The ouster of ISIS fighters from Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, has been widely celebrated. Although this victory was brought about in no small part by American airpower, it was a triumph for Iran more than for the United States. The vast majority of fighters on the front lines belonged to Shiite militias, many of them trained, equipped, and advised by the Iranians. Their de facto commander is Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, which is charged with exporting the Iranian revolution. He has become a seemingly ubiquitous presence on the front lines, his appearances celebrated through a clever Iranian social media campaign. Iranian T-72 tanks and even Fajr-5 artillery rockets and Fateh-110 missiles are now appearing in Iraq as well.
What’s Iran up to? Most commentators emphasize the fight against ISIS, but the transfer of heavy weaponry, which is of limited use in the Tikrit campaign, implies a wider agenda. A few observers have suggested that Tehran wants to “Finlandize” Iraq. But that’s not quite right. Iran won’t be satisfied if Iraq merely adopts a neutral posture. Tehran wants to achieve something more ambitious: It seeks nothing less than to “Lebanonize” Iraq.
Although Lebanon and Iraq are very different, they have striking resemblances. Both were cobbled together out of provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and both are complex ethnic mosaics in which a large Shiite underclass was denied power for decades. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lebanon was in the throes of a civil war and Iran was undergoing
a revolution. Even as they were fighting to take power in Tehran, Iranian revolutionaries exploited the chaos in Lebanon to organize Hezbollah (the Party of God), a Shiite militia subservient to Tehran. For local consumption, Hezbollah emphasizes its popular, Lebanese roots and claims that it sprung up spontaneously to resist the 1982 Israeli invasion. By presenting itself as the defender of all Arabs against the “Zionist entity,” Hezbollah seeks to overcome the traditional Sunni distrust of Shiites.
For many years, Western analysts tended to take Hezbollah’s propaganda at face value. Today, however, Hezbollah’s deep participation in the Syrian civil war (in which Israel is largely a bystander) demonstrates that it has no qualms about training its guns on fellow Muslims in order to protect Iranian interests. Its intervention in Syria was the key factor that saved the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s greatest ally, and it has also supported Iranian initiatives elsewhere in the Arab world, including in Iraq.
But of course its primary mission is to keep Lebanon in the orbit of Tehran. It does so not by ruling directly but by using extortionate methods, forcing Lebanese leaders to give it complete freedom of action in key domains, security first and foremost. Thus it deploys, with no governmental oversight, some 50,000 Iranian-supplied missiles and rockets aimed at Israel. To maintain the support of its Shiite constituents, Hezbollah runs hospitals, schools, and other social-welfare activities funded by Iran as part of a subsidy believed to total $100 million a year.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq gave Iran the opportunity to export this Hezbollah model to its Arab neighbor. Starting in 2003, Iran supplied money, weapons, and training to numerous Shiite militias in Iraq, such as the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Khataib Hezbollah. At first, the chief goal of the militias was to drive out U.S. forces, which served as the major obstacle in their path to power. They accomplished that objective in 2011 when President Obama failed to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement. Today it is the Sunni jihadists who preoccupy the militias. But just as Hezbollah was never simply the homegrown counterweight to Israel that it pretended to be, so we should not today see the Iraqi militias as bands of local boys spontaneously organizing to protect embattled Shiites from ISIS. Iran has larger purposes. It seeks, in the near term, to consolidate its control of Iraq. After that, it will use Iraq as another springboard to further expand its power in the Arab world.