Shebl al-Zaidi, the Secretary General of Kataib al-Imam Ali reportedly has a close relationship with Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani. He also has a reputation for vicious sectarianism and Business Insider points out that Zaidi was imprisoned by the Americans during their occupation of Iraq, but released by the Iraqi government in 2010, in what may be evidence of Iraqi allegiance to Iranian interests even at that time.
The report goes on to indicate that there has subsequently been considerable transit of high ranking commanders between Iranian and Iraqi militias and paramilitaries. At the same time, Iran has encouraged the splintering of local Iraqi militias, especially at times when their original power structure had begun to take on a more political role, which would be benefited by a separate military wing.
Business Insider claims that this splintering also helps to give Iran plausible deniability amidst evidence of its general influence in Iraq, as well as creating the illusion that there are various ideologies and movements for local militants and soldiers to choose from when in fact the vast majority of factions in Iraq appear to have at least some connection to Iran, whereby they “slowly impart and legitimize its ideology and power within Iraq.”
Finally, Business Insider warns that this heavy Iranian hand is not limited to operations within Iraq or even Syria. “Tehran and its proxies are primarily focused on those theaters at the moment,” the article claims, “but radical Shiite militias are already beginning to behave like regional actors with larger goals.”
And although Iran may be focused on the theaters of conflict with the Islamic State at the moment, it is also true that the extent of its involvement in those theaters is apparently expanding. This was evinced on Tuesday when the Indo-Asian News Service reported that the commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan, declared that Iran had marked a 40 kilometer red zone inside Iraq and would respond with cross border operations in the event of any IS incursion into that area.
Pourdastan also contributed to familiar militarist boasting, saying, “When IS Takfiri terrorists penetrated western Iraq and were close to the Iranian borders, the ground forces were fully ready to annihilate them.”
Iran has already contributed fighters and equipment to the war efforts in both Iran and Syria without coming anywhere close to annihilating the Islamic State or other rebel groups. It is not clear that an invasion by the Iranian army would do much better, especially considering that Iran’s resources are already spread thin among these and other foreign entanglements, along with domestic defense.
And now Iran faces even greater challenges in the form of renewed financial strain amidst collapsing oil prices. Those prices reached down to 54 dollars per barrel on Monday, and according to the Trend News Agency this could lead to an Iranian budget deficit of 2.5 billion dollars. Despite this, Iran’s Central Bank reported on Monday that the government would not be borrowing money to offset the financial strain in the near future.
The Iranian national budget for the coming year includes a 33 percent increase in funding for the armed forces, leading several analysts to conclude that the Rouhani administration will offset this with higher taxes and cuts to government programs, thus increasing strain on an already economically burdened populous.