Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, officially confirmed Iran’s sponsorship of militias in a host of neighboring countries. The veil of covert support, training, and supervision was lifted when he addressed a press conference on January 9. In the backdrop, there was a range of flags belonging to Iran’s proxies.
Though a majority of the flags represented designated terrorist outfits, Iran admitted its state patronage to convey the threat of widespread retaliation against the killing of General Qassem Soleimani. However, the flags on display behind the general don’t quite represent Tehran’s extensive regional proxy network.
The flags represented: the IRGC, the Basij, Hezbollah (Lebanon), Ansarullah (Yemen), Hashd al Shaabi (Iraq), Hamas (Palestine), Liwa Fatimiyoun (Afghanistan), and Liwa Zainebiyoun (Pakistan). Their affiliation with Iran has been well known and documented but never acknowledged so bluntly by the Iranian government and its military.
A rare display of Iran’s military might appeared more relevant when General Amir Ali Hajizadeh stated: “If we were looking to kill, we could have designed the operation in a way such that 500 [Americans] would be killed in the first step, and if they had responded, a further 4,000 to 5,000 would be killed in the next steps within 48 hours.” As much as it was a reminder to the world of Iran’s retaliatory power, it was also a way to pay tribute to Major General Qassem Soleimani’s contribution and stratagem.
Not only did General Hajizadeh promise Hashd al Shaabi revenge for the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis but also publicly acknowledged in his press conference Iran’s links to this militia outfit as well as displaying its flag in the backdrop. Among the messages from the general was also that if one of its proxies was hit, it would invoke Iran’s retribution.
The IRGC sought to exploit the nationalistic sentiment that surged in the wake of Soleimani’s killing. Albeit, the events which unfolded in the days that followed exposed the shallowness of Iran’s extreme retaliation pledge.
While Yemen’s Houthis – Ansarullah – maintain an embassy in Tehran, Iran’s ties to Hezbollah of Lebanon have been repeatedly acknowledged by Hassan Nasrullah. “We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah confirmed in a speech. He added, “As long as Iran has money, we will have money.”
Evidently, the IRGC took matters into its own hands after losing the Quds Force commander. The shooting down of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 and the ensuing chain of events did not weaken the military’s grip on the country’s narrative due to its control of state media. Possibly, to divert attention from its blunder of failing to distinguish an airliner from a cruise or ballistic missile, the Iranian military provided a startling diversion by displaying the flags of its proxies behind General Hajizadeh. The gimmick comes at a huge price, if not in the short-run, then definitely in the long-run.
The militia groups represented by the flags placed behind the general are located in various neighboring countries of Iran, indicating Tehran’s interference in their internal affairs and its violation of their sovereignty. How can a country be allowed to select, train, arm and deploy citizens of other countries to launch attacks? Moreover, Iran showed its daringness in speaking on the record about its proxy outfits as well.
This raises a few important questions. Does Iran dictate every action the likes of Hezbollah, Hamas and Ansarullah carry out? Do the outfits agree to Iran’s military and foreign policy and are they ready to accept the implications thereof? Should Iran not be held accountable for its own admission of deploying militias in other sovereign countries as well as for their actions in a court of law? Should there not be diplomatic and political responses to Iran’s acknowledgment of recruiting and deploying militias?
As per international law, when a state sends an armed militia into another state to depose its government or to attack its civilians, it is committing an armed attack. The victim state can invoke the right of self-defense, which must be proportionate to the aggression.
While IRGC-friendly governments run Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq with little freedom of action, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan can hold Iran responsible for its illegitimate actions. The Yemeni government in Sanaa can undertake legal proceedings against Iran for its links to Ansarullah. Afghanistan can also be persuaded by its Parliament and friendly states to challenge Iran’s role in recruiting, training, arming and deploying its citizens to protect the Assad government in Syria. Besides, the country heavily depends on foreign, especially western, aid and cannot be part of Iran’s destructive, expansionist agenda and stratagem.
Last but not least is Pakistan, a country that has itself been a victim of foreign interference since the late 1960s till to-date. Though a strong pro-Iran lobby exists in the country, the presence of individuals facilitating the Zainebiyoun Brigade cannot be ignored. Since 2014, not only did Pakistan increase its surveillance of its shared border with Iran but has also arrested returning Shiite mercenaries. Yet, there has been no official statement on the issue. It has been reported that the matter has been repeatedly raised at the ambassadorial level as well as during bilateral visits. No Pakistani official or parliamentarian has come forth to question Iran’s acknowledgment of its recruitment of Shiites from Pakistani territory. Ironically, media houses have sidestepped the issue of Iran’s interference while beating the drum of neutrality in case of Tehran’s conflict with Washington or Riyadh. It is quite less likely that Pakistan will protest to the Iranian embassy in Islamabad or declare the Zainebiyoun Brigade as a terrorist entity. It may do so if the United States and other important powers put diplomatic pressures on Islamabad.
Without any punitive action against Iran’s interference which legally amounts to armed attacks, Iran will be emboldened to repeat the same tactics in other countries too.