By Faramarz Davar
January 20, 2020
After an absence of eight years, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attended Tehran’s Friday prayers to address the country at the height of one of its most critical periods since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He used his address partly to praise Iran’s Quds Force as “Warriors Without Borders” in a formulation intended to evoke the Doctor’s Without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontièrs) international medical aid organization.
Doctor’s Without Borders, based in Switzerland, is praised for its humanitarian work and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The Quds Force, meanwhile, is the expeditionary military force operated by the Revolutionary Guards and was commanded by General Ghasem Soleimani until he was killed by an American airstrike in Iraq earlier this month.
Ayatollah Khamenei said in his speech that “the Quds Force patiently watches everywhere and over everyone. They are warriors without borders; warriors who are present wherever they are needed, preserving the dignity of the oppressed, sacrificing their lives for the sacred and holy places [of the Middle East]. This is how we should see the Quds Force.”
The Force takes its name after Jerusalem, called “al-Quds” in Arabic, the recapture of which is a stated goal of the Islamic revolution. Jerusalem is the second-most sacred place in Islam; in Muslim belief, the Prophet Muhammad made a “night journey” there from Arabia, and Muslims still pray at the Dome of the Rock mosque in the city. The original United Nations mandate for Israel called for Jerusalem to be an international city – the Palestinian Authority however now only governs East Jerusalem. The primary mission and dream of the Quds Force is to “liberate” the city from Israeli control.
But the fact is that Khamenei’s dream of a Quds Force “without borders” is a nightmare for neighboring governments and civilians.
The Revolutionary Guards uses the Quds Force to establish militias in regional countries beyond local government control. Such militias rely on the Guards for their support and see themselves as accountable to the Islamic Republic. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Hashd al-Shaabi and Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq, Ansarolah in Yemen, Qat al-Dufa al-Watani (the National Defense Force) in Syria; all are semi-official armed militias whose structure is derived from the paramilitary Basij forces of Iran.
In recent years, the Quds Force has pushed further, using foreign troops to fight its wars in third countries. The Fatemiyoun Brigade, comprised of Afghan nationals, and the Zaynabyoun Brigade formed of Pakistani nationals, were formed by the Quds Force to fight Isis in Syria. These forces have accomplished their missions there – crippling Isis – and yet the militias have yet to demobilize or to leave their theatre of operations.
Reports have also emerged of Afghan refugees in Iran being conscripted to join these militia groups. A member of parliament in Afghanistan recently described Ghasem Soleimani as a “criminal” for forcing his countrymen into combat. The Quds Force also uses child soldiers [Persian link] which is a war crime. And reports suggest that some of these militias, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon, have been involved in drug trafficking to cover the expenses of their Iran-sponsored activities.
The militias operated by the Quds Force are extra-governmental actors. No government accepts responsibility for their actions and these actions are unsanctioned by the governments of the countries where they operate.
Iran itself refuses to accept [Persian link] responsibility for the actions of these groups. The Quds Force does not accept its involvement, for example, in the actions of Yemen’s Ansarolah militia; nor does it accept claims of its links to attacks [Persian link] by the de facto Houthi government on Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government accuses Yemenis alone of being responsible for such attacks.
The United States and Europe have meanwhile imposed sanctions on these various militia groups for their actions throughout the Middle East.
The fact remains, however, that these groups have demonstrated their links to the Islamic Republic by acting in Iran’s geopolitical interests during critical moments in regional politics. Iran-backed groups were responsible, for example, on raiding the US embassy in Baghdad last month during protests against Iraq’s government. The name of General Ghasem Soleimani was daubed on the embassy walls during the incident. And the raid was arguably even against Iraqi interests – despite being carried out by Iraqis.
The situation in Lebanon is the same. At a time when antagonistic rhetoric rages between Iran and the United States, Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah has challenges Israel and the US, threatening to their interests in the region.
In both cases, the actions of the local militias were not approved by Iraq’s or Lebanon’s governments, but were supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nor does Iran have military cooperation treaties with any of the countries where Quds Force militias operate.
These informal armed forces, commanded by a foreign military force, alien to the countries in which they operate, obeying neither a formal military command structure nor the fundamentals of international law, are in the eyes of Ayatollah Khamenei a benevolent brigade of “Warriors Without Borders.” The facts on the ground could hardly be more foreign to the rhetoric.