Iran has a vast network of allies, cells and ‘proxy’ groups worldwide capable of carrying out complex intelligence, sabotage and even terrorism operations
These Iran-backed groups in their immediate surroundings are the most logical option to orchestrate retaliation: they are armed, well-motivated and more or less directly dependent on Tehran, through the Quds Force. Iran has a dozen ‘proxy’ forces in the Middle East: in addition to Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iranian security forces have helped create the National Defense Force in Syria, a group modelled after Iran’s Basij militia. They are also responsible for the establishment of four militias in Iraq (Harakat al-Nujaba, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization), one in Bahrain (the Al Ashtar Brigades), another in Afghanistan (Liwa Fatemiyoun) and another in Pakistan (Liwa Zaynebiyoun). The last two, formed by marginalized Shia in their countries, they have been deployed in Syria.
The reasons to work with these groups are clear: ” It is relatively inexpensive to equip militias, many of whom already believe in the cause and are willing to fight and die”, explains the analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu of the ‘think tank’ conservator Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The strategy involves a low cost with a high return on investment”, he says. The benefits became clear after the invasion of Iraq when Iran began actively supporting the insurgents to harass US forces: according to the Pentagon, the groups supported by Tehran are responsible for the death of at least 608 US soldiers between 2003 and 2011 According to a recent study From the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, the number of these ‘proxy’ fighters grew from 110,000 in 2011 to 180,000 in 2018.
But despite the confusion regarding “Shia militias”, not all groups that are part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces – created in 2014 by a fetus from Ayatollah Ali Sistani to fight against the Islamic State after the fall of Mosul— They are loyal to Iran. Many of these groups have their own interests and links. But those that do depend on Tehran have a strong motivation to fight in their wars. Its members travel clandestinely to receive secret military training in Iran, which deals with their welfare and their families, as described in an extensive report by journalist Borzou Daragahi. “Iran is our mother”, said one of these fighters in that article.
The Houthi rebels of Yemen are also often cited as a ‘proxy’ force of Iran, although these insurgents are an essentially local group formed autonomously in the heat of the civil war. What seems to be demonstrated is that Iranian advisers and Hezbollah members have provided missiles and advanced weaponry to Yemeni fighters, and have exerted their influence to turn a tribal insurgency into an effective combat force, increasingly sectarian and with greater political weight. Something similar can be said of Hamas, although it has been funded by Iran for years – some studies put this support at up to $ 300 million annually is an independent organization that does not receive Iranian orders. In addition, the civil war in Syria, in which Palestinian Islamists aligned themselves with anti-Assad rebels, was a fracture with Tehran that did not close until the end of 2017.
Hezbollah’s long arm
In its internal history of the Hezbollah movement, the organization’s ‘number 2’, Naim Qassem, affirms that the relationship with Iran “was forged through the Party’s efforts to make use of its innovative experience in the region and to ensure a champion of the cause of dealing with the Israeli occupation”. Although the group tries to present itself as independent, the reality is that Iran was involved from the beginning in its creation, establishing training camps in the Bekaa Valley during the war in Lebanon to train its first fighters. According to the US Department of the Treasury, Iran has been contributing 700 million dollars annually to Hezbollah until the pressure of the sanctions has forced Tehran to reduce its contribution.
The organization, in any case, has a powerful support network among the vast Lebanese diaspora, scattered throughout the world, which aims at financing the group through both lawful and illegal means. A large part of its activities takes place in Latin America, as evidenced by the arrest of Assad Ahmad Barakat, the Hezbollah treasurer, in Brazil in 2018. According to Edward Luttwak, of the Pentagon National Security Study Group, the Triple Border between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina is the most important base of Hezbollah outside Lebanon.
The same is true in the Balkans, where Hezbollah has some implantation in Bosnia and, especially, Bulgaria, whose three main cities have cells of the organization, according to analysts Kiril Avramov and Ruslan Trad. Its members have been detected by identifying possible Israeli targets in other countries, such as Serbia. The risk also extends to Western Europe: a 2017 German intelligence service report said 950 members of Hezbollah operate in the country. Many experts fear that, in the event of a conflict with Iran, these international networks far from the Middle East can be used as logistical support to carry out attacks and armed actions.
Cooperate with “the oppressed of the world”
The Constitution promulgated after the Iranian Revolution establishes the commitment to defend the rights of Muslims and support the oppressed “in every corner of the planet”. These clauses, considered a justification for the export of the revolution, are the basis for the creation of the Quds Force, the branch of the Revolutionary Guard in charge of actions abroad. “The key is that the Quds Force does not act like a normal military unit. It liaises with military or paramilitary forces in other countries to stimulate their determination, rather than fighting in the front“, explains Michael Axworthy, director of the Center for Persian Studies and Iranians of the University of Exter and author of the book ‘The revolutionary Iran’.
