Iran is facing major challenges to its position as a regional power. Economic problems brought about by mismanagement and corruption and increased by U.S. sanctions have made funding its network of proxy forces difficult. This has led to increasingly disruptive protests in Lebanon as well.
The recent U.S. killing of that network’s architect Qassim Soleimani has added to the disruption. It seems Iran’s goal of dominating the Middle East has eluded it.
Since the revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ruling theocracy has long sought the role of hegemon in the Middle East, not openly but clearly. Proxy armies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and in the Palestinian territories have been the main weapon which has allowed Iran a certain level of deniability to this effort. But the sheer amount of resources and energy put into these elements of Iranian influence shows its importance.
One particular thrust is worth a deeper look: Iranian efforts in the last fifteen years to solidify control of the Shi’a majority areas in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The King of Jordan warned in 2004 of an emerging “Shiite crescent” in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Iraq felt a strong increase in Iranian influence after the American drawdown began under President Obama in 2009. Lebanon has always felt the touch of the mullahs through Hezbollah and that power has grown over the past decade as well. Since then the civil war in Syria and relative weakness of Hafez al-Assad’s rule in Syria allowed it to fall into Tehran’s orbit as well.
The “Shia Crescent” was dealt a heavy blow with the killing of Qassem Soleimani – the architect of Iran’s supremacist goals as well as the puppet master of its terror proxies.
“The ability to smooth out conflicts between these organizations and hold them together is a quality that will be extremely hard to replace. It is a quality that was built upon his personal relationships with all of the leaders of these organizations, not merely upon Iranian cash or power. It was built on his willingness to stand under fire with them, to be there on the front lines with them, as well as his ability to bend their competitor organizations.”
Iran’s efforts all across the region are now in jeopardy and it remains to be seen if they can regain their momentum, especially given the “maximum pressure” sanctions led by the United States.
Stepping back in time a bit, this supremacist arm of the Islamic Republic of Iran grew out of Ayatollah Khomeini’s creation of a new role for Islamic jurists in Twelver Shi’a Islam. Previously a more “quietist” interpretation saw religious leaders as caretakers serving in wait for the return of the 12th or Hidden Imam, also known as the Mahdi. In the initial years after the revolution Khomeini carved out a much more adventurous role for them as active implementers of his will in his absence.
As scholar Hillel Fradkin put it in 2009, “Khomeini asserted that the achievement of the goals of Islamic governance implied a duty on the part of those competent and able—that is the jurists—to direct and pursue this end… It thus afforded these jurists an independence and flexibility that derived from the absence of the direct rule of the Hidden Imam, and was meant to ameliorate that situation.”
This empowered Khomeini as Supreme Leader to act on behalf of the Mahdi and build a state based on creating conditions for the return of the 12th Imam and his rule over the entire world.
This also led to an expansion of the goals of the revolution beyond Iran and the creation of an Islamic Republic, with support for this ongoing revolution written into its DNA. To cite
the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
In accordance with the sacred verse of the Qur’an “This your community is a single community, and I am your Lord, so worship Me” [ 21:92 ]), all Muslims form a single nation, and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of formulating its general policies with a view to cultivating the friendship and unity of all Muslim peoples, and it must constantly strive to bring about the political, economic, and cultural unity of the Islamic world.
The army was formed with specific guidance that its purpose was to serve the Islamic Revolution (and by extension the people or nation of Iran come second).
The Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran must be an Islamic Army, i.e., committed to Islamic ideology and the people, and must recruit into its service individuals who have faith in the objectives of the Islamic Revolution and are devoted to the cause of realizing its goals.
This was especially true of the units Soleimani served in and commanded, the Quds Force, the international wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Their mission was to use unconventional warfare, including terrorism, to further the goals of the revolution. And this drove their efforts to create Shi’a forces wherever there were enough co-believers to gain a foothold.
This obviously put them in conflict with the Sunni countries in the region who quite fairly saw a rising Shi’a Army across many borders as a serious threat, especially when paired with the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
In 2005, King Abdullah clarified his statement about a Shi’a Crescent to say he was describing a political and potentially military threat, not a religious one.
The so-called issue of “the crescent” was taken out of context and blown out of proportion. My concern is political, not religious, revolving around Iran, Iran’s political involvement inside Iraq, its relation with Syria and Hezbollah, and the strengthening of this political-strategic alliance. This would create a scenario where you have these four [Iran, Iran-influenced Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah] who have a strategic objective that could create a major conflict.
