On 10 October 2020, days before a 13-year United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Iran was due to be lifted, a senior commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) boasted of the country’s network of loyalist militias. Mohammad Reza Naghdi declared that “the force we have organised and the people [we have recruited worldwide] are much more dangerous than having an alliance with any army as . . . these people are scattered and unrecognisable”. He added that when this unrecognisable force strikes, “the enemy will not know who has hit it”.[_]
Naghdi’s words underscored the Islamic Republic’s greatest asset against nations in the region and the West as well as the root of the problem of so-called Iranian-backed proxies: plausible deniability.
Naghdi was championing Iran’s network of trained fighters whom the IRGC – the clerical regime’s ideological army – has used for over four decades to advance the Islamic Republic’s strategic and ideological objectives. Those objectives have remained centred on three pillars: exporting the Islamic Revolution, supporting Muslim and anti-US movements and eradicating the state of Israel. In pursuit of these goals, the IRGC’s role in nurturing militancy has ranged from manufacturing its own ideologically compliant militias – such as Hizbullah in Lebanon – to supporting grassroots groups with shared or tactical interests, from Hamas to the Taliban.
Yet, despite the rising threat posed by Iran’s support for militant groups, governments and policymakers have been unable to determine exactly how aligned these nonstate actors are with Tehran and the extent of the IRGC’s control over their actions. This knowledge gap has produced significant policy consequences, enabling Iran’s leaders to use such militias to target governments in the region and attack Western positions – and with enough plausible deniability to prevent an international response.
The known unknowns when it comes to the extent of Iran’s extraterritorial reach complicate any risk calculus attached to conflict with the regime. Estimates of the extent of Iran’s so-called proxies range dramatically and, in all cases, are either exaggerated or too conservative.
When the West and its regional allies have sought to contain Iranian-backed militias, they have done so primarily through economic sanctions on Tehran, on the premise that the Islamic Republic’s lack of funds will eventually curb its support of militant groups. But while economic sanctions have significantly weakened Iran’s already ailing economy, they have not altered the regime’s priorities. The number of Iranian-backed militias has increased, and their attacks on US military bases have continued.
Mapping the activities of the IRGC around the world since 1979
Crucially, the one-size-fits-all sanctions approach overlooks the fact that while the relationships between Iran’s regime and some of the groups it works with are based on material benefit and convergences of interests, other groups have much deeper connections with the Islamic Republic, rooted in a shared ideology, culture and worldview. Groups in the latter category have not only been manufactured by the Guard but have also embraced Tehran’s narrow interpretation of the Shia Islamist concept of velayat-e faqih, the principle that gives Iran’s supreme leader authority over Shia Muslims. To varying degrees, these groups accept ideological subordination to the supreme leader and the IRGC.
Understanding the roots of the relationships between Iran and its network of militias, and the nature of those relationships today, can highlight the limitations of an approach that relies on economic sanctions alone. The West and its regional partners will need greater and more concerted efforts to try to unravel or disrupt the links between Iran and those local militias that go beyond material self-interest.
The assassination in January 2020 of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for Tehran’s network of militias, has not resulted in a scaling back of Iranian-sponsored militancy. For more than two decades, Suleimani was regarded as the operational mastermind behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ambition to paramilitarise the Middle East and create a pan-Shia state under his leadership as the supreme leader of all Shia Muslims. In doing so, he nurtured Shia militancy throughout the region and farther afield, creating and supporting militant nonstate actors.
Since Suleimani’s death, commentators have suggested that the Islamic Republic and Iranian-backed militias have become significantly weaker and are in retreat across the Middle East, attributing the earlier expansion of Iran’s militia network almost solely to Suleimani. But while Suleimani’s leadership was instrumental in allowing the Quds Force to enter deeply contested terrain from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Yemen, it is Iran’s long-evolving militia doctrine that has guided the force’s activities – and continues to do so. Irrespective of Suleimani’s death and the strategic hit it dealt to Tehran, delivering this doctrine remains Iran’s primary modus operandi abroad. There are no signs of the regime shifting focus, despite increasing domestic pressures.
