Study: Terrorist Militias Surged After Iran Nuclear Deal

NINEVEH, IRAQ - JUNE 20: Iraqi PMF fighters on June 20, 2017 on the Iraq-Syria border in Nineveh, Iraq. The Popular Mobilisation Front (PMF) forces, composed of majority Shi'ite militia, part of the Iraqi forces, have pushed Islamic State militants from the north-western Iraq border strip back into Syria. The …
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The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an organization founded by the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, published a report on Thursday that found terrorist militias aligned with Iran surged in numbers and influence across the Middle East after the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Blair himself said these Shiite militia groups 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,” Blair said.

The Blair Institute report went out of its way to argue that more sanctions against Iran would not restrain these militia groups. It also said the elimination of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 “has not resulted in a scaling back of Iranian-sponsored militancy.”

Soleimani was instrumental in putting together Iran’s network of militia allies in Iraq, and many security analysts thought he would be extremely difficult to replace. The Blair Institute contended the militia network is holding together fairly well without him because, while Soleimani might have been “instrumental in allowing the Quds Force to enter deeply contested terrain from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Yemen,” the network he established no longer requires his leadership to function.

The report’s commentary on the JCPOA essentially argued that the agreement was disappointing because it did not rein in Shiite militia activity as much as promised. The authors studiously avoided suggesting the militia problem grew worse because the nuclear deal gave Iran more money and prestige to invest in its proxy gangs:

The 2015 nuclear agreement and the easing of sanctions on Iran did not curb or moderate Iranian-backed militancy or result in the disbanding of the militia doctrine. 

The premise that Iran would moderate its commitment to creating and sponsoring militias due to the thaw in US-Iranian relations after the 2015 nuclear deal and sanctions relief for Tehran was false. The number of militias created by the IRGC surged after this period, and the Guard’s presence abroad peaked, with the Quds Force expanding its operations in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The common mischaracterization of Iran’s use of militias as part of its deterrence strategy ignores the reality that the regime’s militia doctrine existed long before international sanctions and the escalation of tensions between the US, Israel and Iran.

According to the Blair Institute’s critique, the JCPOA’s authors misunderstood Iran’s motivations for developing its regional militia network. The nuclear dealers thought Iran was putting this network of violent proxies together as a “forward defense” against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, so once the JCPOA eased tensions between Iran and those other parties, and the nuclear agreement empowered Iranian moderates, support for the Shiite militia network would decline. Tehran would run the numbers and realize the militias were a hefty expense that was no longer necessary.

In truth, the Obama administration completely misread Iran’s view of the militias as a vital element of its expansionist strategy and the regime’s unshakeable desire to rule a “pan-Shia” Middle East. Iranian propaganda refers to its dream of conquering the entire region as the creation of a “Resistance Empire” with its capital in Tehran.

The Blair Institute noted, with a trace of sarcasm, that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was lecturing Obama and his crew about the eternal importance of Iran’s militia network within 13 days of the nuclear agreement being signed, and Iranian support for the IRGC’s proxy forces “surged” immediately afterward.

The report outlined in great detail how the IRGC’s Shiite militia network was much more extensive, and more important to Iranian military strategy, than most observers realized. Indeed, the militia network is “designed to outlive the Islamic Republic” itself, so if the Iranian regime were to collapse, “the IRGC could continue to advance the militia doctrine, albeit in an insurgency mode.”

Iran does not simply send officers like Soleimani out to forge alliances with Shiite insurgents in Sunni Arab nations. Instead, the report claimed, Iran’s entire “soft power” apparatus — its “educational, cultural, humanitarian, and diplomatic agencies” — actively nourish extremism, create terrorist cells, and furnish them with a bottomless supply of pro-Iran, anti-American, and anti-Israel propaganda.

The militias manufactured by the IRGC tend to be directly loyal to Iran, while some grassroots Shiite forces are manipulated by the IRGC indirectly because they do not recognize the political or religious supremacy of the Iranian ayatollahs. The “gold standard” of manufactured proxy forces directly loyal to Tehran is Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

The Blair Institute warned that manufactured and controlled militias are growing faster across the Middle East than grassroots Shiite organizations, and suggested Western policymakers should learn to distinguish the two classes of Shiite militia and approach them differently.

The IRGC is not fastidious about the politics or religious credentials of its terrorist allies. The report noted the Quds Force has “repeatedly supported groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda with which it has a conflicting worldview, where it sees a tactical necessity.”

The Blair Institute’s key policy recommendation involved fighting Iran’s “soft power” influence machine in a battle for the “hearts and minds” of Shiite groups beyond Iran’s borders. This again contradicts the report’s conviction that sanctions on Iran are not relevant to defusing the militia threat. It does not address how Tehran’s “soft power” machine would not become less effective if it had less money to spend on spreading propaganda and buying influence.

The evidence of recent history outlined in the Institute’s report suggests the soft power machine kicked into overdrive after the windfall of cash from Obama’s sanctions relief blanketed Iran. Iranian protesters frequently complain that the regime spent too much money on foreign influence operations and military adventures instead of addressing the domestic needs of the Iranian people. It costs money to “manufacture” the growing number of loyal militia proxies the Blair Institute warned about, and the more rich and powerful Iran becomes, the more likely those “grassroots” Shiite groups in other countries are to recognize the political and religious supremacy of the Iranian supreme leader.

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