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In offering its militias as security contractors, Iran is exporting its revolution

December 23, 2020 at 5:14 pm

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow, Russia on September 24, 2020 [Russian Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

Afghanistan has long had a security problem, despite the many who have sought to guarantee its safety. The latest of those revealed themselves this week when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered the Afghan government the help of Afghan Shia militants to fight against Daesh. “In Afghanistan, we are prepared to support [militants] under the leadership of the Afghan government,” said Zarif.

Kabul’s reaction was not an agreeable one. Foreign Ministry spokesman Graan Hewad told Anadolu that “the Constitution, national interests and foreign policy of Afghanistan do not permit Afghan citizens, except when under the national flag, to enter regional wars and conflicts in different countries.”

What the Afghan government came across was not a gesture of peace and friendship in Iran’s offer. It was actually part of a key strategy utilised by Tehran and developed over the decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

With a strong base in Lebanon where Iran-backed Hezbollah operates and thrives with near-impunity while the government turns a blind eye, and with numerous armed groups operating under the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella in Iraq, the Iranian model of proxy militias has been perfected. So much so, in fact, that they have far surpassed the governments and armies of their host countries in their capabilities and projection of influence.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the battle-hardened Afghan Shia militants, who fought on the front lines in Syria with the Liwa Fatemiyoun unit sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), should now be offered as protection against Daesh cells in their homeland.

It is time for the Iran-backed axis militias to be treated exactly like Daesh

Zarif’s offer is also perfectly timed, as a further withdrawal of US troops is set to take place by mid-January, leaving a potential power vacuum in Afghanistan, and the government and military without the support and training provided by America over nearly two decades. With a lighter US military presence looming, Iran has seized the opportunity to “help” its destitute neighbour.

Given that the Fatemiyoun unit – numbering between 10,000 and 20,000 – was made up of mostly Hazara Afghans who sought refuge in and were recruited by Iran to assist the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the IRGC could not have picked a more suitable demographic. The Hazara minority has long been persecuted by the rulers of Afghanistan and militant groups such as the Taliban, making them the underdogs of Afghan society when compared with the Pashtuns and Tajiks.

If they are given access to Afghan state security and the kind of power and impunity that Iran-backed Shia militias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq have, the Hazaras will be the first to benefit. Even the Taliban – a predominantly Sunni Pashtun group – recognised this potential in the run up to the intra-Afghan peace talks earlier this year, recruiting the Shia Hazara militant Mawlawi Mahdi as the leader of its Balkhab district. There have also been reports over the years of Hazara recruits in the Taliban which, despite the majority of Hazaras remaining opposed to such a move, add to the group’s efforts to be seen as a national and inclusive option for the country.

It should be said, though, that Afghanistan is very different to the other states where Iran is backing militias and extending its influence. Lebanon’s Shia population, for example, is roughly 30 per cent of the total population, while Iraq’s Shias are estimated to be double that figure. As for Syria, Iran is influential not in terms of the minimal Shia population but due to political circumstances and its alliance with the Alawite-dominated regime.

How long will Lebanon and Iraq tolerate militias which undermine national sovereignty?

In Afghanistan, Iran has neither of those options, as the country’s Shia population is just 15 per cent of the total, and the unstable government is still largely under the influence of Washington. There are also tribal affiliations and differences to be taken into account; they have been a serious obstacle to the government’s stability and control. The “Axis of Resistance” may, therefore, have a difficult time in laying foundations for a serious presence in the country.

Neighbouring Pakistan, which has a Shia population of around 25 per cent, has recently become concerned about the same issue, because some of its citizens travelled to Syria to fight in support of Assad under the Iran-backed Liwa Zainabiyoun militia. A number of those militants have already returned to Pakistan, raising concerns that they could pose a threat to its national security in the near future.

Just as Israel promotes itself as the protector of Jews around the world, Iran has done the same with suppressed and marginalised Shias in the Sunni Muslim world and beyond. In September, a MEMO colleague argued that, “If Pakistan is unwilling to protect its Shia citizens, they may look to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards”. That is a reasonable conclusion, and should be a warning for the states in the region to become more aware of the situations that their minorities endure, and their wellbeing.

Whether or not the members of the Iran-backed militias such as the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun do indeed gain leverage back in their home countries, Tehran has certainly perfected a model of proxy influence that is able to be exported easily, though perhaps not always accepted willingly. In presenting itself as a security contractor for entire states, Iran is working hard to export its revolution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.