

His offer testifies to how Shia-majority Iran is increasingly wielding an army of militias across the largely Sunni Muslim Middle East to advance its strategic objective of dominating the region and, for the most part, getting away with it.

This growing network, which includes Pakistani and Afghan Shia groups, could help establish Iranian footholds in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In that regard, Tajikistan’s top clerical body, the Council of Ulema, accused Tehran in May of destabilising the Central Asian state, which in 2017 closed the Iranian Embassy’s cultural office.

It’s the same in the Maghreb, where there are few Shias. In May, Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran for supporting the Polisario Front, a separatist group in Western Sahara, and claimed Tehran had sent arms to the group.

The Iranians denied that but the split underlined growing alarm in the Arab world about the steadily spreading influence of hard-line, Tehran-controlled Shia organisations across the region.

US analyst Michael Knights, who recently visited Iraq, has long maintained that the Houthis and other Iraqi Shia proxies of Iran “actively seek to adopt the Iranian system of clerical rule in Iraq, sweeping away the old religious establishment in favour of a hierarchy led from Qom,” the heart of Iranian Shiism.

With the war in Syria seemingly winding down, Iraqi Shia militia leaders have recently been in Lebanon discussing an alliance with Hezbollah, which, with its allies, dominates the government in Beirut, to fight Israel on the disputed Golan Heights of Syria.

In December, Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a 3,000-strong organisation heavily engaged in Syria, toured southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah faces Israel, to discuss possible joint operations against the Jewish state amid escalating tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria.

In February, Khazali was followed by Akram al-Kaabi, commander of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which has operated in Syria alongside Hezbollah since 2013. The Nujaba group recently announced the formation of a multiparty “Golan Brigade” to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Syria.

Kaabi once famously declared he would topple the Baghdad government if ordered to by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Hezbollah, Iran’s first and most prized revolutionary Shia proxy, is reported to be fighting in Yemen alongside the Houthis, a branch of Shia Islam. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen claimed in June that eight Hezbollah fighters had been killed in combat. Hezbollah denies it has a presence in Yemen, although it was deeply involved in Iraq when Iran-backed groups were fighting the Americans following the March 2003 invasion.

Most of the Shia groups in Iraq, like KSS, are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Syria, with battle-hardened leaders who, gathered under the aegis of Qassem Soleimani, the charismatic Iranian commander of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, have become Tehran’s shock troops in its quest for regional supremacy.

Pro-Iranian militias have proliferated in Syria since 2012 and emerged as a vital component of the military forces supporting the Assad regime but with Bashar Assad’s dictatorship firmly back on top in the Syrian war, these groups are increasingly pursuing Iranian objectives.

“Iranian influence on the ground in Syria is rapidly outstripping that of the Assad regime and Russia,” observed Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Damascus has few options for reversing this trend given its minority Alawite support base. As a result, the forces gaining ascendancy in regime-controlled areas will be more prone to supporting Tehran’s foreign policy agenda instead of Assad’s.

“This agenda may include fighting US forces in southern and eastern Syria or attacking Israel via the Golan.”

Iran’s influence in the Middle East has grown alarmingly over the last year or two — witness events in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen — and this is causing growing alarm if it continues to expand at its current rate.

Now, short of all-out war, there does not seem to be anything to impede what is becoming known as “Iran’s Foreign Legion” spreading its tentacles and extending Tehran’s influence by high-powered intrigue and skilfully managed brute force.

Barbara A. Leaf, US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014-18, observed in June: “The Trump administration entered office with a stated commitment to knitting up frayed relations with the Gulf and focusing on (countering) destabilising activities across the region.

“Yet ironically, that never translated into a senior-level focus on Yemen, where those strands come tightly together,” she noted. “In fact, US support for the (Saudi-led) coalition’s campaign has largely been on autopilot.”

One of the most serious differences between Iran and the United States is Tehran’s long-honed ability to exploit the internal political dynamics of the countries it has targeted, an area where the Americans and their allies have failed to achieve decisive influence while avoiding military entanglement.

