Meet the Proxies: How Iran Spreads Its Empire through Terrorist Militias
In Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, Tehran has perfected the art of gradually conquering a country without replacing its flag.
by David Daoud
The Middle East is witnessing the birth of a new Persian empire, under the aegis of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, when Iranian officials gloat over their control of four Arab capitals, they are being uncharacteristically modest. Tehran’s hegemony has spread far beyond Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sana’a. But this latest incarnation of Imperial Iran is unique in that it is virtually invisible. Iranian flags do not fly above the centers of government in these capitals, and the foot soldiers of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) do not march in their streets. Tehran has contracted this clandestine conquest out to an ever-expanding list of loyal proxies. They mutate and fracture into new entities, adopt new names, and operate in different roles and locations; but this constellation of proxies orbits around Iran, effectively masking the Islamic Republic’s increasing control over the Middle East.
Tehran coordinates and provides a wide array of support and aid to its proxies, mainly through the IRGC-QF and its commander, Qassem Suleimani. It seems important, then, to recall that the U.S. Treasury Department has designated the IRGC-QF and its commander for activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism, accusing the Quds Force in 2007 of providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist groups. The Justice Department cited the group as “conduct[ing] sensitive covert operations abroad, including terrorist attacks, assassinations and kidnappings, and is believed to sponsor attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq.”
To understand the nature and danger of Iran’s ever-multiplying proxies, one must understand their ideology: Most are Shi’a Islamists who adhere to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s extremist concept of “Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih” (Guardianship of the Jurist), which maintains that all issues, including the governance of a country, must be in the hands of the Jurisprudent Ruler, who is the vicar of the Awaited Mahdi. In many ways at odds with traditional Shi’a jurisprudence—which emphasized political quietism—Khomeini’s innovated ideology declared Islamic jurists to be the only true source of religious and political authority. Their pronouncements must be obeyed “as an expression of obedience to God,” and their rule takes “precedence over all secondary ordinances [of Islam] such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage.”
As the spiritual father of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini was the first to hold the post of Rahbar (Supreme Leader), and since his death in 1989, his worldview and political thought made their way into Iran’s post-Revolutionary constitution, and have continued to hold sway over the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign policies. Indeed, politicians like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current Rahbar, strive to adhere to his teachings as much as possible in their decision-making.
Hatred of the West and combating its various founding ideologies—capitalism, secularism, communism, and Zionism—was integral to Khomeini’s ideology, who considered “export[ing] our Revolution to the whole world” one of “the great goals of the revolution,” for the purpose of “establishing the Islamic state world-wide.” And until such time when the world submitted Iran’s Revolutionary twist on Islam, “there will be struggle.”
Khomeini singled out the United States for special opprobrium. This was a theme he constantly preached over the course of his religious and political career, expressing his hope and confidence that, “The Iranian people…will keep alive in their hearts anger and hatred for…the warmongering United States. This must be until the banner of Islam flies over every house in the world.” America received this place of dubious honor in Khomeini’s worldview because he considered it the “foremost enemy of Islam” and “a terrorist state by nature that has set fire to everything everywhere….Oppression of Muslim nations is the work of the United States.”
Ayatollah Khamenei has not abandoned his predecessor’s ideological path, and over the past three decades—first as president and then as Supreme Leader—he has expressed his contempt for the U.S. with remarkable consistency. Many, though not all, of his closest confidantes have claimed that this is an outgrowth of his adherence to Khomeini’s belief that the Islamic Republic and the United States can only have a relationship akin to that between “a wolf and a sheep,” with Khamenei emphasizing that “the conflict and confrontation between the two is something natural and unavoidable.” This, he believes, is because Washington is intrinsically hostile to Iran due to “the Islamic identity of our system.” Any other issue on which America expresses opposition to Iran—Iran’s nuclear ambitions, hostility toward Israel, and support for Hezbollah—are simply excuses for America to further its anti-Islamic goals.
Therefore, he thinks Iran “needs enmity with the United States” in order to prevent America’s supposedly corrupting influence and lax morals from seeping into the country and weakening the Islamic Revolution. In fact, he rarely misses an opportunity to express the Iranian regime’s unyielding opposition to “Global Arrogance,” his favorite term for the United States, only slightly less damning of a title than Khomeini’s “Great Satan” label. And so, at a time when Khamenei was willing to entertain former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s efforts to improve Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors and European countries, he was rigidly opposed to any such rapprochement with the United States, an intransigence based on Khamenei’s belief that combating America’s influence, specifically, was one of the primary goals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
This overt hostility is not confined to the current Supreme Leader and his predecessor—who hold absolute authority over any government—but has become ubiquitous among Iranian government officials. Even a touted “moderate” like President Hassan Rouhani—who would not have his post unless he were completely loyal to the Islamic Revolution’s ideals—has said, “Saying ‘death to America’ is easy. We need to express ‘death to America’ with action.” These views have been echoed repeatedly by members of Rouhani’s cabinet.
In short, Iran’s anti-Western animosity and enmity—particularly focused against the United States and Israel—is a critical component of the Islamic Republic’s political culture and policies. Its Shi’a proxies, which by and large have sworn fealty to the Iranian Supreme Leader, echo the views of the man whose words they view as, in essence, the vicarious and infallible word of God.
Iran’s Revolution led to an “awakening” of Shi’a Muslims worldwide, hijacking the traditionally politically quietist religious sect and injecting a militancy into its theology, imbuing it with temporal demands. As such, Iran has spawned numerous Shi’a proxies across the Arab and Muslim world.
