Proxies and politics: Why Iran funds foreign militias

At a military parade commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War, the chief of the Iranian armed forces spoke clearly and bluntly. Tehran holds sway over five Arab countries.

Major General Mohammed Bagheri listed them as Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.

Their enemy, as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif controversially wrote in the New York Times last month, is Wahhabism, the ultraorthodox brand of Sunni Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia.

In some of these countries, like Lebanon, Iran has a long history. In others, such as Yemen, they have only recently involved themselves. The Palestinian cause, and by extension enmity to Israel, is a cornerstone of the theocratic regime’s domestic legitimacy.

In recent years, however, it has been Syria and Iraq that have dominated global headlines and Iranian foreign policy. Damascus and Baghdad, historically the twin capitals of the Sunni Islamic caliphate, are now under the control of predominately Shia Iran – a twist not lost on large swathes of the local population.

The sectarian dimension of Iran’s involvement in Syria’s civil war is hard to ignore. Late last month, the leader of the Iraqi Shia Najbaa Movement visited Aleppo. In a propaganda video released after his visit, a song can be heard in the background with the chorus “Aleppo is Shia.”


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