IRGC Proxy Groups
|BAHRAIN||100 ??||Al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB)|
|IRAN||..||Followers of the Party of God / Ansar-i Hizbullah|
|IRAQ||..||Iraq Ministry of Interior|
|100,000||Popular Mobilization Forces|
|10,000||Kata’ib Hezbollah / Saraya al-Difaa al-Shaabi|
|10,000||Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)|
|NIGERIA||50,000 ?||Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN)|
|PALESTINE||1,000||Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ)|
|800||PFLP Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine|
|500 ??||PFLP - General Command (PFLP-GC)|
|25,000||HAMAS (Islamic Resistance Movement)|
Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamia
|SAUDI ARABIA||100 ??||Saudi Hezbollah / Hezbollah al-Hejaz|
|SYRIA||100,000||Syrian National Defense Force|
|YEMEN||100,000||Houthi / Shabab al-Moumineen|
|WEST SAHARA||7,000||Frente Polisario|
Few states in the modern era have placed the development and sustainment of proxy forces more central in their defensive strategies as has the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Iran provides significant financial support to its proxies in the region. Lebanese Hezbollah receives some $700 million a year from Iran, according to a 2019 US estimate cited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. US Ambassador Nathan Sales, a coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, has said that Iran gives up to $100 million annually to “Palestinian terrorist groups.” The U.S. State Department said in 2018 that the Iranian establishment has spent "$16 billion propping up the Assad regime and supporting its other partners and proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen since 2012."
Ali Fadavi, the deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said in an interview on state TV channel Ofogh on 26 September 2020, said Iran had spent $19.6 billion on the 1980-1988 war with Iraq while adding that the cost for Iran's regional policies -- on such things as proxy armies and military aid in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen -- was less than that. He added he could not remember the precise amount. Fadavi, the second most senior commander in the IRGC, said those billions were insignificant compared to what Iran had gained in the region. "From the beginning when we got involved in the [so-called] Resistance Front, how much do you think we spent? The numbers are very low, a lot less than the war but the results [have been significant]." he said. It's not possible to verify such figures due to the secrecy of most IRGC expenditures and because Iran does not reveal the cost of its support for regional proxies aimed at expanding its influence in the region and countering its rival, Saudi Arabia. The rare estimate on how much the IRGC spent supporting regimes and factions in nearby countries was far less than figures cited by other sources. Lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, for example, was quoted by Iranian media in May as saying Iran might have spent between $20 billion and $30 billion just on its involvement in Syria where Iranian-backed forces and militia have propped up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran's support for those paramilitaries, including the Lebanese Hizballah, has been a source of anger for some Iranians particularly when economic mismanagement and crippling U.S. sanctions have led to the free fall of the national currency and skyrocketing prices that make life extremely difficult for many people. During recent antiestablishment demonstrations, protesters chanted "Leave Syria, think of us," and "No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran." The chants highlight the frustration people have with Iran's support for those regional armies and the aid it provides to Syria. The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) declared in 2016 that nearly 200,000 Shia youths from across the Middle East were organized and armed under the command of the Quds Force. Iran wants to have as much influence as possible in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and then use that as a counterweight against the United States and the majority Sunni countries in the region. Iran’s growing influence in through its support of successive Shi’ite governments in Baghdad and battle-hardened Shi’ite militia is swiftly challenging the balance of power in the region.”
Some believe Iran's nonstate allies add up to some 200,000 fighters, although Tehran exerts varying degrees of control over the different groups, and the total could easily be more than twice this number. This cadre of Shi’a irregulars were drawn from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and deployed to foreign theaters such as Syria. With some 523,000 active-duty forces and another 350,000 reserves, Iran has the largest standing military in the Middle East. The active forces are comprised of 350,000 in the regular army and at least 150,000 in the IRGC, which has the most politically powerful forces in the Iranian military. The Quds Force is a divisional strength military formation” of around 17,000 to 21,000 members. Another group within the IRCG structure is the Basij militia, a paramilitary force with 90,000 active members mobilized to enforce domestic order. Also operating under the IRCG umbrella are the 20,000 service personnel in the naval forces.
One of Iran's major aspirations in the Middle East is the completion of a land bridge, or overland route, from its own borders to the Mediterranean Sea. When completed in 2018, this path covered at least 800 miles of territory, including the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the deserts of Iraq and Syria. It even reached the edge of the Golan Heights and the Israeli border. General Soleimani is responsible for the implementation of this plan and has made headway by securing numerous key strongholds along two potential routes. The success of this project would give Iran near-complete freedom of movement to transfer arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as to other proxies in the region.