Perhaps the most striking example of this turn from quietism is Yemen’s Ansarullah, better known as the Houthis, currently the country’s de facto rulers. The Houthis differ from most of Iran’s other Shi’a proxies in the nuances of their theological history. Yet they are now acting at the behest of Iran – causing panic in neighboring Saudi Arabia – and their banner carries the same “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” slogans regularly chanted by the Tehran regime’s loyalists in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq. Despite their shared enmity with the United States towards Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Houthis held an uncompromising opposition to the government’s alliance with the United States.
Though there is no public evidence of the Houthis espousing adherence to Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, the group’s founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, spent considerable time in Iran. There he was influenced by the Khomeinist theology, believing that the Iranian model could be applied in Yemen as well. Iranian officials have confirmed these ties, which includes financial and military support for the Houthis, with a senior Iranian official saying that the Quds Force even placed “a few hundred” members in Yemen to train the Houthis. When the Houthis overran Sana’a, Iranian officials boasted that Yemen’s capital was now in Iran’s possession.
But while the Houthis have made the most recent noise, Iran has been using proxies to dominate other countries since the 1980s. Lebanese militia-cum-political party Hezbollah remains the most successful and most prominent Iranian revolutionary export. Indeed, Gilbert Achcar of the University of London has called it “the most prestigious member of the regional family of Khomeinism.” The Lebanon-based terrorist group is cut from the same ideological cloth as the Islamic Republic, which, according to former CIA intelligence analyst Kenneth Pollack, is Hezbollah’s model and inspiration. Eitan Azani, the deputy executive director of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, has said that Khomeini and his successors serve as Hezbollah’s ultimate source of religious, political, and ideological guidance and authority. Hezbollah fully accepts the concept of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, and openly acknowledges Khomeini as its faqih, leading Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University to call Khomeini Hezbollah’s “undisputed, authoritative leader.”
Hezbollah itself acknowledged this fact in their 1985 Open Letter, stating, “We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih, who fulfills all of the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini.” With the death of Khomeini, Hezbollah did not end its submission to Iranian authority, but reaffirmed its allegiance to the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself declared in May of 2008 that he was “proud of being a member of the Wilayat al-Faqih party.”
Hezbollah’s connection to Iran is not limited to professions of ideological fealty. In his book Deadly Connections, Daniel Byman, Research Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, notes that Hezbollah does not only accept the concept of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih in a general sense, but also subscribes to Iran’s particular worldview and its enmity toward the United States and Israel. Hezbollah’s implementation of its Islamist strategy is closely linked to Iran’s policy of exporting the Islamic Revolution abroad while consolidating and expanding it at home. In effect, this makes Hezbollah an arm of Iranian foreign policy. Indeed, Hezbollah has repeatedly fought wars that, in effect, solely benefited Iran. Whether combatting Israel, participating in the Syrian civil war, or sending its militants to Iraq, Hezbollah is at the service of its masters, often at the expense of its own, or Lebanon’s, interests.
Hezbollah is unquestionably the most prominent Iranian proxy on the international scene, having carried out a series of attacks abroad through what Matthew Levitt, Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has called “Hezbollah’s international terrorist wing.” Known alternatively as the Islamic Jihad Organization or External Services Organization, it has received strong support from the IRGC and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. But perhaps the most telling example of the close relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is that Hezbollah has also operated within Iran itself, reportedly helping the regime to crush internal dissent. Indeed, Hezbollah sent approximately 5,000 of its fighters to participate in the suppression of the “Green Revolution” in 2009.
But while Hezbollah has been the most famous Iranian proxy, Tehran has also established a number of loyal militias in neighboring Iraq—to the point where (with the exception of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north) the entire country’s security infrastructure has come under the sway or even direct control of Tehran. The Badr Organization, which, like Hezbollah, has molded itself into a political party while retaining its military capabilities, is probably the most prominent. Indeed, it is particularly telling that the logo of Badr’s military wing is almost identical to that of the IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Iranian terrorist franchises.
The Badr Organization was formed in November of 1982—shortly after the Iran-Iraq War broke out—as the Badr Brigades, the military wing of an Iran-based Shi’a Islamist party called the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Badr was comprised of defectors from the Iraqi army who fled to Iran and joined SCIRI, and were originally recruited, trained, and equipped by the IRGC. Badr fought on the side of Iran during the war, and its current leader, the unabashedly pro-Iranian Hadi al-Amiri, was among its ranks. After the war ended, Badr participated in the uprisings against Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s, during which, according to al-Amiri, the group received Iranian support just as “Iran supports Iraq now.”
Al-Amiri, now Iraq’s Transportation Minister, makes no secret of his loyalty to Iran, and has openly stated, “I believe in the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih, the Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih, as it currently exists in Iran.” He has been photographed with Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani on multiple occasions, and has called Suleimani his “dearest friend.”
Another prominent Iranian proxy is Kata’ib Hezbollah (KHA). Established in 2003, it is an offshoot of the “Special Groups”—Iranian-backed elements of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army—though it is now an entirely separate entity. It is a designated foreign terrorist organization, and receives funding and training, as well as logistic and military support, from IRGC-QF and Hezbollah. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to the IRGC-QF’s commander Qassem Suleimani, is known to be one of the group’s senior leaders, and has been designated by the Treasury Department as posing a “threat to the stability of Iraq,” which said that al-Muhandis and KHA “have committed, directed, supported, or posed a significant risk of committing acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.” Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, has noted that KHA is “firmly under IRGC-Quds Force control.” Like the aforementioned groups, KHA espouses the Khomeinist ideology of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih.
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