“Russia’s support has ensured the survival of Bashar Assad in Syria and enabled Iranian and foreign Shia fighters to embed in the country,” Leaf observed.

Meanwhile, “Hezbollah deployed to Syria and won resoundingly at the ballot box in Lebanon,” she added. “Iran is also flooding Baghdad with money and currying influence to ensure its partners form the next government.”

Time is not on the Trump administration’s side in terms of overcoming or even just slowing, Iran’s drive to become the region’s superpower.

Plotting a long game is part of the Iranians’ DNA, a throwback to the days of the ancient Persian empires, generically alien to the impulsive and reactionary Trump administration.

In Yemen, Iran has “built a small but hardy train-and-equip programme for the Houthis, partially contracted out to Hezbollah,” Leaf noted.

“With advanced missile-technology transfers, Iran has enabled the Houthis to strike deep into Saudi territory and threatened international shipping in the Bab el Mandeb (Strait)” in the southern Red Sea.

“Iran’s investment is modest and the returns spectacular.”

The Americans are steadily leaving their regional allies, such as the often-betrayed Kurds, in the lurch when the going gets rough, to a large extent because there is no coherent policy on countering Iran on the ground beyond squeezing it economically.

In 2017, the CIA, while under the direction of Mike Pompeo before Trump appointed him secretary of state in April, established an Iran Mission Centre to coordinate and concentrate the agency’s capabilities to bring about regime change in Iran, deepening the destabilisation that already affects a region in dire disarray.

To head it, Pompeo appointed a hard-charging CIA veteran named Michael D’Andrea, who had earlier masterminded the agency’s drone strikes that decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership cadres.

Since D’Andrea took charge there has been a marked rise in street protests in Iran against a deepening economic crisis — much of it engineered by the Trump administration — that has been made more miserable by a severe drought.

There is no hard evidence that these protests, met with considerable force by the Tehran regime, are the work of US-backed agitators. However, Pompeo and other Trump hawks, including national security adviser John Bolton, said such actions will help foster a revolution in Iran to end the Islamic regime that overthrew the Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in January 1979, 25 years after he had been restored to power in a CIA-backed coup.

Some observers see a more Machiavellian objective.

The danger, as US-based Iranian analyst Trita Parsi sees things, is that “if Iran becomes a successful democracy” through regime change, “Iran’s power will likely grow significantly.”

So, the US goal as propounded by right-wing hawks, inside and outside of the administration, “appears to be regime collapse and prolonged chaos and instability in Iran. Short of war, only that would shift the balance of power in the region toward Israel.”

There has also been an upswing in violent incidents on Iran’s borders where Kurdish and Baluchi militants have battled for years seeking to end Shia rule of their Sunni provinces.

Again, there’s no solid evidence that such attacks have been stepped up due to CIA agitation or funding, although hardliners in Washington make little effort to hide their wish to bring about the regime’s collapse through economic pain and violence in the streets.

There is little reasonable expectation that the CIA’s new offensive will bring down a highly organised clerical regime capable of defending itself with the utmost ruthlessness, from within and without.

The Trump administration seems to be relying to some extent on an Iraqi emigre group known as the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), to stir up trouble at home for the Tehran regime. The MEK may have had its uses in the past but it has been discredited as little more than a cult and is believed to have little actual support inside Iran.

Tehran insists that the street protests have been stirred up from the outside as the US intensifies its economic pressure on Iran in a bid to force it to abandon its expansionist objectives.

On July 1, 2017, Bolton addressed a large gathering of MEK supporters in Paris and declared: “The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s why before 2019 we here will celebrate in Tehran!”

A year later, Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani told a similar gathering of the National Council of Resistance, the MEK’s political front, that the Trump administration was committed to “bring down the Iranian regime” and that “the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran is around the corner.”

The US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor noted recently that the punitive initiatives designed to stir up popular protests against the Tehran regime have resulted in “a rare display of unity… between moderates like (President Hassan) Rohani and the conservative” IRGC.

That, it postulated, could lead to a “rebranding of their image among voters… and if the United States is not careful, its efforts to isolate the powerful military branch will only succeed in banding Iran’s political factions together against it.”

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