The Hidden Sources of Iranian Strength

Iran’s ties with its proxies are far deeper than the Trump administration understands.

A Hezbollah supporter displays a picture of Iran's late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini as he marks Ashura in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on Oct. 1, 2017.
A Hezbollah supporter displays a picture of Iran's late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini as he marks Ashura in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital Beirut on Oct. 1, 2017. ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

“What Americans don’t understand is that the groups that we support in the region are not our mercenaries,” Ali, a high-ranking member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said when I recently asked him about one of the stated goals of the Trump administration’s sanctions against Iran: to curtail the country’s ability to financially support militias in the region. He continued, “The Americans think everything is about money. They think we buy loyalty in the region, because that’s how they buy loyalty.”

In the decade that I did research with cultural producers in Iran’s preeminent military force, the IRGC, I saw a steady flow of filmmakers loyal to Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish groups travel through regime cultural centers in Tehran. (They all agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. The first names used here are pseudonyms.) Mehdi, an Iranian pro-regime filmmaker, had lived in Lebanon to make films with Hezbollah media producers. When they visited him in Tehran, they spoke fluent Persian and navigated the city with familiar ease. Iraqi filmmakers would regularly come to spend time in Tehran at editing studios tied to the paramilitary Basij organization.

Although my research focused on cultural producers, I saw a similar flow of foreigners in the economic and military arms of the IRGC. The flow of goods, ideas, and people between Iran and its proxies is certain to continue amid President Donald Trump’s sanctions, facilitated by a spectrum of institutions that do not rely on heavy financial investments and by enduring friendships on all sides.

Historically, the connections between Iran, Iraq, and the Levant go back generations. Long-standing trade and pilgrimage routes, as well as a constellation of religious seminaries, meant that communities and entire families seamlessly traveled, lived, conversed, and created cultural and social ties. The mere existence of these ties, however, does not translate into politically active groups. Policymakers and the public misunderstand the nature of these ties, explaining them as ones bound by Shiism as a traditional, religious doctrine. This misunderstanding arises from a fundamentally flawed framework that undergirds Washington’s entire Iran and Middle East policy—a belief that what drove the 1979 revolution in Iran was a fanatical quest for Islamic politics. But what actually binds these groups together is not an adherence to specific theological doctrine—if that were the case, Iran would not have close relationships with certain Palestinian factions, nor with Iraqi Kurdish groups, to say nothing of ties to Bashar al-Assad in Syria or the Houthis in Yemen. In order to understand how a political quest for sovereignty, rather than an otherworldly quest for religious rule, animates Iran’s relations with its proxies, it is first necessary to unpack current assumptions about the revolution that led to the Islamic Republic.

In a newly emerging generation of scholarship aimed at constructing a social history of the revolution, research shows that what motivated Iranians to support the revolution en masse was a desire to rid the country of imperialism. As a prominent historian of Iran, Ervand Abrahamian has argued that the 1979 revolution should be seen as a continuation of the national struggle for liberation that was cut short in 1953 by a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

In a first for the CIA, the United States deposed democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, reinstated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and took control of Iran’s oil fields. Domestically, no matter what the shah did in that 26-year interim between 1953 and 1979, the coup cast its long shadow over his rule. His perceived illegitimacy was tied to the sentiment that he did the bidding of the Americans and Brits and sold out his country’s national integrity for power and wealth.

As the historian Naghmeh Sohrabi argues, the 1979 revolution in Iran should be understood “as one of the last great successful revolutions of the post-colonial world and in its post-revolutionary shape, as one of the first to answer the questions and anxieties of its global south ethos in an Islamic form.” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with his drab clerical garb and non-Tehrani-accented Persian, was the symbolic opposite of the opulent wealth of the shah. Khomeini’s populist message to restore justice and integrity to Iran in the face of international and domestic humiliation resonated with a population that, despite the great oil wealth of the 1970s, remained largely poor and rural.

A massive popular revolution from below drove out the shah not just because of economic, cultural, or political shortcomings (those existed in other countries too but did not result in a revolutionary movement) but rather because revolutionaries cast the shah as an American puppet who did not have the best interests of the nation in mind. The core issues of the revolution were sovereignty and independence from outside powers.

Now, what does this have to do with Iran’s relationship with its proxies? In the 40 years since the revolution, the Islamic Republic has supported groups that are actively engaged in struggles against foreign occupation, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, or the occupied Palestinian territories. (This analysis also drove its policies in Syria, where it believed the United States, Europe, and Israel were using domestic groups, and later mercenaries, to topple Assad for geopolitical purposes.) When one pays close attention to the discourse of these groups, from their official statements to their media output, the emphasis is on sovereignty and the fight against imperialism. Of course the symbolism of Islam as a cultural and political identity is also present, but it is not the driving force.

