What do the Iranians think of their government?


Walter Posch

To person

is a historian, Turkologist and Iranist. He works at the Institute for Peacekeeping and Conflict Management at the National Defense Academy in Vienna.

Iranian foreign and security policy is based on both ideological and strategic foundations. [1] Taking into account the changes after the break with the USA in 1979, it is to be understood in many respects as a continuation of the old imperial great power policy. This aspect dominates the assessment of Iranian regional policy among Iran's Arab neighbors and, to a lesser extent, in Turkey, while in the West the American interpretation prevails, according to which Iranian foreign policy is revolutionary, i.e. unpredictable and irrational.

The Islamic Republic of Iran followed the path of all revolutionary regimes by combining ideological and strategic approaches in its foreign and security policy and by acting or wanting to act pragmatically and nationalistically on the world stage. [2] Iran's involvement in the Syrian theater of war and the worsening situation in Iraq, as well as the country's isolation due to sanctions, have dramatically restricted Tehran's room for maneuver in other important areas of foreign policy: for example in Afghanistan, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and in relations with Turkey and Israel. With the US missile attack on Iranian General Quasem Soleimani and Jamal Ja'far Muhammad Ali Al Ibrahim, known as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former Secretary General of the Iraqi People's Mobilization Units, on January 3, 2002, in which both were killed, the advanced Role of the Iranian security apparatus in the country's foreign policy returned to the focus of international interest. In order to understand previous and possible future developments, three aspects need to be clarified: the relationship between Iran and Iraq and Syria as well as the role of the Revolutionary Guard in the context of regional security policy - or attempted power projection, the expansion of power in the region beyond its own territory Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran and Iraq

Tehran's relationship with Iraq after the fall of the Baath regime under Saddam Hussein is guided by the overriding interest in preventing Iraq from ever attacking Iran again. This is followed by three policy areas that give shape and direction to the Iranian Iraq policy.

First normal bilateral relations: these are considered friendly and Iran is one of the country's main economic partners, but they still rest on a ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) rather than a peace treaty. The important question of the exact demarcation between the two states on the Shatt al-Arab, which led to several serious crises in the 20th century, remains unaffected, although both sides are excluding this problem for different reasons.

Secondly Kurdish policy: Tehran supported the leading Iraqi-Kurdish parties for decades against the Iraqi central government, and the leaders of both parties spent long periods of time in exile in Iran. [3] Tehran therefore has good relations with them both at the political level and at the level of the security apparatus - the intelligence service, the Revolutionary Guard and the army - and can count on the Kurdish armed forces, the Peshmerga, to respect Iranian security interests. The Kurdish regional government's rocking policy between Baghdad, Washington, Tehran and Ankara is not problematic in Iran's view. After all, the Iranians showed in 2014 that they are able to immediately provide assistance to the Kurds against vital threats such as IS.

Third the large Arab Shiite majority in Iraq: It should be noted here that Tehran does not control the Iraqi Shiites, as has been claimed by Anglo-Saxon research since the founding of Iraq. First of all, relations with the high clergy in Najaf and Karbala are by no means free of friction. The Iranian Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and the traditionalist Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Sistani are competitors, although it is still impossible for outsiders to correctly assess all dimensions of this competition and to draw the corresponding political conclusions - this also applies to the majority of Shiite believers. [4] The followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, [5] a member of a famous Shiite cleric family with branches in Lebanon and Iran, are also critical of Iran. They form a political current that is directed not only against Iran and its partners but also against the high clergy and is based in the impoverished masses of southern Iraq.

However, Tehran has really strong relations with important Iraqi Shiite organizations who had spent decades in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's reign. These groups play a crucial role in the so-called popular mobilization units. Its main representatives, with whom Tehran was in contact long before the US occupation of Iraq, are the Badr Organization and the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq (OIRI, founded in 1982, until 2007 ORIRI Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, often The English abbreviations SCIRI / SICI are also used in the German context). Originally planned as a non-partisan platform sponsored by Tehran for all Iraqis in exile, ORIRI quickly developed into the party of the Shiite clerical family al-Hakim. This was close to the later revolutionary leader Khamenei, who maintained close relationships with important Iraqi clerics.