Of the two planned routes, the primary one is intended to link Baghdad and Damascus, established via the southern Syrian town of al-Tanf (strategically located at the tripartite border of Iraq, Syria, and Jordan). It should be noted that Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias who fought alongside the Iraqi military against ISIS already hold positions on the highway connecting the two capitals. It is likely that Iraqi security forces positioned in al-Anbar province and along the highway will not impede Iranian or militia activity.
The second of the land bridges would be further north, linking the Mosul area of Iraq with the former-ISIS capital of a-Raqqa in Syria. To secure this area, Iran would need to deter Iraqi or Kurdish involvement.
The strategic plan to establish these land bridges could also coincide with Iran's notion to expand its naval presence beyond its shores, with routes extending from the Persian Gulf, down to the Gulf of Aden and the shores of Yemen, and up to the Syrian coast on the Mediterranean. Alongside Iran's freedom of movement and use of military and civilian airfields in Syria and Iraq, a clear blueprint emerges of a sophisticated logistic system that facilitates the "Resistance Axis" throughout the Middle East
Ground, air, and naval corridors such as these would allow Iran to further stabilize the regime in Syria, expand its economic, cultural and political power in the region, all while achieving the fundamental goal of direct Iranian access to its proxies in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen (Houthis). In this way, Iran will extend its front with Israel from southern Lebanon to the Golan Heights.
- Ansarullah (Huthis - Yemen)
- Basij (Iran)
- Hashd Shabi (PMF - Iraq)
- Hamas (Palestine)
- Hezbollah (Lebanon)
- Liwa Fatemiyoun (Afghans)
- Liwa Zainebiyoun (Pakistanis)
Iran's relationship with Al-Qaida may date to the days of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, when some of the fighters were trained in Iran and perhaps some links to Iranian elements were retained.
The more Iran became engaged in the fight inside Iraq, the more this plays to the Islamic State’s recruiting message, which is: the Iranians support the Shia government in Baghdad, the government in Baghdad is merely an Iranian stooge and the Iranians are coming to exterminate us Sunnis. This is a message that resonated with a large portion of the Sunni population in Iraq.”
The United States first exposed Iran’s assistance to the Syrian government in its violent crackdown against the Syrian population when, on April 29, 2011, President Obama identified Iran´s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Qods Force (IRGC-QF) as subject to sanctions pursuant to E.O. 13572. The IRGC-QF serves as a conduit for Iranian material support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the overarching civilian intelligence service in Syria. On May 18, 2011, Treasury imposed sanctions on two IRGC-QF senior officers, Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of the IRGC-QF, and Mohsen Chizari, a senior IRGC-QF officer who serves as the Commander of IRGC-QF Operations and Training. A little over a month later, on June 29, 2011, Treasury designated Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), which is commonly referred to as Iran’s national police. Like the IRGC-QF, the LEF provided material support to the Syrian GID; it also dispatched personnel to Damascus in April to assist the Syrian government in its efforts to suppress the Syrian people. Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam, the chief of Iran’s LEF, and Ahmad-Reza Radan, the deputy chief of Iran’s LEF were also designated at that time. In April 2011, Radan traveled to Damascus, where he met with Syrian security services and provided expertise to aid in the Syrian government's crackdown on the Syrian people.
Yemen is just one example that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries see Iran as the primary threat. “You have a proxy war going on between the Sunni states and Iran in many places in the region," said former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy. “The most pronounced or acute case right now is inside Yemen, but you’ve seen this play out in places like Bahrain, in places like Lebanon, and aspects of what’s going on in Iraq right now.”
CIA Director John Brennan admitted in March 2015 that Iran had “brought to bear a number of capabilities” in Iraq, sending advisers to work with the country’s Shi’ite militias, most notably as part of the Iraqi effort to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State.
Iran’s support, much of it through Hezbollah, was also pivotal in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has managed to cling to power despite attempts by the Islamic State to carve out an ever larger area for its self-declared caliphate and constant attacks by a variety of rebel groups.
“The [Syrian] regime’s allies have previously surged support to help avoid the Assad government’s collapse, and their interest in maintaining the viability of a long-term ally leaves little doubt they would do so again,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA 15 May 2015 on condition of anonymity. “Iran, and Syria’s other allies, will be hard-pressed to find a successor regime that will play the same role that Assad does on Iran’s behalf.”
In March 2014 Al-Jazeera broadcast the final episode in a three-year investigation of the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people. For years this was considered to be Gaddafi’s greatest crime but the documentary proved beyond reasonable doubt that the Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of carrying out the bombing, was innocent. Al-Jazeera concluded that Iran, acting through the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, ordered the blowing up of Pan Am 103 in revenge for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane by the US navy carrier in 1988.
Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2003. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security were involved in the planning of and support for terrorist acts and continued to exhort a variety of groups that use terrorism to pursue their goals.
