Expanded Regional Travel and Concerns Over Iran-Backed Militancy

This news follows previous reports indicating that Tehran had declared its interest in facilitating visa-free travel with certain regional partners. Both initiatives ostensibly relate to Iran’s planned economic development in the wake of a nuclear agreement with six world powers, but both may also contribute to growing anxieties about the ascendance of a destructive Iranian influence in the Middle East and the world. That is to say, the reduction in barriers to travel between Iran and other regional countries could further facilitate the exchange of militants, particularly to combat zones such as Syria and Yemen.

On one hand, the new arrangement in Oman can be seen as reflecting Iran’s interest in expanding its tourism industry. The effort to promote this expansion was also the subject of an article, which noted that in addition to reducing barriers to initial travel, the Iranian government has lengthened the amount of time by which people can extend their visas upon arrival inside the country. This certainly has potential to affect the activities and spending of tourists and business travelers, but it also raises the specter of long-term, Iran-based training for Shiite militants. And there are clear reasons to believe that the latter phenomenon is currently ongoing.

Al Arabiya News reported last Sunday that a commander in Yemen’s Houthi rebel group had been confessed to heavy involvement in the conflict by Iran and Hezbollah after he was captured by forces loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. The prisoner, Abu Mohammad, had been overseeing rocket attacks before his capture. In October, it was reported that the Houthi had fired missiles at American warships in the Red Sea, as well as launch strikes deep in Saudi Arabian territory. These advances in the Shiite militia’s range were widely linked to reported Iranian efforts to deliver weapons and weapon components to the Houthi.

But Mohammad’s statements deal not only with the supply of weapons, but also with the provision of training to him and his fellow militants. In their case, the training reportedly took place at secret centers set up inside Yemen by Iran and Hezbollah. But to whatever extent the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is directly participating in the Yemeni Civil War, it is also training its own fighters domestically for foreign relations. And the phenomenon is much more pronounced in the Syrian Civil War, with regard to which Iranian media has boasted that devout Shiites have sought to join the IRGC in order to “defend holy sites” in Syria.

International reporting has also provided extensive details regarding IRGC recruitment from Afghan refugee communities in Iran, and from Shiite communities in Afghanistan and Iran. All of this recruitment requires a functional pathway for smuggling of fighters and arms. Some of smuggling has historically been accomplished by re-purposing Iran’s commercial aircraft. And this re-purposing stands to be made easier and relatively seamless if the barriers to travel throughout the region are reduced in line with Tehran’s ambitions.

It remains to be seen how the international community might attempt to restrict illicit travel, especially as the pace of that travel increases. But in the meantime, Iran’s regional adversaries are certainly engaged in efforts to reduce the influence of Iran-backed and Iran-trained militants, by way of either overt of covert conflict. Among overt actions are those taken by Saudi Arabia, which formed a coalition of Arab countries soon after the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, with the express purpose of fighting back against the Houthi rebels and their foreign supporters.

On the more covert side of this issue are unconfirmed strikes by Israel, which is worried that the expansion of Iranian traffic and influence in Syria is giving a permanent foothold there to anti-Israeli terrorist group Hezbollah. A report by The Tower recently concluded that a strike last week on a military airport near Damascus was likely carried out by Israeli in order to prevent Iranian-made missiles from reaching Hezbollah fighters contributing to the IRGC-led defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The report points out that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in June, “We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, are from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Such admissions are certainly concerning for Israel and Saudi Arabia at a time when their main regional adversary is gaining access to new financial and diplomatic resources in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement. But they are also concerning for many policymakers in the West who see Iran’s regional ascendancy as having potentially global implications.

This fact was highlighted by another Tower report on Thursday, this one describing the case that is pending against a Hezbollah operative in Peru by the name of Mohammad Hamdar. The report quotes Joseph Humire, the founder of the Center for a Secure Free Society, as one foreign policy expert warning of Iranian efforts to grow its proxies in Latin America. Humire points in particular to the situation in Venezuela, where Vice President Tareck El Aissami has helped to increase partnerships with anti-Western functionaries, as by developing “a sophisticated, multi-layered financial network that functions as a criminal-terrorist pipeline bringing militant Islamists into Venezuela and surrounding countries, and send[s] illicit funds and drugs from Latin America to the Middle East.”

Other areas of concern in the Western hemisphere include Argentina, although in that case a change of government last year seems to have brought renewed scrutiny to Iranian activities there, as well as ending established relationships that exchanged willful ignorance for favorable trade deals. In 2015, the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his home just before he was scheduled to give evidence that the government of then-President Cristina Kirchner had covered up Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires. But the current government has opened criminal cases against Kirchner and has continued the investigation into Nisman’s death.

Peru stands to be another instance of progress in countering Iranian influence in the region. And in fact, The Tower’s report suggests that if a conviction is achieve in the Hamdar case, it could lead to broader efforts to root out Hezbollah from Peru, as well as creating a model for doing the same in other countries of the region.

But until such a model takes hold, it appears that Iranian proxies will remain very much a global threat. And even once it does take hold, it is possible that Iran’s footholds in the Middle East will have deepened. The European Iraqi Freedom Association warned of this in a press release on Thursday which pointed out that Iran has taken to spreading a terrorist element through the region not only via clandestine human smuggling but also through public diplomatic appointments and other such relations with regional partners.

The press release identifies Iraq Masjadi, the new Iranian appointee to the Iraqi ambassadorship, as a supporter of terrorism and a close affiliate of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force who is under UN sanctions and is banned from international travel as a result of his foreign terrorist activities.

The EIFA also quotes Masjadi directly, to highlight the plainly imperialist nature of Iran’s foreign policy. “The involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the battle of Fallujah was in order to preserve Iran’s status as the Shi’ite center of the world. We are defending Iran and its borders,” he said in one public communication. In another he boasted of saving Bashar al-Assad from the brink of defeat at the hands of Syrian rebels who were predominant in the fight prior to the rise of ISIS.

The press release concluded by urging the new presidential administration of Donald Trump to direct US policy toward the obstruction of Iranian influence in the region, something that has arguably been enabled by the previous administration’s commitment to preserving the nuclear agreement and boosting Iran’s economic outcomes following that deal’s implementation. While campaigning for the US presidency, Trump described that deal as one of the worst in American history and promised to cancel or renegotiate it.