(November 25, 2021 / JNS) All too often, Israel’s detractors claim the Jewish state is an outpost of Western colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East. For example, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel an “occupying regime”2 created by the West “to expand their control of the [Middle East].”3 Likewise, current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has demonized Israeli civilians as “usurpers of the land of Palestine.”4
It is ironic then that, at the end of 2021, the primary source of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East is none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran itself. Iran sees itself recovering lost territories that were once part of the Safavid Empire, which it ruled since 1501, when it established the “Twelver school” of Shi’ite Islam as the official religion of the empire.
In the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the theocratic Shi’ite regime has spread its influence and control throughout the Middle East and beyond in the hopes of achieving imperialist-style hegemony through the exportation of the Islamic Revolution.
Khamenei entrusts the Iranian/Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department,5 with this enterprise. Recently, that initiative has escalated tensions with Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
As of last month, Tehran has been holding military exercises along its border with Azerbaijan, while engaging in bellicose rhetoric towards Baku. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian threatened that Iran would take “whatever action is necessary”6 to remove the alleged Zionist presence in Azeri territory. On Oct. 3, Khamenei venomously alluded to Baku’s connections to Jerusalem by tweeting, “Those who dig a hole for their brothers will be the first to fall into it,”7 insinuating that by creating positive relations with Israel, Azerbaijan is betraying the Muslim world and will suffer the consequences.
Such righteous indignation reflects the arrogant, absolutist, imperialistic mindset characteristic of Tehran’s radical leadership. Tehran insists that its political strategy pertaining to Israel is divinely inspired, correct and infallible, and must be imposed on all states in the region by force, if necessary. As this article will show, Tehran’s violent moralistic grandstanding is not limited to Baku, Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and Israel have enjoyed excellent relations for decades. In the Sept. 27 to Nov. 10, 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, Israeli-supplied armaments were essential to Baku’s victory over Yerevan.
It is estimated that Israeli arms comprise more than 60 percent of all Azeri weaponry.9 Iran supposedly views this relationship as a threat that has seen Azerbaijan become a nest for Israeli forces to conduct intelligence and military operations against Iran.10 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has dismissed such accusations as “baseless slander,”11 but even if they are true, Iran would be hypocritical to complain, given Tehran’s long-standing pre-existing efforts to encircle and threaten Israel through Syria, Lebanon and Gaza,12 as will be analyzed below.
Nevertheless, Tehran’s issues with Baku extend beyond Iran’s refusal to allow Azerbaijan to pursue its foreign policy independently. Azeris constitute the largest ethnic minority in Iran, with some estimates placing their numbers at 20 million, close to a quarter of Iran’s population.13 Most of them live in northwestern Iran in provinces that were historically part of Azerbaijan.
For decades, relations between the Iranian regime and its Azeri citizens have been acrimonious at best. Many Iranian-Azeris have long felt more of an ethnic, cultural, political and national connection to Azerbaijan than to the Islamic Republic.14
Iran has responded to this perceived threat by repressing its Azeri minority, engaging in cultural and ethnic imperialism by “prohibiting Azeris from speaking their language in schools, harass[ing] Azeri activists and chang[ing] Azeri town names.”15 Such policies are strikingly reminiscent of Imperial Russia’s russification programs, which saw the Tsars oppress Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others in an effort to eliminate their distinct cultural and ethnic identities.16
Simultaneously, Iran has consistently endeavored to minimize Azerbaijan’s influence and prosperity in the region, fearing that a confident Azerbaijan will inspire and support Azeri irredentism within Iran.17 Historically, Iran has achieved its goal by supporting Armenia with just enough weapons and food in its conflicts with Azerbaijan to lock Baku and Yerevan into endless cycles of conflict and consequent devastation.18
This is a mirror image of imperialist powers throughout history seeking to weaken their neighbors in order to protect their interests. Indeed, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire engaged in an analogous activity when it fought against Serbia in the Balkan Wars and World War I to weaken Belgrade, for fear of a strong Serbia arousing revolution among the empire’s disaffected Slavic populations.19
This imperialistic mindset explains Tehran’s recent aggression towards Baku. Azerbaijan’s major victory against Armenia in late 2020 has invigorated Azerbaijani geopolitical ambition, illustrated by the July 2021 Baku Declaration passed jointly in the Azeri, Turkish and Pakistani parliaments, articulating the three “brothers’” ambitions to become central players in the region.20
This declaration was followed by the Sept. 2021 “three brothers” military exercises on Azerbaijani soil with Azeri, Pakistani and Turkish forces. Iran responded to this expression of strength from its neighbor with aggression and combat exercises designed to cow Baku into submission.21 However, Baku has not been intimidated.
