Watch Out for Iranian Imperialism in the Middle East

Romy Haber | @romyjournalist

The world has taken a hypocritical stance on Iran. We ask what American drones are doing over 7,500 miles away from US territory on a regular basis. Yet, we fail to ask an equally important question: what are Iranian weapons doing in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Gaza, and Iraq? Why are we so quick to condemn American imperialism, but often disregard the hypocrisy of those who claim to fight it?

Iran’s complaints about American imperialism are a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black. They do so merely to legitimize their own interventions and to portray themselves as the hero fighting American exploitation and Zionism. In reality, Iran’s interests go further than that.

Iranian Influence in the Yemeni Civil War

The Islamic Republic of Iran fueled the militancy of Shias in the Middle East and politicized them to spread its influence.

In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthis rebels who chant, “Death to America! Death to the Jews! Victory to Islam!” They echo the revolutionary discourses of Khomeini in a country almost fully divided between Sunnis and Shias.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthis movement, has declared his admiration for the leader of Iran, stating “Imam Khomeini wanted to free Muslims from western hegemony… he was a fair imam… and we do not decline the calling of a just imam, as stated in the hadeeth…”

Iran makes sure to provide them with weapons and the military training they need. This includes strategic planning, politics, and some special weapons training. A Sunni tribal leader in northern Jawf Province, Abdullah al-Jumaili, said, “We don’t even call them the ‘Houthis’ anymore. We refer to them as ‘the followers of Iran.’ ”

An Intervention in Iraq

In Iraq, Iran-backed militias are not only terrorizing citizens. They also attack Iraq’s most important investors: oil companies. Meanwhile, Tehran is benefiting from its longstanding political, military and financial investments in Iraq.

The Badr Organization, Iran’s oldest proxy in Iraq and one of the most powerful Shiite militias, has infiltrated the government; its leaders hold cabinet positions and its forces became the largest faction within state security forces, particularly the police. Amiri, the commander of the Badr organization described Khomeini as “the leader not only for Iranians but the Islamic nation.”

Kataib Hezbollah is another dangerous Iranian-sponsored anti-American Shiite militia. Its members are natural adherents of the doctrine created by Khomeini. The same applies to Asaib Ahl el Haq (AAH); Iraqi intelligence reported that Iran provides AAH with more than $2 million a month. They also established political offices and religious schools.

Iraqi Militias

Iran sponsors many groups and militias in Iraq and has a lot of control over Iraq’s economy, politics, and information domains. It influences elections by funding its candidates and television channels like Al Alam, one of the first channels to reach Iraqi homes as Saddam’s regime collapsed. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting runs the station and makes sure its content fits the regime’s views and goals.

In 2006, The Iraqi daily As-Safir described the mullahs’ intention of acquiring nuclear weapons as an expansionist desire to establish a reactionary empire in the region. On March 8, 2015, Ali Younesi, advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and previously intelligence minister (2000-2005) said, “Iran is an Empire, Iraq is not merely a sphere of cultural influence for us; it is also capital…we are protecting the interests of [all] the people in the region -because they are all Iran’s people… Iranian Islam is Pure Islam… We must try to once again spread the banner of Islamic-Iranian unity and peace in the region.”

Iranian Influence Goes West

Iran’s strategic expansionism has reached Lebanon. The small country has suffered a lot from foreign interventions and is now stuck between Iran’s claws via Hezbollah.

Hezbollah declared its loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the introductory statement back in 1985. “We are the sons of the umma(Muslim community)—of the party of God (Hezbollah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. … We obey the orders of one leader… that of our tutor and faqih [i.e., Ayatollah Khomeini].”

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, always makes sure to remind Lebanese people in his speeches that a war against Iran is a war against the whole region. This is just another way of proving that he is very loyal to Iran. This year, like every year during the Ashura commemorations, he borrowed expressions from the Karbala tragedy to glorify Khomeini. “We won’t abandon the Vali-e Faqih (Khamenei)… I tell you today that the ‘Hussein’ of this era is Imam Ali Khameini.” He confirmed that he will be fighting under his leadership.

One cannot deny the fact Hassan Nasrallah is probably Iran’s best propagandist; he masters the art of manipulation, claiming to protect Lebanon from Zionism. Without “Israel being the biggest threat to Lebanon”, it is hard to convince Lebanese people that they need an Iranian militia, or what they call “the resistance”.

