“A transition in Iran’s tactical approach, a leaner and more deadly surrogate, and serious impacts on U.S. interests and regional stability”.
The U.S. administration under President Biden has been pursuing an appropriate formula to revive Iran’s nuclear agreement. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded between the United States under the Obama administration, Iran, and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5+1) in addition to Germany. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement during the Trump administration and imposed sanctions against the Iranian regime due to Tehran’s lack of commitment, the agreement’s incapacity to curtail Iran’s ballistic missile program, and the continued involvement of Iran and its proxies in fueling sectarian conflicts. Iran was also destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by supporting armed groups and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad organizations, as well as their continued support for the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Syria and the Houthis in Yemen.
President Biden’s administration has repeatedly expressed their desire to return to the nuclear agreement in exchange for easing some of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. Nevertheless, the Iranian-sponsored militias and armed groups continue to carry out attacks against the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East, specifically against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq as a form of escalation. However, the Biden administration considered these attacks as tactics to increase pressure. Many in the current administration believe that the escalating hostility will never constitute a veto on the negotiation process or the possibility to achieve positive outcomes.
The U.S. administration is facing multidimensional scenarios in these negotiations. U.S. policymakers must realize the short and long term consequences for the U.S. and its allies of reached agreements. It is also necessary to realize that a meaningful agreement will have to serve Iran’s interests from a diplomatic and international perspective. If Washington expects Tehran to address specific concerns, some of Tehran’s concerns and interests will have to be addressed as well.
Meanwhile, Iran is resorting to the traditional tactic; the Iranian negotiation committee started the preliminary negotiations in Vienna as diplomatically as possible, maintaining a distance from their American counterparts until they secured the initial agreement on the first batch of demands before switching to the incapacitating provisions. Tehran is highly focused on gradually raising the bar of demands and applying extreme pressure, diplomatically and militarily, before making some compromises. However, for diplomacy to be productive, the U.S. government must realize that Iran will never make any compromises free of charge.
The internal political atmosphere in Iran is also a significant factor in shaping the final political decision and the outcomes of the negotiations. The Iranian regime is fighting a negotiation battle in Vienna, in conjunction with the elections’ battle in Tehran. The regime is overwhelmingly preoccupied with internal conflicts and powerful political oppositions that support the return to the negotiations provided that Iran’s dignity and interests are preserved.
The Negotiation Phase
The U.S. administration is already showing flexibility and a willingness to address many of the sanctions’ provisions including some relief with regard to critical economic sectors such as the energy and petroleum sectors (oil), commercial and industrial entities, and perhaps lifting the terror sanctions imposed on Iran’s central bank. The negotiations will most likely include new provisions such as allowing Iran to raise their enrichment of uranium to higher levels, maintaining the ballistic missile system, free navigation in the gulf area, and removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization’s list. Iran may seek international guarantees to prevent Israel from conducting additional military operations against the Iranian installations and interests locally and regionally, in return for Tehran’s (theoretical) compliance with the updated version of the nuclear deal.
Regionally, Iran is applying tactical pressure on the U.S. administration, both diplomatically and militarily. Tehran is pulling every string it has in Iraq, urging Baghdad’s government to demand a complete U.S. military withdrawal from the country. Iran applies military pressure via Iranian-sponsored militias and armed groups in Iraq. These militias and groups have attacked U.S. military and diplomatic facilities, U.S. and international mission support entities, and technical services companies providing professional training, technical expertise, and advisory services to the Iraqi government.
A few weeks ago, Lockheed Martin decided to withdraw its maintenance and technical F-16 fighter jets staff from Balad Airbase, 40 miles from Baghdad, due to the repeated attacks carried out by Iranian-linked militias on the airbase and the Iraqi government’s inability to rein in the armed militias. The departure of Lockheed Martin technical staff will disrupt the Iraqi air force’s ability to deliver critical airstrikes against sensitive ISIS targets that began to re-emerge rapidly and gain noticeable momentum in recent weeks.