Instead, in response to the barrage of anti-Azeri rhetoric stemming from Tehran, shocking allegations have emerged from Azerbaijani sources. For example, the Azerbaijani government-linked military news site, Caliber.az, reported that the Iranian military illegally invaded Azerbaijani territory during the 2020 war with Armenia, causing chaos and confusion that allowed Armenian soldiers to regroup, with the result of extending the conflict and costing Azeri lives.23
Last month, on Oct. 12, Azerbaijani member of Parliament Fazil Mustafa argued that Baku should sue Tehran in international court over this violation of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. Furthermore, fellow Azerbaijani MP Javid Osmanov has accused Nejat Ojag, Khamenei’s official representative in Baku, of maintaining a nest of Iranian spies in Azerbaijan. Osmanov went on to say, “Azerbaijan is unmasking the vandalism and destructive mission of Iran on the historic lands of Azerbaijan.”24
While there is no way of knowing whether or not these claims are accurate, they certainly align with Iran’s goal and policies of stifling Azerbaijan’s growth and development. But, perhaps, more importantly, they fit neatly into Tehran’s track record of interfering with and dominating other states in the region.
In any case, any escalation could be devastating. Baku could no doubt rely on Ankara, Islamabad and Jerusalem for support. At the same time, Tehran would receive backing from its network of proxies disseminated throughout the Middle East, as well as Yerevan and perhaps even Moscow, since Russia is historically and traditionally Armenia’s biggest ally.25 Chaos would ensue, and as will be presented below, Iran is well acclimated to manipulating chaos and instability to advance its imperialistic agenda.
Meanwhile, tensions are also rising between Iran and Bahrain, especially in the wake of the Sept. 2020 Abraham Accords agreement normalizing relations between Manama and Israel. On Oct. 1 this year, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denounced Manama for hosting Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, stating, “This stain will not be erased from the reputation of Bahrain’s rulers.”26
Earlier, in March, Ahmad Vahidi, IRGC general and former Iranian defense minister, threatened that Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia would face “devastating consequences”27 for aligning with Israel. In August, while visiting Jerusalem, Bahrain’s undersecretary for international relations, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, blasted Tehran for “continuous interference in domestic affairs in [Bahrain]” and “support of extremism and terrorism and the continuous smuggling of arms and explosives and drugs and narcotics.”28
In reality, however, just as with Baku, tensions between Tehran and Manama extend beyond Israel, dating back to 1979. The Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain rules over a majority Shi’ite Muslim population, creating natural friction with the neighboring Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran intent on exporting its Islamic Revolution.
