Iran Plans to Strengthen Its Foreign Militias Post-Islamic State

The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, sent a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on November 21st, declaring victory over the Islamic State “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. Khamenei’s reply called on all “Mojahed” forces (i.e. fighters in the name of God) to maintain readiness for meeting future regional challenges.

This led to IRGC chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, as well as other commanders, to have emphasized the “Basij of the Islamic World” (Basij-e Jahan-e Islam, or BJI) as an emerging model for international Shia mobilization under Soleimani’s leadership, Iran News Update reports.

It’s said that Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s armed forces chief of staff, believes that this model combined with Iran’s expanded military capacities, can unite allied countries to prevent an ISIS resurgence, especially in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, where confrontations with ISIS might once again flare up.

Simultaneously, according to a statement on November 24th by acting general staff chairman General Masoud Jazayeri, this “resistance front” will be asked to remain “until the destruction of Israel and expulsion of the last American service member from the region.”

Col. Sayyed-Mahmoud Hashemi, head of the Fatehin (Conquerors) Brigade, the principal Iranian-manned fighting force in Syria has expressed similar views. The Fatehin are a semi-volunteer Basij special unit from the IRGC’s Muhammad-Rasul-Allah Corps, who is mainly tasked with infantry fighting. Originally formed in Tehran following the 2009 post-election uprising, it was tasked with keeping an eye on the citizenry at home. Now, Fatehin advisors train foreign fighters recruited for the BJI and are allegedly involved in assisting Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Basij is a model for resistance by the people of the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon,…the vast army of al-Hashd al-Shabi in Iraq, as well as in Yemen and other countries…Their know-how has already been transferred to [the Yemenis],” General Jafari explained on November 26th.

General Jafari has made comments that seem to point to Iran pressuring the Syrian regime to grant official status to the country’s main IRGC-created militia, the National Defense Forces (NDF). He stated on November 23rd, “It is up to the Syrian government to officialize the NDF or not, and we cannot force them to do so. In Iraq, they officialized al-Hashd al-Shabi and they’re very grateful for that…Now the Syrian government and parliament must sign into law and officialize the Syrian version of al-Hashd al-Shabi.”

In an article for the Washington Insititute, Farzin Nadimi, a Washington-based analyst specializing in the security and defense affairs of Iran and the Persian Gulf region, say that if the NDF is “formalized and becomes the main beneficiary of postwar Iranian military aid to Syria, Tehran would hold major leverage over how Damascus uses some of its most capable armed forces. For example, Iran could demand that Syria deploy NDF units near the Golan Heights in order to threaten Israel. This threat could be magnified if they coordinate with Hezbollah, which has expressed a readiness to withdraw from Iraq and Syria — after which it will likely resume its faceoff with Israel.”

Reportedly, Iran provides assistance to Yemen’s Houthis. Tensions have increased with their mutual enemy, Saudi Arabia. In fact, in a November 23 interview with the New York Times, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman called Khamenei “the new Hitler”.

However, it would be difficult for Tehran to send men and supplies to Yemen, as there is no reliable logistical route. Presently, there is little evidence of a BJI model on a large scale there. Still, Saudi authorities claim that Hezbollah and Iranian personnel have infiltrated Yemen and furnish assist Houthi forces with missiles. Certainly, recent launch activities may support these claims.

Nadimi writes that “the United States should be prepared to curb any Iranian militia expansion in the region. For now, this means keeping a watchful eye on the BJI and liaising with regional allies as necessary to limit its activities, including recruitment. The BJI is Iranian-led but increasingly multinational in composition, so any affiliate organization could further Tehran’s anti-American interests in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and other strategically important countries even without a sizable Iranian presence on the ground.”