ELEMENTS OF PRESSURE
Tehran’s Provocative Activities
Iran will continue to pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and allied interests in the Middle East as Tehran increases the efforts to minimize the U.S. presence and influence in the region. To this end Iran will continue to support Shi’ite factions and armed groups in Iraq, Hezbollah, and affiliated militias in Lebanon and Syria as well as Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Tehran will also resort to a wide range of methodologies during the course of negotiation in Vienna, Austria, to diplomatically achieve economic flexibility by attaining relief from the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran’s financial and energy sectors. Militarily Iran will maintain the pressure in Iraq through its proxies’ attacks – to advance its positions and forcefully reduce the U.S. presence in the region. Tehran is expected to take risks that could indirectly threaten U.S. and allied interests in the region by carrying out sophisticated conventional and non-conventional attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). They will simultaneously continue with negotiations to extract diplomatic and economic concessions from the international community.
The Iranian regime’s inclination to carry out direct military attacks against U.S. targets depends on Iran’s conception of the U.S. reaction and response seriousness. Tehran has a unique ability to conduct operations through different proxies over geographically scattered areas without triggering direct conflict and without jeopardizing any possible sanctions relief.
During specific periods throughout the negotiations, the process may reflect a tactical shift where Iranian sponsored armed groups and proxies such as Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon will be conducting clandestine operations and launching attacks against specific targets within the Israeli perimeters in retaliation for several attacks against Iranian facilities Tehran’s regime allegedly believes Israel is responsible for.
Iran’s Regional Activities – IRAQ
In Iraq, Iranian policy and influence threaten to exacerbate the deteriorating political process and the fragile security in the country. Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shi’ite militias continue to challenge the central government in Baghdad as they attempt to run the country from within. The Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shi’ite militias also pose the primary threat to U.S. facilities, support installations, and U.S. personnel through repeated attacks on jointly-operated bases, U.S. logistics convoys, Iraqi airfields, and service facilities. Tehran continues to leverage superior relationships with local Iraqi groups, political leaders, tribal figures, and government officials to evade U.S. sanctions in an attempt to compel the U.S. government to withdraw from Iraq .
Baghdad is still crammed into a tight corner. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been maneuvering for over a year to balance Baghdad’s relations with Tehran and Washington on the one hand and avoid turning Iraq into a battleground on the other hand. The task is highly challenging, if not suicidal. The reality is that any other Iraqi leader will be facing the same scenarios; highly dominant Iranian influence inside the Iraqi political structure, deeply rooted Iranian permeation within the Iraqi military and security institutions, and excessive control from Iranian-linked private entities over the Iraqi financial, and economic resources, not to mention the overriding Iranian-linked militias that could turn the scene into a tragic political and security reality.
Iran’s Militias and Proxies
For decades, Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias and armed groups have changed the social, political, demographic, and military scene in the Middle East. They have facilitated the Iranian strategic expansion over large portions of the region, especially in conjunction with the U.S. decision to decrease the number of troops in Iraq (or as referred by mainstream media; the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011). Iranian-linked armed groups emerged into the open under so-called “Islamic Resistance Factions” titles to promote victory over foreign troops (U.S.-led Coalition Forces) after signing the Strategic Convention “Agreement” between Baghdad and Washington in 2011. Additionally, The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June of 2014 and the fall of more than one-third of Iraq represented the golden opportunity Iran has long-awaited or perhaps anticipated.
As of 2019, more than 109 different Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite groups and sub-groups have been known to operate in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon under direct supervision from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF). Those groups are considered the main pillars of the Iranian influence in the region. Many of those prominent Iranian-sponsored factions have fought fierce battles against the U.S. led coalition forces in Iraq between the years 2004-2011.