But it doesn’t seem likely Iran’s leaders shared that sentiment. They believed they would pave the way for the return of the Hidden Imam by resisting and vanquishing enemies of the revolution. The United States and Israel served a major role as enemies being known as the Great and Little Satans, but the Sunni majority in the region were a danger as well.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served as President of Iran from 2005 until 2013, was very tightly identified with the belief that the Republic’s purpose was to further the revolution and create conditions suitable for the return of the Mahdi. He allocated $17 million to a Qom mosque that is by tradition a special place to communicate with the Mahdi.
Solidifying an armed and militant Shi’a force was a direct result of this belief. It led to Iran’s massive investments in Hezbollah which U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo says has been as much as $700 million annually. Perhaps as many as 10,000 Hezbollah fighters have been sent to Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 to buttress IRGC investment in the government of Hafez al-Assad.
This conviction also led to IRGC infiltration and control of the Hashd al-Shaabi militias or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), initially formed to fight ISIS in Iraq by Soleimani and the IRGC from the local Shia communities.
Much of this malign activity by Iran was supposed to end as a by product of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commonly known as the Iran deal. President Obama believed that he could both control Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons and bring it into the community of nations with this effort. He was unrealistically optimistic and flaws in the deal were evident. Far from slowing Iran’s efforts at regional domination, it accelerated them because the regime used the cash the U.S. sent to pay and equip its proxy armies and launched them on ever more ambitious missions.
During the end of Obama’s second term in 2014-15, these combined efforts seemed to be bearing fruit and even saw Iranian-controlled militias partnered with the U.S.in counter-ISIS operations. Iran’s dream of a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean seemed a distinct possibility until 2016. But Donald Trump was elected and the laissez-faire approach to Iranian malign actions practiced by the Obama administration left when President Obama did.
Maintaining a widespread proxy empire is expensive. In October 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would no longer certify Iran’s compliance with the deal, leading to fully withdrawing from it in May 2018. The many financial opportunities opened for the regime by the Iran deal disappeared with these actions. The U.S. also began to apply a steadily increasing set of sanctions designed to hurt Iran’s ability to continue its efforts to expand influence and finish the Shi’a Crescent.
Throughout 2017-18, these U.S. sanctions began to be applied more directly to senior members of the regime and eventually to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps itself which the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated as a terror group in October 2017.
“OFAC designated the IRGC today for its activities in support of the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), which was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 on October 25, 2007, for providing support to a number of terrorist groups, including Hizballah and Hamas, as well as to the Taliban.”
The sanctions package was called “maximum pressure” by the U.S. State Department and now included the military forces of the IRGC as well as large numbers of the many businesses it owns and controls to support its operations directly and move funds. These combined with an increasing squeeze on many other regime activities was causing serious financial distress by the end of 2017.”
The regime’s difficulties increased when protests began in December of 2017. First in Mashhad and then in more than 20 cities in multiple parts of Iran, people took to the streets over the depressed economic conditions, high prices of food staples like eggs, and corruption of the regime itself. The people were suffering and they held the government responsible. The supposedly pious leaders of the Islamic Republic were living lives of luxury while the people struggled to survive.
The Iran deal had been sold to Iranian citizens as a panacea for their isolation and economic woes. They would rejoin the community of nations and benefit from a return of trade and prosperity. The Iranian government attempted to blame the Trump Administration when it withdrew. But no benefits had come to the people in the two years since the deal, and they could see their leaders were spending on guns and rockets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon not eggs and butter for the hungry people back home.
This made continuing the course of foreign adventurism increasingly fraught for the regime. As financial difficulties brought on by the sanctions and economic mismanagement grew in 2018, they had little hard currency available to pay the fighters of their proxy forces who were doing the actual on- the-ground empire-building. And the demands of the protesters at home continued to include calls for an end to these costly distractions. The pressure on the regime was mounting and they began to use their proxies in increasingly dangerous ways.
In 2017, the regime saw the Houthi insurgency in Yemen as worth supporting. While not part of a Shi’a Crescent proper, they share a border with the Saudis and also are in a position to menace shipping through the Bab al Mandeb strait. The IRGC began supplying them with higher quality weapons including sophisticated missiles and these were used against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE with assistance from, or simply operated by, IRGC personnel.
As their involvement in Syria’s civil war grew from 2012 onward, Iran had also been pushing Quds Force elements far into Syria near Israel. Part of the usefulness of a land bridge from Tehran to Syria and Lebanon was the ability to supply military equipment including rockets, drones and missiles to Hezbollah and other Iranian elements to menace and attack Israel. This was obviously not acceptable to the Israelis and they began hitting back at IRGC forward bases and depots directly throughout 2018 and into 2019.
Meanwhile, Iran had gained tremendous influence on the Assad government with Qassem Soleimani leading this effort. Iran has spent billions of dollars in Syria and fielded thousands of IRGC forces as well as helping Assad recruit and field more than one hundred thousand foreign fighters. The IRGC-controlled elements joined forces with the Syrian military and not only stemmed the tide of anti-Assad forces but won back considerable territory from the rebels in 2016-17. This came at a high cost with the IRGC losing more than 2,000 of its own troops in fighting in Syria and Iraq.