“The Americans think we’re crazed Muslims on a path of martyrdom and that Iraqis and Lebanese have this same crazed mentality,” said Hossein, an IRGC commander during the Iran-Iraq War and now a media producer. “They don’t want to think that we have legitimate political concerns that are about a region free from imperial domination and a quest to control our resources.”

Mehdi, the Iranian filmmaker who has spent years living and working in Lebanon with Hezbollah media producers, said, “I joined the revolutionary forces because I wanted to be like Dr. Chamran. What he did for the Lebanese and Palestinians, and later for Iran, that’s what drove so many of us.” Mehdi referred to one of the main early strategists of the revolutionary armed forces of Iran, as well as the first defense minister of the revolutionary government, Mostafa Chamran. A University of California, Berkeley-educated physicist who was deeply involved in the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Chamran trained in guerrilla tactics in Cuba and Egypt and worked in Lebanon to organize Shiites in the 1970s. Mehdi and his Lebanese collaborators have created films about Chamran and big public education programs to teach their younger generations about this military leader.

The military tactics of the 1970s anti-colonial movements were built into the DNA of the IRGC and, by extension, into the DNA of militias Iran backs in the region. These asymmetrical warfare tactics were tested in battle over an eight-year period during the Iran-Iraq War. From 1980 to 1988, the IRGC learned how to fight, create military strategy, and withstand a superior military force funded and supplied by the West. Like many anti-colonial movements of that time, the Iranian revolution did not lead to liberation but a bloody struggle for power that eventually suppressed dissenting voices. In the four decades since its establishment, the Islamic Republic and the IRGC have practiced heavy-handed politics that have resulted in deep wounds that will not be easily forgiven.

Yet among supporters of the Islamic Republic, both internally and externally, the Iranian post-revolutionary government remains legitimate and a cause worth fighting alongside precisely because it has been able to thwart U.S. aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan; because it fought against the Islamic State, largely leading to its defeat; and because its support of Hezbollah has helped keep Israel out of Lebanon. Since the Trump administration has come to power, U.S. foreign policy has reverted back to strong-arm politics that seek to bully those who will not fall in line. In the Middle East, it is not just Iran that the United States has gone after. In light of the recent annexation of the Golan Heights and the granting of drilling rights to a company linked to Dick Cheney, as well as wider support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansionist policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, the wider desire among the American and Israeli right to control, and profit off of, natural resources in the Middle East is not lost on any of these groups, especially Hezbollah, but also various Iraqi groups that are concerned about control over their oil fields. For its supporters, Iran’s current predicament in the face of a U.S. administration that demands the country’s submission—even though it held up its end of the bargain—rhymes too perfectly with historical precedent to ignore.

Domestically, despite widespread frustration with the regime, the quest for nuclear energy has been cast as a national right in Iran for decades. In my research, I have traced how the IRGC has cultivated a nationalist message in all of its cultural and media programming since at least 2005. Given the Trump administration’s actions against Iranians, from the so-called Muslim ban to withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal to designating the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization—effecting millions of young men who have served their mandatory military service under the IRGC—the Islamic Republic does not need to work too hard to make a case for national unity under these circumstances. Instead, the biggest outcome will be a militarized domestic sphere that will suppress dissenting voices even more in the face of an outside aggressor.

In the past months since the devastating floods that hit nearly all corners of Iran, Iraqi, Afghan, and Lebanese filmmakers tied to the various militia groups in the region have been in Iran making news pieces and documentaries about the work of the IRGC and Iranian paramilitary groups in flooding assistance. This media output has been framed as a need for solidarity across the region with Iran as it faces natural disasters and the Trump administration. Throughout the region, even in societies at odds with Iran, these groups have successfully cast the suffering of Yemenis as an issue the Saudis have perpetuated. The media arms of these groups, which disseminate material in Arabic and Kurdish (in a variety of local dialects), do not have the massive budget of Saudi or Emirati media operations in the region. Yet, just like their military tactics on the ground, these groups have created an effective asymmetrical communications operation.

U.S. officials may hope that sanctions will curtail Iran’s ability to fund these groups, but in their hope, they reveal their naiveté about two areas: First, through indigenous funding networks like khums and other kinds of tithes, money will continue to flow to these groups through a complex system of hawalas that will be hard for the U.S. Treasury Department to track; and second, the desire to rid the region of a foreign imperial power is a cause that has galvanized populations in the Middle East for generations. Money is not the main defining factor of such a cause.

Narges Bajoghli is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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