November 2017

By James Le Grice

This article is a contribution from our UK network partner firm Four Communications based in London.

As the bombs fade and the dust settles in Syria and Iraq, one clear winner emerges: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the past six years of conflict, Iran has moved from isolated pariah to Middle East power broker. It has made dependents out of allies and turned proxy militias into powerful armies. Most importantly for the regime, it is now in its strongest position yet to fulfil the Ayatollah Khomeini’s dream of exporting the Iranian revolution. The Saudi-led attempt to counter this may unwittingly give Iran the help it needs.

Iraq and Syria are witnessing a repeat of 1980s Lebanon, when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) created Hezbollah as a militia to fight Israeli occupation forces. Hezbollah long out-served its initial purpose, going on to become both an armed and political faction operating its own welfare state within a state, and eventually became the kingmaker in Lebanese politics.

Militias created by the IRGC in Iraq, notably the Badr Organisation, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, were legitimised as part of a coalition to reclaim territory from ISIS. This vastly increased the political power of their leaders, giving them free reign over whole territories. It also entitled the militias to public funding and, according to some eyewitnesses, sophisticated American weapons intended for the Iraqi army. Most recently, the IRGC and affiliated militias played a lead role in seizing the oil rich Kirkuk region from Kurdish forces following the Kurdistan Regional Government’s failed bid for independence. 

Now that the fighting is drawing down, militia leaders have made clear they’re not going anywhere, and are looking towards the 2018 Iraqi Parliament elections to consolidate their military power with firm political authority – much like Hezbollah.

In Syria, the Assad regime may have been saved by Russia in the air, but it was Iranian-linked militias that saved it on the ground. Hezbollah was swift to Assad’s aid, significantly expanding its missile capabilities in the process, and the IRGC organised thousands of Shia Islamists from across the Arab world and South Asia to come to Syria and fight the various rebel factions. These militias have been accused of instigating demographic change in Syria to shore up a pro-Iranian support base.

The question now is how will Iran use its expanded influence in the region?

The Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, had lofty visions of exporting his revolution and creating a new Islamic order with Iran at its core. This was never something he was able to achieve on a wide scale in his own lifetime, and the regime has always been restricted in some way since. However, lack of ability does not mean lack of ambition. Iran’s Supreme Leader, President and IRGC commanders are all Khomeini’s protégés and co-revolutionaries. They’ve devoted their lives to upholding the 1979 revolution and their commitment to Khomeini’s ideals shouldn’t be underestimated.

Iran’s tactical gains in Iraq and Syria certainly give it a firmer foundation to deliver its ideological ambitions. As a first step this could mean pressuring the Iraqi government into taking an anti-American position – driving out its military and economic presence. It could also mean pressuring the Syrian regime away from its secular outlook, and using military bases in Syria and Iraq to train other Iran-linked paramilitary groups active in Bahrain, Yemen and Palestine.

But fully exporting the revolution requires winning hearts and minds on a level that Iran still struggles with. Its ideology is rejected by the majority of Shia Muslims let alone Sunnis, and most Arabs wound not take kindly to being subjugated by Persians.

Indeed, there are signs that Iran’s gains in the Arab world are heralding a new era of Arab nationalism. In the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation speech last Saturday, he ominously warned Iran that the Arab world ‘will rise again and the hands that you have wickedly extended into it will be cut off’.

Ironically, a new wave of Arab nationalism may actually help Iran’s ambitions, not least because of the way it is being led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has sought to cow Iran through projection of military and economic power in the Arab World. MBS masterminded Saudi Arabia’s escalation of the war against the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen, and pushed a hard line against Qatar – accused of supporting Iran.

Under MBS’ direction, Saudi Arabia has made overtures within Iran’s traditional spheres of influence, launching a joint trade council with Iraq this year and even reaching out to the populist Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

On the home front, MBS has made absolutely clear who’s in charge. This includes taking on the powerful religious establishment, and in the latest move, purging the Government of his rivals within the royal family – arresting some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential men.

These power projections may be intended to tell the Arab world that MBS can be the strongman against Iran, but they play conveniently into the paradigm Iran seeks to create. The essence of Iran’s revolutionary ideology is the story of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. As the tale goes, Hussein was a pious and humble man who led an uprising against that the powerful Caliph Yazid. Hussein believed Yazid a tyrant who had abandoned Islamic morals for worldly abundance. Hussein and his followers, though vastly outmatched by Yazid’s army, fought to overthrow the caliph and restore what they believed to be true Islam, but were martyred at the battle of Karbala.

To the Ayatollah Khomeini, Hussein was the ultimate source of emulation, and was what he aspired for Iran to be – the pious yet humble leader of resistance against the powerful and morally corrupt. To him, every day was Karbala and the role of Yazid was interchangeable between the Shah, Saddam Hussein, the US and Israel amongst others.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran has a much more convincing Yazid to its Hussein. Yazid after all claimed Islamic leadership, which the Saudi monarchy also does as ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. This claim merely invites criticism of their religious credentials. Every image of a Saudi missile decimating a market filled with Yemeni civilians, every display of wealth by Saudi royals, and every Instagram post of a Saudi prince partying in a London club is fuel for Iran’s propaganda machine and helps it fulfill the image it desperately seeks for itself.

However, the bigger reason that Saudi-led Arab nationalism could backfire is that for the first time ever, Arab nationalists will find themselves on the same side as Israel. If violence broke out between Israel and Hamas or Hezbollah, which Iran could easily instigate, Arab public opinion would be conflicted and would likely swing to the side of whoever is fighting Israel.

This has worked in Iran’s favour before. When Hezbollah went to war with Israel in 2006, it achieved heroic status amongst Shia, Sunnis and Christians alike throughout the Arab world. Only one year previously, there had been mass protests in Lebanon demanding Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Iran has been laying the propaganda groundwork for this scenario since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The consistent line coming out of Iran has been that the Syrian conflict was caused by a Zionist/American plot to break the Islamic resistance against Israel and enable an Israeli takeover of the Middle East. ISIS, Iranian propaganda claims, was created by Mossad, funded by Saudi Arabia and used as a pretext for the US to reoccupy Iraq. The message to Shia militia fighters has also been clear: ‘next stop is Jerusalem’. If conflict breaks out with Israel, Iran is well prepared to sway perceptions in the propaganda war.

Rather than turning to Arab nationalism to counter Iran’s revolutionary ambitions, there may be more luck in encouraging Persian nationalism. Iran is an ancient civilization, and its people have much pride in its long heritage, of which the current revolutionary regime forms only a very brief episode. In many ways Khomeini’s Islamic revolution hijacked a more deep-seated democratic nationalist uprising.

These elements have bubbled to the surface again in recent years and with the right encouragement could return with vigour to finish Iran’s original revolution.