Iran-From Yemen to Iraq to Lebanon, IRGC Expands its Presence

The Tower reported on this development on Friday, noting that IRGC operations in southern Lebanon violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. The Tower added in another article that Hezbollah itself was building up its terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon, utilizing Iranian weapons and financing, all while continuing to contribute to the Iran-led war effort in defense of the Assad regime in Syria.

But arguably the main focus of Iran’s foreign interventionism and that of its proxies is Iraq. This was once again implied over the weekend when it was reported that IRGC Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi had been killed in fighting in Iraq, making him the senior most Iranian official to be killed outside of Iran since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The Associated Press reported that Taqavi’s funeral had been held on Monday and that he would be buried on Tuesday.

The AP also reported that the Iranian regime described Taqavi’s role in Iraq as an advisory mission, and quoted Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi as saying, “We see Iran’s boosting support to Iraqi armed forces as a strategic necessity.”

Taqavi’s so-called advisory role is something that is shared by at least 1,000 other military advisors, according to a senior Iranian cleric quoted by the Washington Post. This source indicated that in addition to those 1,000 there were unspecified elite units also operating in the country, accompanying recent airstrikes and total military aid to date of over one billion dollars.

The Post indicates that Iranian involvement in Iraq has grown tremendously in the past year. But if we stretch back several years into recent Iraqi history the figures given by the above-mentioned cleric may rise even higher, as some Iranian influence has apparently been a mainstay in Iraq since the US invasion that topped Saddam Hussein. The Post quotes a commander with Iraqi Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah as saying, “Iran never left Iraq… This very closer relationship has made Iran support Iraq all they can.”

A report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran indicates that the actual levels of that support are considerably higher than those cited by the Post. The NCRI’s sources in the Middle East find that there are some 7,000 members of the IRGC Quds Force fighting in Iraq alongside Shiite militias and what is left of the Iraqi army. And supporting the Kataib Hezbollah commander’s assessment about having never left, the NCRI reiterates that it revealed several IRGC employees in high levels of Iraqi government as long ago as 2006.

The accumulation of Iranian fighters in Iraq was anticipated by the transit of Iran-backed militias between the battlefields of Syria and Iraq in the early days of the Islamic State’s expansion onto the latter front. These militias reportedly fight on behalf of Iran to a large degree, and utilize brutal tactics in so doing.

The NCRI report quotes a Kurdish Democratic Party official as saying, “The actions of Shia militias is like ISIS or even worse. They are experts in killing, burning and looting. They have disrupted 90% of Sa’adiyah and looted and burned all its places… Their objective is to expand their rule and influence… They rarely use the Iraqi flag and mostly hoist a flag that carries the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

If these militias do indeed preserve Iranian influence in foreign theaters of conflict, then the Washington Post indicates that that influence is there to stay. It quotes Ali Khedery, a Dubai-based strategic consultant as saying, “ISIS will be defeated. The problem is that afterwards, there will still be a dozen militias, hardened by decades of battle experience, funded by Iraqi oil, and commanded or at least strongly influenced by [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps]. And they will be the last ones standing.”

The Post also quotes a US defense official as saying that there are escalating worries about a confrontation with Iranian forces, even in spite of the supposedly cool relations between the US and Iran as they negotiate over the latter’s nuclear program.

Perhaps in part seeking to limit those worries, Tehran has repeatedly denied that it is actively involved in fighting in Iraq. But the regime’s unofficial communications sometimes belie this official narrative. Such was the case on Monday when Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani commented on the death of Brigadier General Taqavi.

“If Tagavi and his colleagues do not give blood in Samara, we will have to give our blood in Sistan, Azarbaijan, Shiraz and Esfahan,” he said according to NBC News, suggesting that Iran sees direct involvement in the conflict across the Iraqi border as a strategic necessity in order to prevent a domestic threat.

Border crossings by Sunni extremists and rebel groups are already a perennial threat to the Islamic Republic. And this was back in the news on Monday when, according to Zee News, Iran once again fired rockets into the Pakistani border province of Balochistan, injuring seven civilians following an attack on Iranian border guards. Pakistan denies that the assailants crossed back into Pakistan after the attack, as Iran claims. But several hours of rocket fire did attract Pakistani security forces to the border.

Interestingly, this attack on Pakistani territory comes in the midst of the week-long military exercises in and around the Persian Gulf, which began on December 25. The International Business Times reports that those drills have included the testing of “suicide drone” supposedly capable of dropping explosives on land, sea, and air-based targets.

The drills themselves have been viewed as a gesture of support to Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Iran is projected by some analysts to enjoy influence similar to what it now has in Lebanon by way of Hezbollah. The drills have also been presented as a gesture of defiance against the West and the presence of non-Iranian foreign influence in the Middle East.

The International Business Times reports that Iranian Naval Chief Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari has warned of consequences that might arise as a result of foreign vessels and aircraft refusing to leave the area of the Iranian maneuvers. He described any such refusal as an act of hostility, and thus further justified the American concerns about a future confrontation cited by the Washington Post.

But a rather less violent confrontation may be much nearer at hand in light of the shift in power that will take place on January 6 in the US Senate. In an interview with Fox News, Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk said that with the new Republican majority it may be possible for new Iran sanctions legislation to acquire strong bipartisan support and overcome the existing threat of a presidential veto.

If this truly turns out to be the case, the Obama administration’s current soft policy toward negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program may be forced to change. And a less conciliatory Congress may also force some confrontation over other issues of Iran policy, including the regime’s expanding influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and beyond.