In 2018, the United States was also working to convince the Iraqi government that many elements of the Hash’d al Shaabi (PMF), were influenced by Iran and in some cases even had primary allegiance to Qassem Soleimani and Iran. With ISIS defeated, the United States and some like-minded Iraqi nationalists attempted to get the PMF demobilized and to stop their insinuation onto Iraqi politics. Some measures were put in place to do this and PMF leaders publicly agreed to stop political activities but that was mostly talk as their efforts to increase Iranian influence continued.
The Iraqi Prime Minister even ordered the PMF militias to integrate into the Iraqi military or be considered illegitimate. A senior U.S. State Department official working on this effort said off the record that while this was risky the plan was to first move PMF units with little to no Iranian affiliation into the Iraqi military and then eventually isolate the organizations owned and operated by the IRGC. These efforts and Iran’s need to use their proxies seem to have been part of the impetus for the series of attacks on joint Iraqi/U.S. bases in late 2019 that led to the death of an American contractor on December 27, 2019 and the subsequent U.S. and Iranian strikes.
This fighting between others on Iraqi soil seems to have hardened the views of Iraqi nationalists – whether Shia or Sunni – that foreign influence in their country is a problem they must fix. The wave of protests that swept across Iraq in fall 2019 were driven by multiple factors including jobs and the economy, but there was a very large anti-Iranian sentiment as well. The Iranian consulate in Najaf was burned on November 27. This current increased as the protests went on, as many of the forces used against the protesters were Iranian-tied and in some cases actual IRGC troops.
The death of Soleimani was a catalyzing factor for anti-Iranian sentiment across the region. He was rightly seen as the face of the effort to put Iran in control, and opposition movements in the countries of the desired Shi’a crescent have been emboldened. In addition, the protesters in Iran have seen his demise as a sign the regime is not invulnerable and have continued to push for reform and even removal of the regime.
In Syria the vacuum left by Soleimani’s absence has set off power struggles, but it seems unlikely there will be anywhere near the same level of coherent control and joint purpose under his eventual replacement. Bassam Barabandi, co-founder of People Demand Change, a group that works in liberated areas of Syria, told TIJ,
First: Let us not forget that Soleimani’s project was to drive away American forces from Iraq and Syria. He was in no hurry in Syria because he was busy building the foundations to enhance the Iranian political, military, security, economic, popular, and militia influence in Syria, and he surely achieved quite a lot deal in this field.
Second: Bashar al-Assad is closer to the Iranian influence & the Iranian axis than the Russian. The new IRGC commander may be forced to compel Assad to take decisions in the coming days to prove his loyalty to Iran on the one hand and to demonstrate that the new commander is in control. This is one of the things that we should monitor in the coming days.
In Lebanon, Iran’s work to push Hezbollah into virtual control was in jeopardy even before Soleimani was eliminated, due to the country’s major financial issues. A lack of hard currency lead banks to impose informal withdrawal limits, and the four-month old protest movement has added this to its grievances.
While Iran is not directly responsible for the economic woes facing the people of Lebanon, there is still resentment of the control its puppet Hezbollah has over the country as a whole. This fuels the belief among many that Iran is using Lebanon to the disadvantage of its people. The massive deployments of Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to Syria to assist in supporting Assad lends credence to this idea that foreign adventurism is hurting the Lebanese.
The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Oct. 29, 2019 increased the chaos and made control much more difficult for Iran.
The Iranian response to the Lebanese protests has been to try to calm them. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said the Lebanese need to work together within their own system to address the grievances of their people. Given the large control Tehran exerts over those systems that is an essentially meaningless bit of advice. Iran has bought influence over too many politicians for any organic Lebanese solutions to be realistic.
The January 8 downing of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752 has led not only to international outcry but to protests in Iran continuing at the time of writing.
Protests in Iran highlight the disgust at the lies their government told initially about responsibility for this act and even now, questions about a possible second missile hitting the plane fuel discontent with the regime’s candor.
These protests also contain anger at Soleimani and the mullahs as representative of the oppression of the Iranian people and the wasted resources going toward foreign operations. Iraq and Syria also saw protests against Iran. There were even celebrations in rebel-held Idlib province when Soleimani’s death was announced.
The gains Iran made in its push to unify Shia groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon advancing the goals of the Khomeinist revolution seem to have hit a rough spot. It will be very difficult for them to regain that momentum absent its architect Soleimani and in the face of an ever-increasing U.S. sanctions squeeze. Proxies cost money and the mullahs are running on empty.