Unpacking Iran’s Militia Doctrine
An effective policy that attempts to contain the threat of Iranian-backed militias, either by weakening the Iranian regime or by scaling back the IRGC’s militia assets, needs to consider two factors. The first is the privileged status of the IRGC and its Quds Force within Iran’s foreign policy and security apparatus, and the extent of direct support they receive from Tehran’s soft- and hard-power actors in pursuit of Iran’s militia doctrine. The second factor consists of the relationships between the IRGC and the militias themselves and the nature of its influence over their actions.
To address these two factors, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has launched a programme of work on the IRGC and Shia militias, entitled Recruit, Radicalise, Deploy: The IRGC and the Hizbullahisation of the Middle East. This programme reveals how the Guard has expanded its reach across multiple territories and how it prioritises and provides support for different militias. Drawing on original primary sources, this programme will determine the nature of the IRGC’s relationships with the plethora of militias it sponsors. Uniquely, this programme analyses Iranian-backed Shia militias through the lens of the IRGC to understand Iran’s objectives in the past, present and into the near future.
This first report in the series unpacks Iran’s militia doctrine – the foundation of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy by which Tehran has sought to expand its reach, influence and military capabilities. The doctrine has evolved through a process of trial and error since 1979 and been shaped by geopolitical realities and the experiences of various military commanders. The militia doctrine encapsulates Tehran’s long-standing commitment to the paramilitarisation of the Middle East as a means to destabilise the region in pursuit of its ideological foreign policy objectives. The doctrine includes the policies, strategies, tactics and implementing infrastructure that the IRGC has developed to extend Iranian influence, radicalise support and advance its revolutionary cause through a network of militias, cells and operatives.
Understanding the genesis of this doctrine enables analysts and policymakers to identify its trends and draw out its procedural patterns. Fundamentally, though, the doctrine is a commitment that is bound to the existence of the Islamic Republic and has endured four decades and countless crises, political events and conflicts.
The militia doctrine is not restricted to hard-power actors but also uses Tehran’s soft-power organisations and activities alongside militancy to achieve the regime’s objectives. This includes intentional collaboration with – or the instrumentalisation of – Tehran’s educational, cultural, humanitarian and diplomatic agencies where they play key roles in helping to recruit and radicalise militants and support covert operations. This doctrine has positioned Tehran to take advantage of vacuums and conflicts and provided a network in places where Iran would not otherwise have a presence. Crucially, embedding the militia doctrine as a central pillar of the Islamic Republic’s foreign and security policy has enabled the regime to use the paramilitary groups it sponsors to simultaneously advance its ideological ambitions and bolster its state deterrence.
A militia doctrine guides Iran’s use of paramilitary groups and is designed to outlive the Islamic Republic. The Islamic Republic’s existence is based on an expansionist ideology that seeks to establish a pan-Shia Islamist state grounded in the authority of Iran’s supreme leader. Through the militia doctrine, the clerical regime has a long-standing commitment to use militancy to achieve this ideological ambition, rooted in the Shia Islamist concept of the Imam and Shia Ummah. The doctrine is underpinned by the principle of velayat-e faqih, which provides the supreme leader with a mandate from God to rule with absolute authority over the ummah (the global Muslim community), extending his authority beyond Iran’s borders. The network and infrastructure the IRGC has created in pursuit of this doctrine are designed to outlive the Islamic Republic. This means that if the clerical regime collapses, the IRGC could continue to advance the militia doctrine, albeit in an insurgency mode.
The IRGC – specifically, its Quds Force – is the main implementer of Iran’s militia doctrine. The IRGC and its extraterritorial Quds Force were founded with a constitutional mandate to enforce Iran’s Islamic Revolution at home and abroad. An expert in insurgent warfare, the IRGC uses radicalisation and indoctrination to nurture a network of paramilitary cells and militias throughout the region. The IRGC is supported by the full foreign policy apparatus of the Iranian state.
The militia doctrine and the IRGC are fully supported by Iran’s soft-power institutions and government agencies. Tehran’s soft-power organisations – its educational, cultural, humanitarian and diplomatic agencies – play critical roles in supporting the recruitment and radicalisation of militants, extending the IRGC’s reach. Tehran’s cultural, educational and religious centres are essential both for maintaining a presence overseas and for disseminating approved messages. These messages form a corpus of readily available propaganda that is both pro-regime and anti-American, anti-Israeli or both. The Quds Force has also embedded personnel in these organisations on whom it can draw, including for covert operations and the transportation of munitions and personnel.