Badr - later also Badr Brigade (Arabic faylaq Badr, Persian tip-e Badr) - has its roots in a militant Shiite group that emerged in the late 1970s from around the Iraqi Dawa party, the Mujahedin. [6] They appealed to a group of the same name Shiite fighters who rose up against the British under clerical leadership in 1920. [7] A second group, the Ahrar, were Shiite Iraqi prisoners of war who had agreed to fight Saddam Hussein during the war. The two groups were united by the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, trained and set up as a regular "Badr" unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

ORIRI and Badr worked so closely together in exile in Iran that it was assumed that Badr was nothing more than the ORIRI party militia. Both took part in the Iraqi National Congress based in London in the 1990s. This US-backed organization aimed to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The participation of ORIRI and Badr could not take place without the consent of Tehran, and ORIRI was subsequently able to develop good relations with the USA.

When the USA occupied Iraq in 2003, ORIRI and Badr seized the opportunity to return. While ORIRI was participating in the political process, Badr members - members of a unit that was formally part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - were recruited into the Iraqi Interior Ministry and by the police. Badr's commander, Hadi al-Ameri, a dual Iranian-Iraqi citizen, became Minister of Transport. Both groups continued to maintain their relations with Iran and tried to maintain a correct (Badr) to good (ORIRI) relationship with the USA. In 2007 ORIRI was renamed OIRI. In 2012, Badr and OIRI dissolved their alliance, which prompted OIRI to set up its own militia, the Ashura units. At Badr, however, there was a split. In view of the anti-American uprising of the Muqtada Sadr from 2004 to 2008, some Badr elements also took up arms. The most important group were the Hezbollah battalions or Kataib Hezbollah under Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Abu Mahdi, also a dual Iraqi-Iranian citizen who was elected to parliament in the first free elections after the overthrow of Saddam, had already been active with the mujahideen. Because of his suspected participation in attacks in the region in the 1980s, he had to leave the country under US pressure and returned in 2011. Abu Mahdi was friends with Quasem Soleimani, whom he probably knew before he was in command of the Quds unit. Soleimani's importance in Iranian foreign policy increased steadily due to the deteriorating security situation in Iran's Iraq and Syria policy.

The Shiite resistance in Iraq presented Tehran with a dilemma. On the one hand, the Iranians were - and are - well connected to part of the political spectrum and are aware of their convergence of interests with the USA, so both want the Baathists to return to power or an independent Kurdish state and both saw IS as a vital threat. At the same time, the uprising movement of Muqtada al-Sadr presented Tehran with an ideological challenge because it overtook the Iranians' rank in anti-Americanism. The solution for Tehran was to continue to rely on cooperation at the state level and at the same time, as far as possible by means of support (arms delivery, training), to exert influence on the new underground groups and with their help to exert pressure on the USA. By the time Muqtada al-Sadr reached an agreement with the United States, Tehran had already established good contacts with the most important split-offs from Muqtada's Mahdi army. Together with the Kataib Hizbullah and another group, the USA called them the "special groups" because they did not adhere to the agreements between Muqtada and the USA. Qasem Soleimani, who was also responsible for Iran's deployment in Syria, was responsible for the coordination between these groups and the Iranians.

The Quds Unity and Quasem Soleimani

In addition to the regular army of the Islamic Republic of Iran (artesh) also a corps of guardsmen of the Islamic Revolution, the Revolutionary Guard, as a regular armed force and police force, with which military service can also be performed. [8] An innovation of the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war was the introduction of order-specific commands, so-called qarargah (Command post, staff unit). These commanders were intended for special assignments, for example for the training of Kurdish volunteers (Peshmerga and others), for monitoring and combating the extremist opposition group People's Mujahedin on Iraqi territory, for the security of the greater Tehran area or for coordinating the border protection and security units at the border to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Immediately after the revolution, a coordination office for Islamic Liberation Movements of the Revolutionary Guard was responsible for overseas operations. This office quickly went its own way and was involved in the 1986 Iran-Contra affair, which politically resulted in the overthrow of Khomeini deputy Montazeri. [9] The office was dissolved and his extensive experience in overseas missions in Sudan, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf was transferred to the Quds unit in the late 1980s. Quds was founded in 1984 and was originally responsible for the battlefield reconnaissance behind enemy Iraqi lines. The close cooperation with the Badr unit dates from this time. The mandate of the Quds Unit, also known as the Quds Brigades, was formulated more precisely in 1989 by the newly appointed revolutionary leader Khamenei. He emphasized that Quds is only sent abroad by invitation and is supposed to identify ideologically reliable cells there and train them militarily; In principle, the same tasks that Quds performed during the war were adapted to the new circumstances. This also means that the Quds' foreign operations had to remain limited to the Islamic, preferably Shiite, world. It is highly likely, however, that the groups sent to Bosnia by the Iranians on a voluntary basis during the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s already belonged to the quds, as did the military attachés of the time. In any case, it is certain that at the same time Badr and Quds agents remained active after the war in the swamp regions of the Iraqi-Iranian border area, where deserters and smugglers had fled, and tried to maintain old contacts and establish new ones.

