Militias manufactured by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are the fastest growing category of Iranian-backed militia in the Middle East, and pose the greatest threat to the region’s stability, according to a new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
The new report, “The View from Tehran: Iran’s Militia Doctrine,” finds that Iran’s militia network is not a homogeneous bloc and that only some groups are “proxies.”
The so-called “Iran-backed militias” are made up of a combination of independently formed grassroots militias and groups manufactured by the IRGC, the clerical regime’s ideological army.
While the relationship between Iran and the grassroots militias is rooted in tactical or shared interests and is primarily based on supply of weapons and material, the latter is rooted in a shared worldview with these militias fully subscribing to the regime’s ideology of Velayat-e Faqih, which gives Iran’s supreme leader absolute authority over Shia Muslims as God’s representative on Earth.
The IRGC not only arms, trains and funds these manufactured groups, but has also invested heavily in the radicalization and indoctrination of militants, drawing on support from Tehran’s diplomatic, humanitarian, educational and cultural organizations beyond Iran’s borders.
These militias have fully embraced Iran’s state-sanctioned Shia Islamist ideology and have been instrumental to Iran’s military response in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Lebanese Hezbollah is the “gold standard” of the IRGC’s manufactured groups and represents the most dangerous of Iran’s proxies.
Crucially, the report finds that like the IRGC itself, these manufactured groups do not just serve Iranian state deterrence, but in fact are being indoctrinated to fight as “warriors without borders” for Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological goal of creating a pan-Shi’ite state and eradicating Israel.
Importantly, these groups will fight for Khamenei regardless of access to financial support, and countering them will require a hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency effort. Imposing sanctions on Tehran – or giving sanctions relief – will not be enough to cease their activities.
The report finds that the 2015 nuclear agreement and the easing of international sanctions on Iran did not curb or moderate Iranian-backed militancy or result in the disbanding of the militia doctrine. The number of militia groups created by the IRGC surged after this period and the IRGC’s presence abroad also reached its peak, with the Quds Force expanding its operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. During this period, the Quds Force also increased its activities on European soil, which includes terrorist plots and assassinations.
The report warns that there is a “militia doctrine” guiding Iran’s use of paramilitary groups, and the network and infrastructure the IRGC have created in pursuit of this doctrine has been designed to outlive the Islamic Republic. This means that should the clerical regime collapse, the IRGC could continue to advance the militia doctrine, albeit in an insurgency mode.
The view from Tehran
Iran’s militia doctrine also says the formal militias that make up Iran’s network of militias and proxies are only the tip of the iceberg and warns that the Islamic Republic has been developing a “soft-power’ capacity over the course of decades that poses a threat beyond the regime itself. These soft-power outfits not only play a critical role for the recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters, but also enable the regime’s Quds Force to have a presence abroad under a ‘legitimate’ guise for its covert operations, including assassinations and terror plots.
Tony Blair, executive chairman of the Institute for Global Change, said, “This report forms an essential part of the backdrop to how Western policy-makers approach Iran in the coming months. It spells out in detail how the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly through the activities of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, supports, funds and arms militias in the Middle East and beyond.
“Some of these are more remote militia groups; some, the majority, are directly part of the Iranian network of destabilization, seeking to undermine governments and prevent countries from exercising true sovereignty. This campaign is in furtherance of the Islamist ideology of the clerical regime in Iran and unfortunately it is clear that it surged rather than abated in the years following the JCPOA in 2015.
“None of this means that diplomacy directed at curtailing the nuclear program of Iran is wrong or misguided; on the contrary, it is necessary. But it does make the case for any agreement to act as a comprehensive brake on those destabilizing activities and be done in a way which commands support across the region and gives reassurance to Western allies that the West stands with them in their fight against extremism from whatever quarter it comes.”
The report suggests policy responses to counter Iran’s network of militias based on the type of relationship each group has with Tehran and their closeness with the Islamic Republic and the IRGC. It proposes a new framework to more accurately determine the nature of the relationships, alliances and allegiances between Tehran and the militias it supports.
These range from sanctions to target the supply chains of grassroots groups with shared interests that have a material relationship with Tehran to more comprehensive measures, encompassing counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, to target the IRGC and “gold-standard” militias which were created by the IRGC and are ideologically compliant with the Islamic Republic.
A full-scale hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency effort may now be needed to counter the soft-power network which the Islamic Republic has developed, and dismantle the threat of Shia militancy in the region. This means as well as contesting the IRGC’s hard power militia assets, policies should aim to sanction and dismantle the infrastructure Iran has built to sustain these groups, such as the soft-power organizations that are complicit in the IRGC’s militancy.
In the Middle East, this will require, among other measures, a coalition of alliances that understands the complex local dynamics through which the regime has won local allegiances; a campaign to gain popular support within Iran’s sphere of influence; and a concerted effort to disrupt the institutions through which it permeates societies day to day.
Beyond the Middle East, this will require governments and policymakers to monitor and potentially sanction organizations like the Al-Mustafa University and the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation that Iran uses to support its militancy. These soft-power outfits not only play a critical role for the recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters, but also enable the Quds Force to have a presence abroad under a “legitimate” guise for its covert operations, including assassinations and terrorist plots.
Prof. Saeid Golkar is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and an authority on the Basij Militia and the IRGC. Kasra Aarabi is an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and specializes in Iran and Shi’ite Islamist extremism.