Many factions have been incorporated under the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), currently known as The Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC), and formerly known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or Al-Hashid al Sha’abi, in Arabic. Iranian-sponsored Iraqi Shi’ite militias have been actively engaged in criminal activities that involve trading, smuggling, and trafficking of petroleum products, heavy weapons, and military-grade armaments, narcotic drugs, assassination campaigns, and systematic money laundry activities, in addition to their role in carrying out terrorist attacks on many international entities, diplomatic missions, and mission support personnel.
The formation of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) was catastrophically underestimated by many military and intelligence institutions, both regionally and internationally. The PMU was subsequently classified by the Iraqi government as an official government organization, incorporated into the Iraqi Armed Forces, and was recognized as an active political entity that participated in the last parliamentary elections in 2018. The PMU became Iran’s Trojan horse in the region.
THE MILITIAS RAMIFICATIONS
- Popular Mobilization Forces
- Hezbollah Brigades – Iraq
- Hezbollah al-Nujaba
- Lebanese “Hezbollah.”
- Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq
- Imam Ali Brigades
- Abu al-Fadhil al-Abbas Brigade
- Sayyid al-Shuhada’a Brigade
- Saraya al-Khorasani
- Al-Mahdi Army
- Peace Brigades
- The Promised Day Brigade
- Badr Organization
- Fatimiyoun Brigade – Afghan Shi’ite Militia
- Zaynabiyoun Brigade – Pakistani Shi’ite Militia
- IRGC – Quds Force
In recent years, Iraq has turned into an open theater for the Iranian-sponsored militias, especially Hezbollah, Saraya al-Khorasani, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. The increasing Iranian influence, the weakness of the Iraqi government, and the massive corruption provided Tehran the opportunity to turn Iraq into an operations base to revive Iran’s deteriorating economy by utilizing the Iraqi Shi’ite militias and other proxies (individuals and groups). Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq are regularly engaged in significant investments and other activities such as oil smuggling, drug trafficking, and cross-country trade in heavy weapons. Massive amounts of profits are diverted to save Iran’s deteriorating economy and circumvent the U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
Although Iran is the primary benefactor from these militias and armed groups, the activities and rapid expansion of these groups, and their increasing self-sufficiency, has begun to disturb Tehran’s strategic plans. This is due mainly to the independence of the leaders who supervise these groups. The current overlap of interests by militia leaders has reduced Tehran’s ability to unify these groups and get them to coordinate attacks against specific targets or to systematically intervene in politics.
Iranian Failure to Unify Their Proxies in Iraq
Tehran’s efforts to establish and unify their militias and proxies under a central command have been slammed with an unanticipated failure. The visit of Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani, the commander of Quds Corps (Division of IRGC) to Baghdad during the first week of April, was focused on conveying a message from Tehran to Baghdad. Tehran urged the Iraqi government to apply pressure during the third phase of the negotiations concerning the strategic agreement between the United States and Iraq, and to demand that the United States immediately withdraw the remaining U.S. forces and military advisors from Iraq.
Gen. Qaani provided detailed instructions to the Iranian affiliated militias and armed groups in Iraq to reduce their activities and coordinate their activities. Qaani’s instructions emphasized the critical need for compliance with a centralized operational procedure and for all military actions to be conducted in harmony with the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Gen. Qaani has also met with the three major militia commanders in Iraq; Qais Khazali; the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, Akram Al Ka’abi; the leader of Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Abu Wala’a Al-Wala’ai; the leader of Sayyid al-Shuhada’a Brigade, in addition to a representative of Kata’ib Hezbollah aka; Hezbollah Brigades – Iraq (Led by Ahmad al-Hamidawi).
