Special Report: How Iran is exporting the Hezbollah model to dominate the Middle East

Special Report: How Iran is exporting the Hezbollah model to dominate the Middle East

Recent events in the Middle East, including a missile fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia and the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri, have increased anxiety concerning the sweeping influence of Iran. The war against the Islamic State has expanded Iranian dominance through Baghdad and Damascus and advancing up to the Mediterranean Sea. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are the front line in this rising tide of Iranian military and economic power.

Iran’s use of the “Hezbollah model”

Making major inroads into the Middle East benefits Iran most immediately by paving a gateway from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. The route from Tehran to Beirut allows the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds force to transfer not only weapons and supplies, but also ideology and influence deep into Arab lands. Hezbollah is the critical link in this development. Now, its tried and tested strategy is set to be replicated throughout the region.

Regarded as one of the most formidable fighting forces in the region, with its sophisticated weaponry and answering directly to Tehran, Hezbollah is more like a modern military than a militia. Notorious for its efforts fighting Israel, Iran has also been using Hezbollah’s well-trained forces to secure the Lebanese border with Syria, stem the tide of rebel advances (thus propping up Assad), and train proxy militias in both Syria and Iraq.

Iraq: Rising Shia militias

Hezbollah-like militias have formed across the Middle East, with little concern for international borders, as rapid deployment of these forces has become significantly easier. This phenomenon gained momentum in 2014, when the most senior Shi’a cleric in Iraq – Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – issued a call to arms to fend off the impending assault on Baghdad by the so-called Islamic State. The result was the formation of tens of thousands of fighters into Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), many of whom were trained by Iran. These units ultimately integrated into Iraq’s national army under the PMU law, passed in November 2016. Ironically, they are now at odds with Sistani over many key issues – including Iran’s influence, and sending fighters to Syria.

Several of these Shia factions are fiercely loyal to Iran: Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Iraqi Hezbollah, Saraya al-Khorasani and the Badr Organization, to name a few. They often fight side by side (or at least in coordination) with U.S.-trained Iraqi Special Forces. This creates a serious risk of equipment and weapons, paid for by the U.S., ending up with any of the aforementioned militias. And this problem is not unique to Iraq.

The recent advance into Kirkuk by American-trained federal Iraqi forces and PMU units, clashing with American-trained and equipped Peshmerga fighters, epitomizes this dilemma. Does this aid and knowledge, which was originally intended for a small elite group to fight IS, get passed down in the web of Iraqi combat groups, many of whom carry out Tehran’s regional objectives? Meanwhile, the Pentagon has asked Congress for $1.8 billion in the fiscal 2018 budget to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces.  

Syria: Iran steps in for depleted Syrian army

Meanwhile in Syria, small Hezbollah-like groups have been formed with Iran’s guidance and Hezbollah’s training. Syria’s army was depleted and on the brink of defeat before the interventions of Russia and Iran. As of October 2015, it was estimated to contain 80,000-100,000 soldiers. In response, localized defense units were formed to fill the void, known as National Defense Forces (NDF). This makes the tens of thousands of Iranian-linked fighters arguably more effective than the depleted Syrian army. General H.R. McMaster has said that about 80% of those forces fighting on behalf of the Assad regime are Iranian proxies.

Lebanon: A host of complexities

Coordination issues: Hezbollah calling the shots

Lebanon carries similar complexities as Iraq when dealing with training a national army to combat the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are the world’s fifth largest per capita recipient of U.S. military funding; the U.S. has provided more than $1.4 billion to them since 2005. U.S. specials ops are stationed in Lebanon to assist with critical support, and even though the U.S. supplied the LAF in August 2017 with (amongst other defense articles) Bradley fighting Vehicles, this aid could be in jeopardy. The State Department is proposing drastic cuts to Lebanon in its 2018 foreign aid budget.

As with Iraq, the possibility in the fog of war for U.S. supported troops to engage in combat missions with sanctioned militias poses serious questions. These complexities were on full display in the summer of 2017 when Hezbollah and the LAF coordinated, during their separate campaigns, to clear extremists from the Arsal region. The optics of Hezbollah leading the fight as well as negotiations – with the LAF all but marginalized – proves Hezbollah was ultimately calling the shots. This of course means that Iran is extremely influential in another country crucial to the stability of the region, with U.S. troops also present and carrying out a separate agenda. These fears have been felt before in 2010, when the U.S. and France temporarily suspended aid to the Lebanese army under Israeli pressure over concerns Hezbollah may use it.

Political and economic challenges in the region 

Politically speaking, while Iran points the finger at the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Hariri says that Iran’s involvement in Lebanese affairs has forced him to resign out of concerns for his own safety. He also warns of Iran’s control over Syria and Iraq, as well as the destruction Hezbollah has caused in Lebanon, which is setting a dangerous precedent for Iran’s influence, but could also lead to its downfall. The consequences of Hariri’s resignation could be far reaching in terms of political instability in Lebanon and uncertainty regarding next year’s elections.

The war raging across the border in Syria is certainly causing stress in Lebanon. According to government and independent sources, up to 1.5 million Syrians, roughly a quarter of the Lebanese population, have taken refuge in Lebanon since the war erupted in March 2011. According to the World Bank, it is estimated that as a result of the Syrian crisis, some 200,000 additional Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, adding to the erstwhile 1 million poor. An additional 250,000 to 300,000 Lebanese citizens are estimated to have become unemployed, most of them unskilled youth.  

Finally, with one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, growth battered by six years of war in adjacent Syria and a government struggling to agree on vital reforms, Lebanon’s economy is fragile. Moreover, nearly all Lebanese banks have American correspondent banking relationships that facilitate financial transactions between U.S. exporters and Lebanese importers. Deposits could dwindle if these correspondent banks deem Lebanon too risky and stop clearing dollar transactions. Such concerns stem from whether Hezbollah’s potential use of Lebanon’s banks will fund future attacks as well as provide Iranian institutions access to U.S. markets.

Iran’s sources of leverage

Whether it’s Hezbollah coordinating with the LAF, PMU branches fighting alongside the Iraqi army, or a seemingly Hezbollah/IRGC model to morph the various National Defense Forces (NDF) and foreign militias to supplant the Syrian army, Iran’s clout appears to be growing. The trend to counter these various Iranian supported groups, at least in Iraq and Lebanon, is for the U.S. to train small elite units easily counted on and not held captive by corruption. The number of special ops forces (SOF) in Iraq and Syria has reached 10,000. Both sides now have various small, but highly mobile, elite units scattered across three countries who have separate modus operandi and answer to a range of state actors.

With sanctions easing on Iran, another avenue opens for its influence to penetrate deeper into the Middle East. Iranian goods are pouring into Iraq; they are providing Damascus billions of dollars of credit and signing reconstruction deals over telecommunications, oil and natural gas and agriculture, while Hezbollah carries out Tehran’s plans by laundering money or using their influence in the banking sector to avoid sanctions.  There have been reports of Lebanon’s treasury paying the salaries of Hezbollah-linked Ministers in cash, to bypass the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (HIFPA), which strictly targets the organization’s financial activities worldwide. There are currently two members of Hezbollah in the cabinet.

From all perspectives, Iran is in a position to exert immense influence, via proxies modeled after Hezbollah, throughout the Middle East for years to come.  

About Author

Jesse McDonald

Jesse's background is focused on International Relations and History. He spent two years living in Cairo conducting interviews and studying Arabic. Recently, Jesse has been working as a freelancer, focusing on projects concerning Syria and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).