By Damien McElroy
February 18, 2019
At an airbase outside Washington, America’s special envoy for Iran Brian Hook spoke late last year at the opening of an unusual exhibition.
Mounted photographs showed weapons of Iranian origin recovered from insurgent groups and militias in country after country. Lethal materiel from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Lebanon was displayed in glass cases around the room.
Mr Hook declared the haul demonstrated a “clear and present danger” to stability in the region and farther afield. “We’re one [Iranian] missile away from igniting a regional conflict,” he said.
Iran’s revolution installed a regime that set out to build overseas networks of influence as a means of sustaining itself in power. It was a model that drew inspiration from Marxists like Leon Trotsky as well as a school of home-grown socialists like Ali Shariati.
“This is not an ordinary government,” declared Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, just days before the revolution was consummated in 1979. A decade later, just before his death, he summarised the global ambitions of his regime. “Our war is one of ideology and does not recognise borders or geography,” he told followers.
“Khomeini announced his style of revolution would spread to other countries and that instruction has never disappeared from the minds of the current leadership,” a senior Arab diplomat told The National. “The spirit of exporting the revolution means funding and arming militias or terror groups in the Middle East – plus spreading support in the minds of others beyond.”
Saeed Ghasseminejad, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, identified several distinct strands of networks that Iran has built up over four decades.
By establishing itself as an anti-imperialist, anti-American bulwark, Iran has inserted itself into a global ideological network to cultivate allies on the Left. The country has also developed a long-term network of family members overseas.
“From the outset influential people in the regime all had strong connections to revolutionary leftists in the Palestinians, with the Lebanese and to [Libyan dictator Muammar] Qaddafi,” said Mr Ghasseminejad. “Their ideas were in many ways similar to those of Trotsky and they believed they needed to export the revolution to sustain themselves.”
In neighbouring Iraq the fall of Saddam Hussein was exploited by Iran with the help of long-term allies like the Badr group but also by the cultivation of new factions such as the Kataib Hizbollah and Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq.
Despite persistent denials, the rise of the Houthi militias in Yemen has been increasingly tied to Iranian support. Mr Hook pointed this out at the Washington exhibit when he warned of the cross-border ballistic threat posed by the faction that controls Sanaa.
“Iran has steadily expanded its strategic influence across the Middle East in large part due to its cultivation of a network of foreign co-religionist militant clients,” observed an article in the Chatham House journal International Affairs last year. “Those clients have enabled Iran to fight adversaries by proxy in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iran’s growing regional influence is often credited to the shared religious ties and loyalties of its clients.”
As an article in Sentinel, the journal of the US military academy at West Point, noted in 2017, Iran made a massive play to capitalise on the Syrian conflict. “The Iranians have gone ‘all in’ on Syria, expending vast amounts of blood and treasure, not to mention domestic political capital, in propping up Assad’s regime, one of its few remaining allies in the region,” noted the authors Colin Clarke and Philip Smyth.
The US decision to withdraw forces from the Syrian battlefield marks a turning point for Iran’s role in the region, making it much more unlikely that Tehran can be denied a so-called “land-bridge” that stretches from its borders to the Mediterranean. “We haven’t seen any retreats because the only way they retreat is if they are put under real pressure,” said Mr Ghasseminejad said. “The US could have pushed back in Syria and Yemen but now it’s announced it’s pulling back itself.”
For many experts the network of proxies operated by Iran serves a wider global purpose, providing a base for a diffuse spread of illicit financing streams that bolster the assets of the Iranian regime. “Why do they have a presence in Africa or in Latin America? For a country like Iran, it doesn’t seem to make sense until you look at how it’s used to transfer funds,” said Mr Ghasseminejad.
Tehran’s networked approach has also led to some surprising alliances.
Iran has proven adept at cultivating leftist groups that see common cause in Ayatollah Khomeini’s America bashing. Figures such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro were virulent defenders of the regime.
Tehran has supported formerly marginalised leftists, using community networks and media outlets to cultivate politicians now on the rise, including the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.
Mr Corbyn was a regular guest on Iran’s Press TV, a Tehran-controlled television channel that was closed by Britain’s media regulator in 2012. Iran-friendly community groups also provided a platform for Tehran’s outreach. Elections last year for the Labour Party’s governing national executive committee saw a triumph by Yasime Dar, a Corbyn ally who appeared at successive rallies to mark the anniversary of the revolution held annually at the Manchester Islamic Centre.
Recent investigations also tied Iran to a number of front groups and news networks that appear to be based in the West but are used by Tehran to disseminate news from its own networks.
The cybersecurity specialists FireEye helped identify an Iranian-run network, the International Union of Virtual Media, which was made up of news websites and social media accounts. The apparently western portals were used to disseminate Press TV and other Iranian-backed news reports.
“It’s a large-scale amplifier for Iranian state messaging,” Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Reuters at the time. “This shows how easy it is to run an influence operation online, even when the level of skill is low. The Iranian operation relied on quantity, not quality, but it stayed undetected for years.”
Presented with the evidence, Facebook said it would remove accounts that were engaged in “inauthentic behaviour” throughout its network.