Shiite militiamen from Popular Mobilization forces in Iraq heading to the front line to fight Islamic State group militants in the Samarra on March 9, 2016. (AP)

By Track Persia

May 16, 2019

Iran and its allies in the region have started to feel the pinch of the impacts the new set of US sanctions after the US Treasury Department discontinued its sanction exemptions for Turkey, China, India and others as a part of the Trump Administration’s increasingly tough stance on the Iranian sanctions.

The US strategy of the exemptions from these sanctions is meant that the exempted countries will eventually phase off their trading with the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to put maximum pressure to change its aggressive policy and deter it from developing a nuclear bomb.

On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that US warships had been dispatched to the Arabian Peninsula in response to unspecified threats from Iran. Later, US officials reportedly cited the risk to American forces and allies from Iran-backed militia or proxy forces.

In the meantime, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled a planned visit to Berlin in order to visit Baghdad, where he said he discussed “the increased threat stream” with Iraqi leaders and stressed the need to protect US forces there.

At the same time, Iran announced that it will stop complying with some parts of the 2015 nuclear deal, continuing the pattern of escalation set in motion by the Trump administration’s decision to walk away from the agreement. To intensify the effectiveness of the sanctions, the White House has also introduced a new set of sanctions against Iran’s metals sector.

It seems that the US sanctions have also affected Iran’s allies in the region such as the pro-President Bashar Assad in Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran supports these militias by training and funding to implement its strategy in the region and to project its power beyond its borders.

According to US officials, the financial strain shows that the new US sanctions have proved they are effective. They claim that the sanctions are aimed at cutting off Iran’s funding for terrorists and they so far show they are working. The pressure the Trump Administration practising on the Iranian regime is implemented through blacklisting 25 participants and it has been described by the US Treasury Department as a vast currency trading scheme that had funnelled more than $1 billion used by the Iranian regime to fund its military operations in the Middle East.

Military operations carried out by these pro-Iranian groups in the region have countered the US, worried some Gulf State, in particular, Saudi Arabia and threatened Israel. These groups have not only been key players in implementing Iran’s agenda, but they also have been major factors in prolonging the regional conflicts.

The US sanctions on Iran show that they have also affected Iran’s allies, consequently they will have impacts on the prolonged armed conflicts where Iran has high presence, in particular, in Syria and Iraq which both have been inflicted by  war on terror manifested  by the extremist militants of the Islamic State after they overran large parts of these countries in 2014.

The signs of financial strain on Iran’s proxies are reflected in the latter’s complaints about the salaries they have recently received from the Iranian regime. They complain that the payments have been delayed and they have missed their paychecks.

Some Iran-backed militants fighting in Syria, for instance, have admitted that the golden days are gone because of the new US sanctions against on Iran, complaining that Iran does not have enough money to pay them.

The question which most observers ask is whether all Iran’s allies will follow Iran’s orders such as those relating to carrying out military operations in the region, given the different level of influence the Iranian regime has on them, especially a few of them are less financially controlled by the Iranian regime.

In Iraq, for instance, the Popular Mobilization Forces, a constellation of Shiite militia groups emerged in 2014 in response to the Iraqi military’s capitulation to ISIS, have become an official part of the Iraqi security forces that have recruited thousands of fighters. Some of these groups have been trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. They are staunch supporters of the Iranian regime and have made open threats against U.S. forces and their presence in the country especially after the Trump administration imposed new sanctions against Iran. There are also other militias which claim they oppose Iranian influence in Iraq and bill themselves as Iraqi nationalists such as Saraya al-Salam headed by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Most of the Iraqi Shiite militias have become financially less dependent on the Iranian regime, though they are still ideologically committed to the Iranian theocracy and emulate Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Consequently, the new set of the US sanctions imposed on Iran might not have as much effect on the pro-Iran militias in Iraq compared to the effects they have had on the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Iraqi Shiite militias have been successful in infiltrating Iraq’s state institutions and using Iraq’s resources for their interests. They can also help the Iranian regime to circumvent the new US sanctions through smuggling Iranian oil or pressing the Iraqi government to depend on Iran’s industry to ease its economic plight. Therefore, it is not clear to what extent the new set of US sanctions can deter Iran from continuing its aggressive policy.

Nonetheless, some of Iran’s allies in Iraq have become cautious in issuing threats against the recent US sanctions against Iran, especially after the US increased its military presence in the Gulf. Iraqi Shiite forces, such as Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and al-Nujaba, for instance, have stopped threatening that they will target the US in Iraq, and al-Nujaba militia has even denied that its militants threatened the US forces in Iraq.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.