Bahraini Shi’ites indeed suffer institutional sectarian discrimination and repression at the hands of the Khalifa dynasty,29 and this creates a wellspring of domestic discontent for Iran to exploit to advance its interests in Bahrain. Indeed, Bahrain is barely 600 kilometers (373 miles) from Iran’s other arch-rival in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, frustrating Iranian ambitions to dominate the lucrative Persian Gulf.30
To exacerbate tensions, Iran periodically advances a claim to ownership of Bahrain. In 1957, the Iranian Parliament passed a bill claiming Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran.31
Affirming this unabashedly imperialist, colonialist claim, Hossein Shariatmadari, who was appointed to head the Iranian state-run newspaper Kayhan by Khamenei himself, wrote in 2008 and 2018 that Bahrain rightfully belongs to Iran,32 even though most Bahrainis, Sunni and Shi’ite, support Bahrain’s existence as a sovereign, independent state.33
Therefore, fomenting chaos and instability in Bahrain that would allow a Shi’ite pro-Iran regime to seize power fits into Iran’s imperialist ambitions. The U.S. State Department’s official website has characterized Iran’s provision of “weapons, support and training to [Bahraini] Shi’ite militant groups”34 dedicated to overthrowing the Bahraini government.
Leading the anti-government activity are the al-Ashtar brigades, listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.35 In Sept. 2020, following Manama’s normalization with Jerusalem, Bahrain announced that it had thwarted an al-Ashtar Brigade terrorist plot to strike foreign delegations, as well as “national security installations, oil depots and economic targets.”36
The Bahrainis claim that the terrorists were financed and equipped with explosives by the IRGC. While many may be reluctant to take Manama at its word, such interventionism in Bahraini domestic affairs is eerily reminiscent of the Azeri allegations against Tehran. It fits well into Tehran’s long-standing track record of meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states.
The Bahraini al-Ashtar Brigades flag (left) is patterned after Hezbollah’s flag, in design and color.
The ayatollahs’ regime has a well-established history of engaging in neo-colonialism, construction and the development of proxy militias and state-sponsored asymmetrical warfare to dominate the domestic and foreign politics of other states, thereby making them dependent on Iran.37 Every time, this process takes advantage of and exacerbates chaos and instability in the region.
Yemen and the Houthis
Perhaps nowhere is Iran’s chaos-creation strategy more evident than in Yemen, where Iran has used the Yemeni civil war since 2014 to empower the Shi’ite Islamist Houthi militia, increasing its influence in Sanaa to advance its revolutionary imperialist agenda. Indeed, since the Houthis rose in rebellion against the Yemeni central government and captured the capital Sanaa in late 2014, they have been provided with funding, training and ever-increasingly advanced technologies by the IRGC’s Quds force’s Units 190 and 400.38
From April 2015 to Oct. 2016, the U.S Navy intercepted five ships traveling from Iran to Houthi territories in Yemen, which contained “AK-47 assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and anti-tank mines,”39 among other armaments. In 2018, Yemen’s ministry of culture claimed that the IRGC had been providing the Houthis with $10 million to $25 million annually since 2010.40
This continuous support has enabled the Houthis to develop ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to launch against Iran’s main rival in the region, Saudi Arabia,41 as well as the UAE, with which Tehran also has no shortage of disputes.42 By strengthening the Houthis against the Yemeni armed forces, Iran has prolonged and exacerbated Yemen’s brutal civil war43 that has left 223,000 Yemeni dead.44 Furthermore, the World Food Program categorizes 16.2 million Yemenis as being food insecure.45
For Tehran, this is apparently all worth it for the development of a Shi’ite Islamist proxy that will export Iran’s Islamic Revolution to strategically located Yemen and control Sanaa’s foreign policy for Iran. Indeed, in 2015, the Houthis established direct commercial flights between Sanaa and Tehran for the first time since 1990.46
Furthermore, the Houthis have implemented a system of radical Shi’ite Islamism in Yemen, shutting down female-owned cafes in Sanaa and persecuting religious minorities.47 Such religious fundamentalist repression is a mirror image of systemic state-sanctioned persecution of women, homosexuals and religious minorities that takes place in Iran at the behest of the theocratic authorities.48
Some observers maintain that the Houthis are an independent fighting force who cannot be described as “Iranian puppets.”49 However, recent events show this is precisely what they are.