Western observers agree that a new era began when Qasim Soleimani took command of the Quds unit in 1998. Soleimani comes from the Lurian tribe of the Soleimani, located in the province of Kerman, who fought over 500 fighters in the war against Iraq. In his youth he went to Kerman, where he joined the revolutionary movement. At the beginning of the Iraq war in 1980 he became a member of the Revolutionary Guard. With his unit he was deployed in the Kurdish province of West Azerbaijan, among others. His main task remained in Kerman, where he co-founded the Kerman Division 41 Sarollah in 1981, of which he became the first in command. After the war he was not demobilized, but instead tasked with securing the eastern border from his native Kerman, which mainly included the fight against smugglers and drug gangs. In 1998 he was appointed commander of the Quds unit by Khamenei. In this role he is said to have strengthened the Lebanese Hezbollah. Since then, at the latest, but probably much earlier, he was personally acquainted with the most important leaders of Hezbollah, such as the head of the military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, whom he supported in 2006 during the 33-day war with Israel. Strengthening the Palestinian resistance also fell within Soleimani's area of ​​responsibility. Under his aegis, Tehran succeeded in strengthening and expanding its own intelligence and military presence in the region. Officially in recognition of this, he was appointed major general by the revolutionary leader in 2011. However, it was only after the beginning of the Arab Spring that he became known to the general public in Iran and abroad as a fighter against IS and groups close to al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, Tehran emphasizes that they are active at the official invitation of the respective government. Iranian observers ascribe Soleimani a central role in protecting Damascus and Baghdad from IS, but his role in building the Iraqi people's mobilization units and pro-Assad militias in Syria should be put into perspective; his function was more likely to provide advice. He proved that he was a good negotiator and diplomat in 2008 when he entered the US-secured Iraqi Green Zone undetected and helped the Shiite parties to form a coalition government. He also needed coordination and negotiating skills in Syria, where he was responsible for supporting the Assad regime. Some observers attribute Khamenei's stance to support Assad at all costs to his influence.

Iran in Syria

Syria was the Islamic Republic of Iran's only strategic partner during the long war with Iraq. [10] The hostility to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the fact that Syria is ruled by the nominally Shiite minority of the Alawis facilitated cooperation. Above all, Syria played an important role as a front-line state against Israel and enabled the Iranians to establish themselves in Lebanon and to build up the Lebanese Hezbollah.

After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians reformulated their relationship with Syria. The "axis of resistance" was introduced as a strategic concept. The cooperation between Iran and Syria with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad against Israel was presented as a strategic concept. Despite irritations in Damascus, which never saw itself on the same level as the Palestinians or the Lebanese, Tehran insisted on this concept for ideological reasons - presumably to legitimize its own presence in the Levant through its commitment to Palestine in the eyes of the Arab public to lend.

The beginning of the civil war in Syria presented Tehran with new challenges. [11] First of all, it should be noted that part of the Iraqi civil war had shifted along the Euphrates Valley to Syria, where it further fueled the conflict constellation there because the Sunni extremists were followed by Shiite groups from Iraq. So the Iraqi and Syrian arenas corresponded with each other. In the course of the confessionalization of the conflict, which was pursued by the Syrian rulers and the Islamist extremists alike to the exclusion of the opposition civil rights movement, more and more Shiite volunteers came to Syria from Iraq and later from Iran. This factor was exploited when the Syrian regime came under increasing pressure and Tehran decided to fully support it. The Iranians had already been represented in Syria to date, but the troops were missing for the new task, namely to keep the regime from collapsing. Tehran initially deployed the military advisers of the Quds as well as voluntary reservist associations of the Basij, a paramilitary militia of Iran, and the Revolutionary Guard - the militia groups Fatehin and Saberin - who are normally deployed in Iran in large protests, but also trained in counterinsurgency, in regular military units are.Foreign volunteer associations were added to these, namely the Zeynabiyun and Fatemiyun units (both battalions that were expanded to become brigade equivalents) for the Pakistani-Indian volunteers and the Afghans (from Iran and Afghanistan). It was not until 2017 that a special unit of the Iranian army, namely parts of the 65th Airborne Brigade, was sent to Syria for the purpose of training and combat leadership support. Little is known about the use of Iranian air defense units and other technical forces. Observers assume that the units of the Iranian army cooperate directly with the Syrians and not through the Quds unit of the Revolutionary Guard, which was responsible for coordinating these volunteers. However, the overall coordination and overall responsibility certainly lay with Soleimani in his role as representative of the revolutionary leader.