But in addition to linking with the ‘proxy’ groups, the Quds Force also carries out attacks: following a series of murders against Iranian nuclear scientists, operatives of this group prepared attacks on Israeli diplomats in 2012 in such disparate places as New Delhi, Tiblisi and Bangkok. Only the first was successful, but the other failures were due more to the effective action of several intelligence services than to the lack of expertise of the Iranians.
Iran has been working for decades to create an extensive web of influences through its embassies, cultural centres and mosques around the world, from Europe to Latin America, Southeast Asia or East Africa, which often function as sanctuaries for their intelligence operations or as recruitment offices for supporters and agents. It also cultivates the relationship with religious minorities likely to be co-opted – such as the Alawis of Bulgaria, which account for a small percentage of Muslims in that country – as well as with the large Iranian diaspora, not always composed of political exiles.
Security consultant Douglas Farah has documented dozens of cases of citizens of El Salvador, who after having participated in “revolutionary” workshops in Venezuela, were selected to secretly attend Iran training courses in intelligence, theology and anti-American rhetoric. The Univision network unveiled a similar program for Mexican students in 2011. “What is a potential threat? That Iran is creating a small group of sleeping cells throughout the region with specialized training that is not Iranian citizens and therefore subject to much less scrutiny by their governments and the US before travel here, ” he said before the Congressional Homeland Security Committee in 2013. Some experts, however, have downplayed this threat.
In 2013, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman – who died in strange circumstances, which many relate to this matter – published a 500-page report denouncing the “Iranian strategic penetration” not only in Argentina, but also in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Guyana, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, using mosques, NGOs and their own embassies to recruit and radicalize terrorists. Latin America seems to have become one of the main areas of Iranian expansion in logistics and intelligence tasks.
Banks of Ecuador and Venezuela served Iran for years to evade sanctions, and there have been scandals about passports from various Latin American countries that have ended up in the hands of Iranian operatives or their related groups, such as Hezbollah. And although Nicolás Maduro does not feel the same enthusiasm for Tehran as his predecessor Hugo Chávez, and several Latin American leaders favourable to Iran have been replaced by less friendly ones, both the links and informal networks in the region remain significant.
Iran is not kidding
For decades, Sudan was the main Iranian base in Africa, following the invitation of Islamist leaders who took power in a coup in 1989. Iran trained troops and the Sudanese air force, and the Iranian army used to dock in Port Sudan. Israel repeatedly attacked alleged Iranian arms convoys targeting Hamas in Sudanese territory. However, the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council led the Sudanese authorities to close all Iranian cultural centers and expel the cultural attaché and other diplomats. Since then, the African continent has been a secondary theatre for Tehran, although in case of conflict it could be the scene of attacks against Western interests. In both 2013 and 2016, the Kenyan authorities acted judicially against Iranian operatives accused of preparing attacks in the country. The group has even created unarmed militias in Nigeria and other countries.
The asymmetric threat that Iran represents is a reality. Iran has repeatedly attempted in Western countries, or has tried, in recent years, often – but not only – against Iranian exiles or political enemies: only in 2018, the authorities of Germany, Albania, Belgium, France, Austria and Denmark detained Quds Force operatives who allegedly planned attacks in those countries. It has also tried to do it in the US on at least two occasions.
In 2007, the US authorities managed to abort an Iranian plan to fly the pipes under the JFK airport in New York, through a local cell recruited in Trinidad and Tobago. Four years later, Iranian agents tried to hire a hitman from the Mexican cartels to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington by putting a bomb in the restaurant he used to frequent. The plan failed because one of the Iranian contacts turned out to be a DEA informant.
But on other occasions these attempts have been more successful: in 1996, a truck bomb in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia killed 19 American soldiers and wounded half a thousand people, an attack that the US justice considered responsible to Iran and a local organization called Hezbollah Al-Hejaz. And many investigators believe that the bomb against the Pan Am plane in Lockerbie in 1988, which killed 259 people and blamed Libya, was actually an act of Iranian revenge for the accidental demolition of a passenger plane by the US destroyer USS Vincennes that same year. Several senior Iranian positions are also charged with the attacks against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentine Israel Mutual Association in 1994.
Some voices say that Iran does not have the capacity to pose a real threat to the United States. Those who say that have not been paying attention.