On Sept. 14, 2019, the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in Saudi Arabia were “rocked by a series of explosions,”50 causing extensive damage and temporarily disrupting half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, which constituted 5 percent of global supply.51 The Houthis immediately claimed responsibility for these attacks.52
However, Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany denied these claims, attributing responsibility directly to Iran.53 In Jan. 2020, they were supported by a U.N. group of experts that reported to the United Nations Security Council on U.N. sanctions on Yemen.
The group reported that the strikes on Abqaiq and Khurais could not have been carried out by the Houthis for the following reasons: the drones and land-attack cruise missiles used in the strikes came from the north instead of the south, where Yemen is situated in relation to Saudi Arabia; they did not have the sufficient range to have been launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen; and the weapons were so sophisticated that they were unlikely to have been manufactured in Yemen. Indeed, the weapons used were more complex and advanced than any that have ever been used by the Houthis in any prior attack on Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.54
Evidently, Iran carried out the attacks, and the Houthis falsely claimed responsibility to shield Tehran from accountability. The fact that they did this, despite the undoubtedly fierce retaliation from Saudi Arabia and global condemnation it exposes them to, illustrates that they are the epitome of an Iranian proxy, loyal to and dependent on Tehran in every way. Iran exercises this proxy-patron state relationship with a host of other militias in the region, as will be demonstrated below.
As far as Yemen is concerned, the nature of the relationship between Iran and the Houthis, combined with the Houthis’ control over the majority of Yemen’s population, proves that Iran has succeeded in gaining de facto control over the country at the expense of the Yemeni people. Indeed, this dynamic explains why Yemen remains embroiled in war after more than seven years of fighting and suffering.
It suits Iran’s geopolitical agenda for the Houthis to remain engaged in warfare with Tehran’s regional rivals, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Consequently, as long as Iran controls Yemen through the Houthis, the suffering of the Yemeni people is unlikely to end, and Iran can deny any culpability for its attacks on Saudi Arabia and shipping in the regions. “It wasn’t us; it was the Houthis,” who were blamed for this attack on a UAE (and once U.S.) naval ship.
The situation in Iraq is eerily similar. After the U.S.-led invasion and deposition of Sadam Hussein and his regime, Iran cultivated its influence in the country. This influence manifests in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a state-sponsored umbrella organization of the Iraqi state’s military, comprised mainly of Shi’ite Iran-aligned militias.56
These militias have consistently received funding, training, weapons and ideological guidance from the Islamic Republic, just like the Houthis.57 The former deputy chairman of the PMU, the man in charge of coordinating policy and handling the various factions, was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a dual Iraqi-Iranian citizen who was assassinated in the attack that killed IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
The Iran-aligned, Iraqi Shiite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, led by Qais al-Khazali, described Muhandis as an Iranian proxy, directly tied to the IRGC.58 Muhandis’s successor is Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi.59 He, too, was closely associated with Soleimani. He was the secretary-general of Kata’ib Hizballah, the terrorist militia that publicly pledged its allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei.60
In other words, he is just as much of an Iranian proxy as Muhandis was. Under Muhandis and al-Mohammadawi, groups within or affiliated with the PMU have carved their way into the center of Iraqi politics. Qasim al-Araji, a senior member of the Iranian-affiliated Badr organization, served as Iraq’s minister of interior from 2017-2018.61
Some may claim that Iran is influential in Iraq simply because Iran is popular among Iraqis. After all, Iran and Iraq are neighbors, and 60 percent or more of Iraqis are Shi’ite.63 However, recent history proves this assessment to be inaccurate.