Qaani’s visit to Baghdad was also to inform the Iranian-sponsored militia leaders and the Iraqi popular mobilization forces (PMU) of Tehran’s decision to assign Muhammad Kawtharani to establish a central command to reorganize the different Iranian-sponsored groups and to oversee and coordinate their operations in Iraq. Kawtharani; is the Lebanese Hezbollah representative in Iraq, a dual citizen of Lebanon and Iraq, and one of Iran’s most influential individuals in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. He has been actively involved in strengthening and deepening Hezbollah’s influence and activities in the region. Kawtharani has been on the U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list since 2013 for his criminal activities. Known as “Sulaimani’s Shadow,” Kawtharani has assumed greater responsibility in leading Iraq’s Shi’ite militias since the death of former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.
Abandoning the Iraqi PMU
Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani’s failure in unifying the Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq under a centralized command forced Tehran to make hard decisions. The Quds Force commander’s efforts to organize the different militias and armed groups under one umbrella have been confronted with objections from the militia leaders in Iraq and an unanticipated rejection of the new structural change. Iraqi militia leaders will not accept being placed under a centralized command. These groups have been building and running deep states, and each militia has its army, armament, business activities, and financial status. Iraqi militia leaders also impose royalties on local merchants and small business owners. Additionally, Iraqi Shi’ite militias cut shares from every governmental contract, and therefore none of the militia leaders are willing to surrender their empires to a higher command.
The recent developments and other factors have increased Iranian suspicions about the exposure of their militias and proxies to possible infiltration. The cooperation of some of the pro-Iran Iraqi field commanders with international intelligence services forced Tehran to abandon their long-standing project to reproduce an Iraqi version of the Iranian IRGC.
Tehran’s decision to abandon many of their allies and proxies in the country has been thoroughly discussed internally by the several Iranian intelligence services and the Quds Corps resulting in a final decision to abandon the Iraqi PMU and to rely on limited numbers of militias that are organizationally smaller, more complicated and sophisticated structurally, and are directly linked to the IRGC’s Quds Force. The new entities will resort to highly advanced non-conventional warfare techniques, advanced technology, and diversity in target selections. Smaller drones and cyber warfare are the significant approaches the new entities will adopt, in addition to luring the western intelligence services to cultivate and recruit some of the abandoned individuals and groups that Tehran has previously recruited.
Iran’s Regional Activities – Syria
In Syria, Iran’s aspirations to extend a wide range of control over the border areas with Iraq, Lebanon and have the ability to have a glance on the Golan Heights now and then, have never faded or diminished. Iran continuously sought to establish military bases on Syrian grounds to facilitate the transportation of equipment and logistical support to Hezbollah on one side and establish a forward position to threaten Israel. However, the Russian presence in Syria and Moscow’s agreements with Tel-Aviv and Tehran helped curb Tehran’s aspirations on the ground. The Russian presence has also restrained Iran’s hostile activities in areas that pose a direct threat to Israel to avoid unnecessary diplomatic and military conflict.
On the eastern flank, Iranian activities are on the rise on both sides of the borderlines between Iraq and Syria. Tehran is focused on tightening the grip on certain transportation hubs and major commercial terminals that connect Syria and Iraq, namely, Albukamal. The border town lies on a strategic supply route that Iranian-sponsored militias regularly use to transport reinforcements from Iraq into Syria to aid al-Assad’s regime, supply Hezbollah fighters on the Syrian side, and mobilize military aid and militia members between both countries. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) heavily used this same route to smuggle their members from Syria into the western Iraqi desert during the past two decades. This strategic border crossing was also one of the major routes ISIS terrorists relied on in both stages; the rise and fall of their caliphate.
Iran-sponsored Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and specifically factions of the PMU, have been in full control over the Syrian town of Albukamal since liberating the area from the Islamic State (ISIS) in late 2017. Tehran and their regional proxies, namely, The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), have been actively planning to establish multiple Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) intended to be used for specific missile systems, as a retaliatory measure against any Israeli attacks on Iranian facilities, installations, or interests.
