The impact of US sanctions on militias

Radwan al-Sayed

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Recently, demonstrations broke out in Saladin Governorate because militant organizations are still in control there as well as in neighboring Diyala and in Al-Anbar, Nineveh and Mosul. The Governor of Saladin named militias such as As’ib Ahl al-Haq, al-Nujaba and Hezbollah Movement in Iraq.

The main reason for protests is that some militias which belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces that was recognized by the ruling Shiite authority to fight ISIS in 2015 kidnapped and killed tribal leaders.

Militias rule the roost

Interestingly, the protesters did not dare demand the dissolution of these militias, but demanded that they be moved to the Iraq-Syria border, to be replaced by the army as well as the federal and local police!

Iran has tested that whenever it bargains with US by threatening Israel, the bargain succeeds.

Radwan al-Sayed

Tens of thousands of these militia members - especially the Badr militia which is led by Hadi al-Amiri who is nominating himself for the premiership because his bloc won the second place in recent general elections, falling behind the party led by Moqtada Al Sadr - receive salaries from the government as they are considered to be wings of the army. The Iraqi parliament voted on this in the end of 2015.

As it’s clear, these wings have not settled with official salaries and have become a party of the semi legitimate administration of Sunni provinces and practice bribery, blackmailing, intimidation and murder if they’re not always paid what they ask for.
In 2016, a famous operation was carried out between Al-Anbar and Saladin governorates; when so-called Qatari ‘fishermen’ were detained. They were not released until a ransom was paid but there have been conflicting reports over the ransom’s amount and according to semi-official information, it reached $1.15 billion.

Thus, if the question is how much American sanctions will impact Iran’s funding of these militias, the answer would be that these ‘Iranized’ militias would not be greatly affected, as they and other corrupt parties have been receiving their wages from inside Iraq for years, either by receiving funds from the Iraqi army or by exploiting their control over Sunni governorates and their infiltration of penetrating the security apparatuses and the administration.

Americans and the Arabs are hoping that if Abadi remains the prime minister and allies with the Sadr movement, the Wisdom movement and some Sunni parties, the political and security control of the abovementioned militias would decline. However, corruption and financial extortion of people will most probably not decline.

What is being said about Iraq can also be said about Lebanon. Hezbollah has begun establishing its ‘statelet’ in Lebanese areas which have a Shiite majority but after its occupation of Beirut in 2008, it fully infiltrated the Lebanese state as it seized control of the port, airport and the army’s intelligence. It also divided ministries that make revenues with other political parties. Even if we assume that strict supervision over banks and money transfer will prevent Hezbollah from making revenues of drugs and money laundering, a quarter to one third of the Lebanese state’s revenues are still under its control. Therefore, if it saves a little, it can manage without direct Iranian funds.

Iran’s funding of proxies

It is well known that Hezbollah has been receiving steady flow of funds from Iran since 1982, which peaked on three occasions — after the 2006 war, during its intervention in Syria and since the time it lent support to Houthis in Yemen. It is said that between 2012 and 2015, money spent on military experts who went to Yemen from Lebanon and money allocated for other forms of aid was spent from then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s office, but now most of the funding for the Houthis comes from Iran.

Over the last five years, Hezbollah’s forces in Syria never dropped below the strength of 10,000, and sometimes even reached the figure of about 20,000. However, it’s now said to number around 8,000 and is reportedly dispersed along the Lebanese-Syrian border, as well as entrenched in Al Qusayr, Homs and Aleppo and deployed on the Syria-Iraq border.

It is reported that Iran has spent $30 billion in Syria, which includes about $6 billion to $8 billion on Hezbollah and its equipment. If this period is about to come to an end, the Iranian-backed party shrinks on Lebanese territories while holding on to its weapons and controls the Lebanese state along with other corrupt parties, it will not need more funding from Iran, which is currently feeling the squeeze of US sanctions.

As for Syria, it’s where Iran spent the most. Apart from the open line of credit to the Assad regime, the Iranians have certainly spent and are still spending on the Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan militias, which they had formed, trained and dispatched to help Assad’s forces. These forces kept the regime from falling until Russia intervened in 2015.

There are still about 3,000 Iraqis, 15,000 Pakistanis and Afghans, and about 5,000 of the Revolutionary Guards. An Iranian credit line still extends for the regime. However, Iran may now have to withdraw its militias and probably some of its Revolutionary Guards forces from Syria, not only because of financial pressures but because of the pressure exerted by Israel and Russia.

It is obvious that Russia is now trying to find funding alternatives for the Syrian regime via the issues of reconstruction and return of refugees, and via Europeans and others who are also ready to come to the aid of Assad, both publicly and in secret. On the other hand, Iran has a huge and long-term investment in “Assad’s Syria” and it will not easily give up on this investment, nor would it give up on Hezbollah, despite the huge expenditure. However, what is more important: internal stability or Syria or Hezbollah or Palestine and its organizations?! This is a difficult equation, but its imbalance would not appear unless the crisis and sanctions period prolongs.

Turning Palestinian cause into a ruse

Few months ago as well as now, Iranian protestors chanted against Palestine and even against Jerusalem considering that the policies of exporting the revolution, liberation and establishment of Hezbollah are all linked to the conflict with Israel.

In Palestine, Iran has had the Islamic Jihad since the 1980s, and it has had Hamas since the second half of the 1990s and other smaller factions that converted to Shiism after 2010. However, Iran’s support for these militias was never linked to the liberation of Palestine, despite the huge mobilization campaigns on Jerusalem Day since Khomeini’s times. It’s actually linked to arguments with the US.

Ever since Clinton’s era to Trump’s term, Iran has tested that whenever it bargains with US by threatening Israel, the bargain succeeds. Hence the 2006 war happened, Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 and afterwards secret then public negotiations were held between the US and Iran.

When Hamas’ behavior incited a small or a major war on Gaza, this meant a crisis in negotiations over the nuclear program! Then after developments in Syria and Yemen, Nasrallah repeatedly said without caring about revealing what’s hidden that the war in Syria is more important than fighting against Israel and that the war in Yemen has a higher significance than any other struggle!

Converting to Shiism and harassment of the Arabs, specifically Saudi Arabia, are the two permanent priorities. The Iranians, Nasrallah and probably even Hamas now know that harassing Israel during Trump’s term in office would lead to huge destruction.

Thus, I believe that Iran will continue to support Palestinian militias with the minimum but if it does not benefit, it will not advise Hamas to go to war to upset America and Israel. I have heard from Palestinians belonging to Hamas and Al-Jihad in Lebanon that they are facing financial problems and that the Iranians are delivering scant finances to armed groups. Thus, indirect negotiations have already started between Hamas and Israel for the sake of peace. Meanwhile, the Egyptians are also hoping that their attempts to reconcile between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority would succeed this time.

Iran has for a long time invested in causing disturbances and destruction in Arab countries. So will Iran change its strategic thinking, not just because of its financial constraints, but also as part of an over-all revision of the benefits of such a policy for the Islamic Republic since the four decades of the revolution? Would it review its policy of spreading destruction in the Arab world, even in a country having a Shiite majority like Iraq?

This article is also available in Arabic.


Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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