From Oct. to Dec. 2019, mass street protests erupted in Baghdad and southern Iraq against, among other things, undue Iranian interference with Iraqi sovereignty.64 Angry Iraqis torched the Iranian consulate in Najaf twice, while chanting “Iran out of Iraq!”65 In response to these demonstrations, IRGC soldiers in Iran, alongside PMU militia forces, engaged in the massacre of protesters.66 PMU snipers shot protesters in Baghdad, murdering up to 50 Iraqis in a day.67
More recently, on Oct. 10, Iraq held its fifth national elections since the deposition of Saddam Hussein. These elections resulted in significant losses for Iran-aligned groups. Indeed, the Fatah alliance, consisting of the Badr organization, Kataib Hizbullah and others, saw their parliamentary seats decrease from 48 to 16.68
Their response to this outcome was to reject the elections as a “scam”69 and urge their supporters to storm the Green Zone, where the Iraqi Parliament is located.70 This resulted in at least three deaths and 125 injuries.
According to the Iraqi ministry of health, 100 of those 125 were Iraqi security forces injured by the Iran-aligned militia protesters.71 In addition, on Nov. 5, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the form of an explosives-laden drone that hit the Prime Minister’s Residence in Baghdad.72 According to Iraqi security officials, Kataib Hizbullah carried out the attack with Iranian-made drones and knowledge.73 (The drone attack on an Iraqi leader is a fateful reminder of a fatal Houthi attack on senior Yemeni military officials in 2019, including the head of Yemeni intelligence.74) The attack on the prime minister and the violation of Iraqi sovereignty reflect the extent to which Tehran has firmly entrenched its tentacles into Baghdad politically and militarily.
For Iran, Iraq is considered of paramount strategic importance. Tehran wants to ensure that Iraq never again poses a threat to Iran like it did under Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.75 However, this does not justify Iran’s imperialist contravention of Iraqi sovereignty at the expense of the Iraqi people any more than the United Kingdom’s need for Indian economic and military support to protect itself from European rivals justified the colonialist rule of the British Raj.76 Furthermore, Iran’s use of its proxies in Iraq to wage war in Syria without the authorization of the Iraqi government77 has nothing to do with security threats from Baghdad.
Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Iran, in a pattern that is familiar by now, has taken advantage of the resulting chaos to entrench itself politically and militarily in Damascus. Iran’s goals in Syria have been threefold: to keep its long-standing ally Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus to maintain its positive relationship with Syria; to gain direct or indirect control of Syrian territory so it can transfer supplies to Hezbollah, Hamas,and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ); and to build up a military presence along Syrian-Israeli border regions, which Tehran can use to threaten the “Zionists.”78 Just as Iran uses the Houthis to strike Saudi Arabia and the UAE from Yemen, Tehran uses Syrian territory to launch rockets into Israel.79
To support the realization of these goals and to advance a fourth goal of exporting the Islamic revolution to Damascus, Iran has also been expanding its soft power in Syria by investing significant resources into education in the country. As of today, “Tehran operates dozens of educational institutions … in Syria, including 10 schools.”80 These schools teach students Persian and, along with Iranian-sponsored religious centers throughout the country, indoctrinate Syrians to accept Shi’ite Islamist principles and convert to Shi’ite Islam.81 Such tactics are reminiscent of how Western colonialist imperialist powers spread Christianity and European languages throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.82
Militarily speaking, Iran has pursued its goals in Syria by sending the IRGC Quds Force into the country to coordinate Shi’ite militia groups in defense of the Assad regime. As Atlantic Council senior fellow Nader Uskowi details, “At the height of the civil war, the Quds Force deployed nearly 80,000 Shi’ite militiamen into Syria to fight the opposition, including fighters from Hezbollah, major Iraqi Shi’ite militant groups and Afghan and Pakistani Shi’ite militias, commanded by nearly 2,000 IRGC and Quds Force officers.”83
These forces led Assad’s regime to victory against opposition forces in Aleppo in Dec. 2016, “marking the virtual defeat of the opposition.”84 Iranian and Russian intervention in Syria consequently saved the Assad regime, allowing it to perpetrate horrific war crimes, such as the use of internationally criminalized chemical weapons against civilians, torture, mass aerial bombardment of hospitals and schools, arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances, to name a few.85
Like in Yemen, Iranian forces have prolonged and exacerbated a fierce civil war that has resulted in more than 350,000 civilian casualties86 and the forced displacement of up to half of Syria’s entire pre-war population of 22 million people.87
As the conflict in Syria has eased, Tehran has maintained its control over various parts of the country, establishing permanent bases and operational centers to carry out activities without the knowledge of the Syrian regime.88 According to recent reports, this has led to Syria taking the extraordinary step of expelling General Mustafa Javad Ghafari, the commander of IRGC forces in Syria, from the country.89
The report claims that Assad himself was behind the order to expel Ghafari, because Iranian forces had engaged in “a major breach of Syrian sovereignty at all levels … exploit[ing] the Syrian natural resources for their personal interests, as well as looting economic resources and evading paying taxes to the Syrian state.”90 Evidently, even the Iranian regime’s staunchest allies are growing exasperated with Tehran’s imperialistic destruction of states’ sovereignty. No country is more familiar with this process than Lebanon.
During Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, Iran’s top brass, including Khamenei and the heads of the IRGC, were in contact with senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza. Sources close to Hezbollah revealed that the IRGC, Hamas and Hezbollah coordinated the military confrontation in Gaza from a military operations center in Beirut. The commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Esmail Qaani, visited Lebanon twice to attend meetings at the joint command center.
Iranian aid to Hamas and Islamic Jihad is constant and flows all the time through various channels, regardless of the economic situation in Iran and Lebanon. Iranian influence could be seen in Hamas’s efforts to attack Israel’s strategic and energy infrastructures, including efforts to damage Israeli gas rigs in the Mediterranean. This copies the efforts of the Houthis in Yemen to attack similar targets in Saudi Arabia.
For Iran, Yemen is a testing ground for tactics and weaponry. The Houthi efforts involve long-range attack drones, GPS-guided unmanned suicide vessels, underwater guided weapons and long-range missiles. The Houthis in Yemen are using these capabilities against oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and civilian infrastructures such as airports, power plants and desalination facilities. Iran seeks to develop these capabilities and use them against Israeli civilian and military targets.
Iran believes that the prophecy of the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, regarding the destruction of Israel will eventually be fulfilled, and that Iran has the power to bring it about. Hamas is one of the agents to make Khomeini’s dream come true.
For Iran, “Palestine” is only one part of a complex strategy of building the Axis of Resistance from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, aimed at Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon; each arena has its own blueprint, a toolbox of hostile insurgency actions and the guidance of Hezbollah, the Quds Force and well-trained militias.
(For more information on the Iran-Hezbollah link to Hamas, see the Jerusalem Center’s in-depth study, “The Gaza War 2021: Hamas and Iran Attack Israel.”91)
In Lebanon, the Iranians utilized the chaos generated by the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s to create Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese Shi’ite militia that acts as a proxy for the Islamic Republic. Hezbollah is categorized as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and many others.92
Its primary function is to advance Tehran’s agenda of surrounding and threatening Israel. Hezbollah’s arsenal consists of 130,000 or more rockets and missiles ready to be fired on Israeli towns and cities at a moment’s notice.93 Many speculate that the massive, catastrophic explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port and killed more than 200 people was linked to Hezbollah’s arms caches.
In the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel in 34 days. This was not a case of Lebanese domestic resistance against Israel; the facts clearly suggest otherwise. In 1984, 800 members of the IRGC were dispatched to Lebanon to recruit young Shi’ites and provide them with “political and religious indoctrination and military training.”94
These Shi’ites amalgamated to form Hezbollah, the “Party of God.” Consequently, Hezbollah was the very first example of Tehran exporting its Islamic Revolution to gain control over other countries. In 1985, Hezbollah published its ideological manifesto in which Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah wrote that Hezbollah obeys “one leader … [former Iranian Supreme Leader] Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini.”95
Furthermore, in 2009, Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem stated that current Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei “sets the general guidelines for us.”96 Materially speaking, experts estimate that Iran provides Hezbollah $700 million to $1 billion every year.97 On June 24, 2016, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah publicly confessed in a speech that Hezbollah’s “income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”98
Evidently, then, Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy, but how much influence do Hezbollah and Iran have over Lebanon?
