by James M. Dorsey
A string of events suggests that the usefulness of at least some of the militias – in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Palestine – is waning. As their popularity diminishes, their relations with Iran encounter headwinds.
This is a significant development. After all, Iran’s fundamental strategy and defense concepts, in place since the clergy-led revolution toppled the US-backed Shah in 1979 — crucially depended on stirring up trouble elsewhere.
Thus, Iran’s entire revolutionary edifice could be in jeopardy if those allied militias lose their popular base and/or refuse to follow guidelines issued in Tehran.
Incapable of ensuring political and economic stability
“The overall picture is that Iran’s expansion peaked in 2018 and has since entered a new phase, in which Tehran has not suffered any strategic military setbacks, but is hitting a wall.
Iran’s biggest fundamental problem is that a majority of its allies … frequently succeed in armed confrontations. Yet, they are subsequently incapable of ensuring political and economic stability,” said Middle East scholar Guido Steinberg.
It does not help that Iran’s revolution is proving to be a dead end. This isn’t just a matter of widespread corruption and economic mismanagement.
In addition, Iran has lost its initial pan-Islamic ecumenical revolutionary appeal to Shiites and Sunnis alike. Instead, Sunni Muslims today perceive it as a Shiite and Iranian nationalist force.
Nuclear reinsurance brigades
To be clear, Iran is not about to dump its non-state Arab allies. They also remain too strong a military force to defeat and valuable leverage of Iranian regional power in Lebanon and Iraq – even if they may be past the peak of their shelf life.
Moreover, groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas could force Israel to fight on two if not three fronts were Israel to strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
As such, the strategy to build an outer defense line in Arab countries populated by local actors has paid off handsomely.
Dead set against reform
However, militias likes Hezbollah and Iranian-backed groups in Iraq have become increasingly identified with the corrupt regimes of the countries in which they operate.
A key part of the militias’ lost appeal in the eyes of the wider population is that they have responded violently to mass protests demanding wholesale change.
Street protesters have taken the predominantly Shiite Muslim militias to task for promoting a sectarian — rather than a national — identity that transcends religion and ethnicity.
A yesteryear force
An alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in last October’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its seats drop from 48 to 17.
Moreover, claims by Hamas in Palestine and the Houthis in Yemen that wars, foreign intervention and blockades prevent them from delivering public goods and services are wearing thin.
No tight leash any longer
“Iran isn’t the way it used to be, with 100% control over the militia commanders,” said an Iraqi Shiite political leader
That is a realization that has yet to take root in Tehran. Once it does, this could have far-reaching consequences for Iranian policies and posture.
Initially, Iran’s cost/benefit analysis is likely to conclude that the benefits of support for non-state Arab militias continue to outstrip the cost.
The question is, for how long.
*first published in: www.theglobalist.com