Iran coordinates proxy wars with militias

A prominent leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is believed to have met capable Shia militias in Iraq, telling them to prepare for a proxy war. The meeting is reported to have occurred before significant strategic and military activity was coordinated by America and its allies in the region. Is the threat posed by these militia groups serious enough to warrant such action by the US and its allies?

Background

President Donald Trump's administration intensified pressure on Iran since 2018. The administration believes that the only way Iranian action can be altered is through a regime change. American efforts now focus on making the regime economically unviable, while ensuring its geopolitical importance and military power projection capability reduces. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA deal under which Iran agreed to halt its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Sanctions were re-imposed on Iran, targeting its oil, shipping and banking sectors.

In 2019, the US announced that it would no longer exempt any countries from sanctions if they continue to buy Iranian oil. The US portrayed a routine deployment of an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force to the Middle East as sending a message to Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital economic waterway. Analysts also believe Iran to be responsible for several acts of sabotage targeting the oil industries of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

The Quds Force is a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) that specialises in hybrid warfare and intelligence while being responsible for Iran's 'extraterritorial' operations. The Quds Force supports many non-state actors in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza and the West Bank. The US designated the Q- Force as a supporter of terrorism in 2007. In 2019, the US designated the whole of the IRGC as a terrorist group.

Analysis

Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds Force, recently met Iraqi militias in Baghdad, the Guardian reports. The report cites "two senior intelligence sources." Mr Suleimani is believed to have told the militias to "prepare for proxy war." Mr Suleimani has regularly met leaders of Iraq's Shia groups, although the sources say that this recent meeting was different; "It wasn't quite a call to arms, but it wasn't far off."

The primary militia Mr Suleimani met is Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), an umbrella organisation of mostly Shia Muslims. PMUs are a government-sanctioned paramilitary force that has fought in every major battle against ISIS.

The meeting's timing before a frenzy of military and strategic activity highlights its importance. US, British and Iraqi officials now fear that Iraq could become again become a theatre for conflict between the Washington and Tehran. The meeting coincided with America's decision to evacuate non-essential diplomatic staff from their embassies in Baghdad and Erbil, while also raising the threat status at US bases in Iraq. The UK followed suit, raising threat levels for British troops in Iraq.

The US is increasingly vocal about Iranian proxies in the Middle East. Recently, after a barrage of rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel, US President Donald Trump blamed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) for the attacks. The PIJ is financed by Iran and is designated a terrorist group by most western countries.

Additionally, regional diplomats believe that a convoy of Iranian missiles was transported through Iraq to Damascus, Syria. The transfer evaded the US and Israeli intelligence. Israeli intelligence has systematically intercepted dozens of alleged missile deliveries. The Israelis fear an Iranian-run land corridor in place of the vacuum caused by the collapse of ISIS. Shia militia groups, such as PMUs, have been vital to the fight against ISIS and have built up significant military capabilities. Any meeting between these groups and Iran is closely monitored. These groups pose a significant military threat to the US and its allies given their battle-ready capability.

Counterpoint

The Trump administration's push to portray an imminent threat by Iran has not been unanimously accepted by American allies. A British general recently challenged such claims, in a rare deviation in military policy. The US' push to apply "maximum pressure" on the Iranian regime has therefore failed to gather support from some of its closest allies. This trend is likely to continue as most US allies, besides Israel, hope to continue the implementation of the JCPOA.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the engagement of Shia militia groups against ISIS has battle-hardened them, augmenting their capabilities, making them a potent threat to any military force, including the US. We feel that American intelligence estimates took this into account when escalating the threat levels of its US bases. The coordination of the IRGC and these militia groups worry the US and its allies, as it means a mostly Iranian controlled land-corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, following the collapse of ISIS.

Israel, whom the IRGC considers its nemesis, is worried about Iranian troops close to its borders and is likely to go to great lengths to prevent this. As Tehran looks to negate Washington's economic sanctions and military posturing in the Middle East, we believe the potential for confrontation between the US and Iran is likely to grow.

We feel that this threat is further amplified if Iran's 'extraterritorial' unit is able to coordinate with popular Shia military groups such as the PMUs.

 

Image Courtey: Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]