Dr. Lina Khatib of Chatham House writes that Hezbollah is the most powerful political actor in Lebanon and that it effectively “hold[s] sway over the Lebanese state.”99
In 2018, Hezbollah, along with its political allies, controlled 72 seats out of Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament, and when Lebanon formed a new government of 20 ministers in 2019, Hezbollah dominated the Cabinet, because its political opponents refused to join the government.100
Hezbollah controls Lebanon’s border with Syria, and it uses the port of Beirut to import and export drugs and weapons without any governmental oversight.101 Hezbollah is the only political actor in Lebanon legally permitted to field its own military forces independent of the Lebanese armed forces.
Clearly, it controls Lebanon, making Beirut, in effect, a vassal state of Tehran. This influence manifests itself through incidents such as Hezbollah siphoning off Lebanese state resources to fund its expeditionary forces fighting in Syria since 2011 to help Iran save the Assad regime from collapse in the civil war.102 Undoubtedly, this consistent siphoning of Lebanese state resources to serve Iran’s geopolitical ambitions has contributed to Lebanon’s current economic crisis, leaving more than 50 percent of Lebanon’s population below the poverty line.103
Recently, Hezbollah has taken advantage of this socioeconomic crisis it helped to engineer to make Beirut dependent on Tehran, illustrated by recent announcements that Hezbollah arranged for Iran to provide Lebanon with its oil needs to alleviate “crippling shortages.”104
Upon reflection, what is it that Sanaa, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut have in common? Iran has dominated them all, subordinating them to its theocratic geopolitical ambitions at the expense of their sovereignty and the wellbeing of their people.
There is not a single imperialist, colonialist empire in human history that does not fit into this paradigm. However, unlike empires of old, Iran exercises its rule indirectly through proxy forces, equipping and empowering them to take over countries ravaged by instability in Tehran’s name, all while maintaining a guise of plausible deniability to evade accountability. As Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have shown, this has become a general pattern, suggesting that Azerbaijan, Bahrain and any other recipients of Iranian aggression have ample reason to be afraid.
Iran has over-the-horizon dreams, as well, in Africa, Venezuela and the southern tip of South America.
The tools and weapons of colonialism
Undergirding Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony is its international drone UAV program. Iran has assisted its proxies in developing UAVs, with one such weapon almost assassinating Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi.
The devastating strikes against the Saudi Abqaiq and Khurais facilities were carried out using drones and missiles. Other targets of these drone strikes include “civilian airports, major oil storage sites, commercial shipping and both military and diplomatic facilities.”106 Prof. Ali Bakir of Qatar University points out that these drones, coupled with Iran commanding an expansive network of proxies, allow it to strike targets ranging from the Israeli Golan Heights to commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.107
On July 30, an IRGC-made kamikaze drone struck the once Israeli-owned tanker ship Mercer Street off the coast of Oman, murdering two crew members and triggering international condemnation.108 Last month, Iranian drones struck the American military base al-Tanf in Syria, used to train Syrian opposition forces to battle Islamic State (IS).109
One final component of Iran’s imperialism project worth noting is its involvement in drug smuggling. Imperialist, colonialist powers have long been accused of smuggling and forcibly exporting drugs and harmful substances to foreign countries and peoples. This is what the United Kingdom was accused of doing when it smuggled and exported opium into China in the early 1800s, manufacturing an opioid epidemic in the country that damaged Beijing’s economy and people.110
In the present day, Iran acts as a hub in the international drug trade for Afghan opium, and the IRGC, with its proxies such as Hezbollah and the PMU, engages in drug trafficking.111 In 2012, IRGC Quds Force General Gholamreza Baghbani was designated by the U.S Department of the Treasury as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker for his role in enabling Afghan narcotics smugglers to smuggle opiates through Iran into Europe in exchange for those narcotics smugglers bringing weapons to the Taliban on behalf of the IRGC.112
In Jan. 2017, German authorities prevented two Iranian trucks carrying 150 kilograms of heroin from entering Europe.113 In April this year, Saudi Arabia announced a ban on the importation of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon, after it “foiled an attempt to smuggle over five million pills of Captagon stuffed inside pomegranates imported from”114 that country.” The IRGC uses the funds generated by the drug trade to finance their proxy militias and overseas activities115 at the expense of millions of lives destroyed by illicit narcotics.