Undoubtedly the most important unit built up by Quds in cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah and some Iraqi groups is the Abu l-Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade. It was founded in 2012 in a Shiite shrine Sayyidah Zaynab, a suburb of Damascus. [12] For the international volunteer fighters, the cult of Sayyidah Zaynab was carefully cultivated and exaggerated. The skillful propaganda by the Iranians and their clerical allies in Iraq motivated many young Iraqis to volunteer in Syria. To do this, they had to report to one of the militias engaged in Iraq, where they received their basic training, later Iranian and Lebanese trainers joined them. Finally, the Iranians arranged for them to be transferred to Syria. The Abu al-Fadhl Brigade fought not only in Damascus, but also in the Aleppo area. This is logical in so far as the Syrian regime and its allies did not vigorously fight IS in Syria, but instead concentrated on groups and organizations along the Damascus-Aleppo line. The fight against IS led - and won - the USA and the Kurdish PKK splinter YPG or the Arab groups allied with them within the framework of the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, the Iranians and their Shiite allies sought direct confrontation with IS in Iraq.

From the fight against IS to the fight against Iran

The rise of IS had been on the horizon for some time, but the rapid collapse of the Iraqi army in the summer of 2014 came as a surprise. The rapid reaction of the Shiite militias and their legitimation through the call of Ayatollah Sistani that all young men should understand the defense of the fatherland as their personal religious duty, as well as the corresponding legal act by the Iraqi government allowed the establishment of an administrative-military framework organization called the People's Mobilization Unit (al-hashd al-shaabi), [13] with which it finally succeeded in wrestling IS down. The fight against IS showed that the USA and Iran were dependent on each other: General Soleimani was officially invited by the Iraqis to take part in the fight against IS. At the same time, success would not have been nearly as certain if the United States had not provided extensive military and intelligence assistance. However, hopes of a continuation of the constructive, albeit indirect, cooperation between Iran and the USA against IS and in favor of Iraq were dashed when President Donald Trump took office. Since the fall of Mosul in 2017 at the latest, and exacerbated by the deterioration in bilateral US-Iranian relations, the US and its allies have been reforming the Iraqi security sector, which was intended to neutralize the people's mobilization units and thus reduce Iranian influence.

In Iraq, the exact future role of the people's mobilization units was quite controversial. Her Secretary General, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, understandably pleaded for its retention and expansion. Others wanted to reduce the number of people's mobilization units and place them under the command of the army as closely as possible. On the political level, two extreme standpoints soon emerged: on the one hand, the claim that they were only Tehran's lackeys. This ignores the contribution that these forces made to the victory over IS. On the other hand, their defenders reduce them to this positive role and ignore abuse of power and the role of Iran. This side also tends to overlook US support for the success and see the conflict with IS as part of the confrontation with the West. Despite a dispute, the Iraqis managed to put the people's mobilization units on a reasonable legal basis. The division of the various militias into regiments, the gradual uniform uniformity, the securing of financing, the separation of party and militia and the establishment of a - largely - uniform chain of command are important measures with which the chaos of the Iraqi militias was started . Above all, however, one principle played an important role: that troops of the people's mobilization units can only be deployed in Iraq. This was to counter fears that they would become another, internationally deployable ideological army. As a result, several militias had to split their units into those that were part of the popular mobilization and are therefore legitimate, and illegal ones that are used in Syria.

The position of the People's Mobilization Units remains a major point of contention between the US and its allies and Iran and its supporters. Because the Iraqi security forces have split up into four parts: the Iraqi army, which has to be rebuilt first, into the Kurdish forces, which are very loosely tied to Baghdad, an anti-terrorist division trained and led by the USA, and the people's mobilization units. The reform projects in the course of NATO's Inherent Resolve operation only served to strengthen the Iraqi army. They must therefore be seen as directed against the popular mobilization units. The attack on Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis should be placed in this context and confirms this impression. Because it shows that the US is shifting its engagement in Iraq from the fight against IS to the fight against the Iranian presence in the region. Tehran was aware of this relatively early on and accordingly assessed US projects for demobilization and security sector reform in the Islamic world as being directed against its interests. [14] The confrontation between US and Iranian interests over the question of the position of the people's mobilization units therefore continues. The resulting tensions do not necessarily have to be kinetically discharged, but there is still a high probability of escalation.