Hezbollah: An Iranian Fighting Force

Hezbollah is not only a military force but a political one too. With its allies, Hezbollah now controls a majority in Lebanon’s parliament. It dominates the country’s domestic and foreign policy and also has control over both the airport and port of Beirut; they are using them to facilitate the smuggling of drugs and weapons. But they also use it to allow pro-Iranian fighters to cross into countries. In fact, Iranian passports are no longer stamped in Lebanon.

Many Lebanese are calling for an end to what they consider “The Iranian occupation”. Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel said: “It is as if the state’s duties have become limited to the management of the citizens’ affairs only, today, the political decision-making power is in the hands of Hezbollah which, unfortunately, is being allowed to act as it pleases.”

And thanks to Iranian money, Hezbollah has also created its own parallel institutions; Hezbollah-run schools indoctrinate Shiite youth while its network of social services provides Shiite citizens with health care, utilities, groceries, and construction services.

The Cooperative Lebanese Military

One shouldn’t underestimate the Hezbollah-Lebanese army complicity that is growing day after day, despite the fact that Hezbollah undermines the Lebanese military. One side completely opposes Hezbollah and believes that the Lebanese army is the sole legitimate protector of Lebanon. However, many others are trying to promote cooperation between the two. Recently, MP Chamel Roukoz, the oldest commander of the Rangers Regiment tweeted: “No one can start a clash between the resistance and the army and there is a division of roles between them.”

We cannot tell if he said that because he truly believes that Hezbollah works for the interests of Lebanon or if it was to feed his own political interests. The latter is the case for many of Hezbollah’s allies.

Hezbollah is not only a threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty but also to its security. If Hezbollah decides to go to war against Israel, it will destroy Lebanon like it destroyed the south of Lebanon in 2006, if not more. If one dares to question Hezbollah, he faces accusations of treasonous “Zionism” or faces silencing.

Recently the Editor-in-Chief and the responsible director of daily Nidaa Al Watan were summoned over a front-page headline that read: “Welcome to the Republic of Khamenei”

Hezbollah is no longer a state within the state; it is a state above the state or even a state within a non-state.

Iranian Alliance with Syria

Iran has also invested a lot in Syria, Tehran’s only consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

There’s a tactical-cum-strategic partnership between the two authoritarian regimes: In 1979, Syrian president Hafez El Assad supported the government change in Tehran, and Syria supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq war; one event we should remember is when 20% of Iraq’s air force was destroyed in April 1981 because Syria facilitated the Iranian airstrike. But most importantly, Syria offers a conduit for Iranian arms deliveries; they call it the land bridge or land corridor of resistance.

“Syria is the thirty-fifth province and a strategic province for us…if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran” Said Cleric Hojjat Al-Eslam Mehdi Taeb.

“The chain of resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway…Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel,” noted Ali Akbar Velayati, Senior Advisor for Foreign Affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader in January 2012.

Military Aid

Iran supports Syria by offering military aid and intelligence training. Moreover, they create strong paramilitary groups to aid Syrian government forces. This includes Liwa Abu Fadl Al-Abbas (LAFA), perhaps the most important Iranian proxy in Syria. Over time, the military presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has increased. Many other Iranian proxies are also heavily involved in Syria like Hezbollah and Haraket El Abdal.

Furthermore, Iran lured Afghans and Pakistani Shias to fight in Syria; with monetary and ideological incentives, it was able to bring thousands of them.

Iran also helped Syria expand its chemical weapons arsenal by providing equipment, technical training and by deploying Iranian scientists. In other words, Iran provided the regime what it needed to quell the protests and survive; when you depend on another regime to protect you, that regime controls you.

On top of that, they are now working on establishing a joint bank: the cherry on the top.

False Cries of Anti-imperialism

In 2014, Tehran MP and a close aide to Iranian supreme religious leader Ali Khameini, Ali Reza Zakani said: “Iran controls four capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa.”

Iran has also long pledged military and financial support for Palestinian groups, reportedly $30 million annually. It has provided advanced military training for thousands of Hamas activists at revolutionary guard bases in Iran and Lebanon but stopped supporting Hamas when it backed President Bashar al Assad.

Nonetheless, the government of Iran is still using the Palestinian cause as an ideological battleground to fortify its regional presence and hegemony. What better way to appeal to Arab and Muslim sentiments than to oppose Israel? We can add to that Iran’s pan-Islamic orientation.

Simply put, Iran presents itself as anti-imperialistic; it doesn’t deploy massive armies to conquer countries but it uses proxies and adopts new names to mask its increasing control over the Middle East. We could be witnessing the birth of a Persian empire.

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