In conclusion, the Islamic Republic of Iran is an imperialist regime that has already achieved its goal of securing hegemony over much of the Middle East, from Sanaa to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. History suggests the threat Iran poses to the sovereignty and wellbeing of states in the Middle East is profound and has only grown worse over time.
What remains to be seen is how those parts of the region that are not already imprisoned in Tehran’s clutches and the rest of the world will respond. Will they band together to halt Iran’s pernicious advance, or will the world bear witness to the rise of the new Persian Empire and the inevitable destruction that it would bring?
* * *
18 https://www.mei.edu/publications/azerbaijani-ethno-nationalism-danger-signal-iran. Heradstveit explains that Iran avoids supporting Armenia too much for fear that major Armenian victories would send Azerbaijani refugees flooding into Azeri territories in Iran. Consequently, Tehran prefers to, as Heradstveit writes, “keep the nagorno karabakh conflict on the boil.”
IRGC brigadier general Abdulreza Shahlai is in charge of these operations in support of the Houthis
42 For example, over ownership of the Abu Masa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb islands. Tehran controls the islands but Abu Dhabi claims them, accusing Iran of an illegal occupation, https://www.mei.edu/publications/uae-official-calls-international-action-end-iranian-occupation-disputed-islands
47 https://www.courthousenews.com/yemen-cafes-shut-women-harassed-as-houthis-impose-morals-campaign/, the Houthis forcibly expelled some of Yemen’s last remaining Jews in March of this year https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/03/houthis-deport-some-yemens-last-remaining-jews
48 For a comprehensive rundown, see https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/IRN/INT_CCPR_NGO_IRN_42317_E.pdf
56 Such as Katai’b Hizbullah, listed as a terrorist organisation by the US, Japan and the UAE,
https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm, https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm https://gulfnews.com/uae/government/uae-publishes-list-of-terrorist-organisations-1.1412895
58 The fact that Muhandis was assassinated on January 3rd 2020 by a US drone strike alongside IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani while the two rode together in a convoy from Baghdad International Airport appears to confirm Khazali’s assessment, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security-blast-soleimani-idUSKBN1Z201C
79 For example, in 2018, the IRGC’s Quds force launched 20 rockets into Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
92 https://english.alarabiya.net/2016/03/11/Arab-League-declares-Lebanon-s-Hezbollah-terror-group, https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Hizbullah/Pages/Hezbollah-International-terrorist-organization.aspx, https://web.archive.org/web/20171117015042/https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/37191.htm, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/23/world/middleeast/european-union-adds-hezbollah-wing-to-terror-list.html, https://www.arabnews.com/news/453834, https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-en.aspx#2027, https://web.archive.org/web/20200202024823/http://www.moj.go.jp/psia/ITH/organizations/ME_N-africa/hizballah.html
97 Dan Williams, “Top Israeli general sees increased Iran spending on foreign wars,” Reuters, January 2, 2018,
Lenny Ben-David is the Jerusalem Center’s Director of Publications. Ben-David served 25 years in senior posts in AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission in the Embassy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs (Urim Publications).
Wade Ze’ev Gittleson is a student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, specializing in law and international relations.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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