The mainly Sunni tribal territories between Syria and Iraq, specifically Deir Ez-Zor and the territories across the borders on the Iraqi side, have witnessed demographic alteration, displacement campaigns, and extended Iranian-sponsored geographic dominance and control meant to weaken the Sunni-Arab tribal population on both sides in Syria, and Iraq, prevent Sunni-Arabs from seeking autonomy, and more strategically; preventing any possible future agreements or cooperation between Sunni-Arab tribal populations and major powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Israel.
Iran’s Nonconventional Warfare
Iran’s growing ballistic missiles inventory and capabilities place U.S. forces, allies, and partners in the middle east region in great danger. Iran’s desire is to establish multiple Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) where ballistic missiles may be deployed in both an offensive and a deterring manner. The U.S. government will be facing a critical challenge during negotiations and Tehran will not relinquish its ballistic missile system.
Iranian’s Quds Aviation;(Qods Aviation), an aerospace industries entity of the IRGC, has been actively developing the Iranian aero-defense capabilities since 1980. In recent years, the aero-defense entity has been collaborating with industrial and military technology providers from China and Eastern European countries to acquire highly sophisticated technology and technical specs to advance the Iranian manufacturing of unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs (Drones), Ground Control Stations (GCS), and specialized long-range Radar Systems.
Iranian specialists from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) have been actively engaged in training trusted Iraqi Shi’ite militias and special units from Hezbollah to use small and medium-sized drones armed with precision-guided munitions. These are to carry out attacks on certain U.S. targets in Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. The Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq have been using the UAVs to maximize their tactical advantage, reduce the need for rockets (transportation, launching), avoid detection, and to deliver strikes more accurately and from closer ranges.
The new Iranian shift to unconventional warfare methodologies poses an imminent risk and endangers U.S. forces, interests, and U.S. allies in the Middle East. This tactical maneuver is meant to counter and overwhelm defense systems around the region with drones and missiles. The U.S. government needs to develop a defense strategy and collaborate with regional allies to mitigate and counter the increasing hostility of the Iranian regime in the region.
IMPACTS ON REGIONAL ALLIES
- The Impacts of the Nuclear Agreement on the Gulf States:
Gulf States’ concerns stem from the possible outcomes of a new nuclear agreement with Iran, especially if the agreement is a renewal of the previous JCPOA agreement of 2015. U.S. regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and UAE are looking forward to seeing an agreement that provides limitations to the Iranian nuclear program and additional provisions that would limit the Iranian interference and expansion in the region.
Saudi Arabia has been targeted numerous times by Iranian ballistic missiles and UAVs, both directly and through Iranian-sponsored militias such as the Houthis in Yemen. Iranian-Backed Houthis have been targeting vital petroleum facilities in Saudi Arabia, such as ARAMCO, resulting in devastating damages to the country’s crude output. The U.S. administration will have to balance between the desire to have new accords with Iran and maintaining the long-term strategic alliances and interests in the region without compromising allies’ national security and stability.
- The Impacts of the Nuclear Agreement on Israel
Israel is the most affected by the growing Iranian influence in the region. Iranian threats to Israel are no longer just media propaganda. Through its militias and proxies, Iran is actively engaged in clandestine operations and carrying out attacks against Israeli targets across the borders, mainly from Syria and Lebanon, not to mention the significant support to the Hamas organization. The nuclear agreement is just another challenge Israel has to deal with without negatively affecting the strategic relationship between Tel-Aviv and Washington.
The Israeli concern stems from the possible options that the new agreement may provide Tehran’s regime in terms of economic relief, and thus tactical capabilities. Israel worries that a new deal may allow Iran to extend broader and more profound influence in the region, as well as granting Tehran additional freedom to cultivate, recruit and sponsor new radical organizations, in addition to expanding support to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other factions in Gaza.
Israel as a state and nation has no interest in long devastating, and depleting wars. Israel is focused on maintaining its national security and preserving the safety and stability of its country, while the Iranian regime is focused on disrupting the peace process in the Middle East and hindering the Israeli-Arab aspirations for a stable region and long-term strategic and economic alliances.
This article was first published in June 2021.