Iran's record against al-Qaida remains mixed. After the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, some al-Qaida members fled to Iran where they have found virtual safehaven. Iranian officials have acknowledged that Tehran detained al-Qaida operatives during 2003, including senior members. Iran's publicized presentation of a list to the United Nations of deportees, however, was accompanied by a refusal to publicly identify senior members in Iranian custody on the grounds of "security." Iran has resisted calls to transfer custody of its al-Qaida detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for further interrogation and trial.
During 2003, Iran maintained a high-profile role in encouraging anti-Israeli activity, both rhetorically and operationally. Supreme Leader Khamenei praised Palestinian resistance operations, and President Khatami reiterated Iran's support for the "wronged people of Palestine" and their struggles. Matching this rhetoric with action, Iran provided Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian rejectionist groups -- notably HAMAS, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command -- with funding, safehaven, training, and weapons. Iran hosted a conference in August 2003 on the Palestinian intifadah, at which an Iranian official suggested that the continued success of the Palestinian resistance depended on suicide operations.
Iran pursued a variety of policies in Iraq aimed at securing Tehran's perceived interests there, some of which ran counter to those of the Coalition. Iran has indicated support for the Iraqi Governing Council and promised to help Iraqi reconstruction.
Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, individuals with ties to the Revolutionary Guard may have attempted to infiltrate southern Iraq, and elements of the Iranian Government have helped members of Ansar al-Islam transit and find safehaven in Iran. In a Friday Prayers sermon in Tehran in May, Guardian Council member Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati publicly encouraged Iraqis to follow the Palestinian model and participate in suicide operations against Coalition forces.
Iran is a party to five of the 12 international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism. By 2017 the Iranians viewed their proxy policy as profitable. Their investment in Hezbollah, which had been their most expensive and longest project, costing around $700 million a year, as an advanced army. Their proxies in Yemen, i.e. the Houthis, cost less as the fighter there only costs $2 a week.
Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement
By mid-2004 there was an ongoing program in Iran to recruit volunteers for martyrdom operations in Iraq. It is organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement. Some observers believe it is a media campaign, and not a real one, noting there is a difference between the media world and real world. The Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), began enrollment of volunteer suicide bombers in May 2004. Registration forms for suicide bombers are available all over Tehran, and the government did not seem to be trying to halt this phenomenon. By mid-2005 the effort had reportedly culled 40,000 volunteers to undergo special training to become suicide bombers for serving the Palestinian cause against the Israeli occupation.
A number of high-ranking individuals defended the registration of suicide bombers. At a late summer 2004 ceremony in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr organized by the Headquarters for Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, parliamentarian Shokrollah Atarzadeh registered as a martyrdom volunteer. Hussein Shariatmadari, the Supreme Leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, said Iranians must be ready to use "martyrdom-seeking operations." He said Israel is vulnerable and added, "You don't know that the wish of martyrdom-seekers is to send the Israelis to hell. You don't know what a fury and vengeance burns in the hearts of each and every Muslim when they see you destroy the houses of Muslims over their heads or when you commit genocide." Shariatmadari asked, "Why should they be in peace and security in European cities while the people of Iraq, Palestine, and other Muslim countries have no security?"
Tehran parliamentary representative Mehdi Kuchakzadeh, military officials, and scholars spoke about topics such as "Martyrdom Operations and Military and Security Strategies" and "Martyrdom Operations -- The Last Weapon" at an 02 June 2004 meeting in Tehran. Enrollment forms for volunteers were distributed after the meeting.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also defended the practice. According to a state radio report, he said during a 1 May 2002 speech that "It is the zenith of honor for a man, a young person, boy or girl, to be prepared to sacrifice his life in order to serve the interests of his nation and his religion. This is the zenith of courage and bravery.... martyrdom-seeking operations demonstrate the pinnacle of a nation's honor." In a 2 May 2003 sermon in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said that the Iraqi people "have no option but to resort to Intifadah [uprising] and martyrdom-seeking operations. That is the only solution. They are learning from the Palestinian experience."
Shi'a Islam's top scholars have spoken out on the issue, too. In April 2002 the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's representative in Tehran, Abu Jihad, met in Qom with Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Fazel-Movahedi-Lankarani, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, Mohammad-Taqi Bahjat, Yusef Sanei, and Abdol-Karim Musavi-Ardabili, as well as Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini-Qomi. Abu Jihad asked these religious scholars about the permissibility of "martyrdom operations," state radio reported on 12 April 2002. In the words of state radio, "the grand ayatollahs reiterated the views that they had already expressed, saying that martyrdom operations were permitted in occupied Palestine." Fazel-Lankarani said, "The Palestinians have no choice but to carry out martyrdom operations."
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