Iran’s militia network is not a homogeneous bloc, and only some groups are proxies. Iranian-backed militias are made up of a combination of independently formed grassroots militias and IRGC-manufactured groups. Their objectives and priorities range widely, and their loyalty towards the regime can be complex, depending on their roots, leadership and commitment to velayat-e faqih. The spectrum of ideological alignment between independent grassroots groups and those that the Quds Force has manufactured heavily influences the allegiances and power dynamics between the IRGC and the militias it supports. The IRGC privileges groups that have sworn allegiance to velayat-e faqih and Iran’s supreme leader as the ultimate authority over Shia Muslims.
IRGC-manufactured groups are the fastest-growing category of Iranian-backed militias and the greatest threat to regional stability. These militias have embraced Iran’s state-sanctioned Shia Islamist ideology as a matter of existence, have approved leaderships and have proven instrumental to Iran’s military response in, for example, Syria. Lebanese Hizbullah is the gold standard of the IRGC’s manufactured groups and represents the most dangerous of Iran’s proxies: fully aligned with the Islamic Republic’s vision of a pan-Shia state and Khamenei’s absolute authority over the Shia world and in perpetual opposition to Israel, the West and their Gulf allies. These manufactured groups are the IRGC’s most valuable militia assets and constitute Iranian proxies.
The IRGC Quds Force has repeatedly supported groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda with which it has a conflicting worldview where it sees a tactical necessity. Support of these groups forms one pillar of Iran’s militia doctrine and is grounded in the transactional supply of weapons, training and logistical support to gain a tactical advantage. These groups do not constitute Iranian proxies, and the IRGC does not have control over their decisions. As US-Iranian tensions increased after 2003, the Quds Force supported local Iraqi and Afghan militant groups, including those aligned to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, based on the shared goal of repelling US coalition forces. While support of these groups is the Quds Force’s least favoured approach, the IRGC has kept – and will continue to keep – the option of working with movements that are otherwise its enemies in pursuit of its overarching goals.
The 2015 nuclear agreement and the easing of sanctions on Iran did not curb or moderate Iranian-backed militancy or result in the disbanding of the militia doctrine. The premise that Iran would moderate its commitment to creating and sponsoring militias due to the thaw in US-Iranian relations after the 2015 nuclear deal and sanctions relief for Tehran was false. The number of militias created by the IRGC surged after this period, and the Guard’s presence abroad peaked, with the Quds Force expanding its operations in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The common mischaracterisation of Iran’s use of militias as part of its deterrence strategy ignores the reality that the regime’s militia doctrine existed long before international sanctions and the escalation of tensions between the US, Israel and Iran.
The formal militias that make up Iran’s network of militias and proxies are only the tip of the iceberg. The life source of the militia network is composed of the soft-power organisations that ensure the long-term survival of the ideas and worldview that underpin the militia doctrine and velayat-e faqih. The network of soft-power levers at the Islamic Republic’s disposal has been developing its capability for decades. The threat is now far more than the regime itself.
Without understanding the foundations of Tehran’s militia doctrine, there is a risk of viewing the corpus of Iranian proxies and Shia militias as a uniform bloc and of failing to recognise the spectrum of allegiances and the power dynamics between the regime and its militia network. This has led to the terms ‘proxy’ and ‘Shia militia’ being used interchangeably and has significantly handicapped policies to counter their attacks and destabilising activities.
This report puts forward a model to distinguish between Iran’s militia assets in terms of their ideological alignment with the regime and the characteristics of their formation. This model exposes the limitations of Tehran’s militia doctrine and, importantly, demystifies the so-called resistance axis. By distinguishing those groups that subscribe fully to Iran’s Shia Islamist worldview, policymakers can better understand the extent of the IRGC’s influence over different groups. That will allow governments to identify where a counterterrorism, counterextremism and counterinsurgency approach is needed alongside traditional sanctions to counter Shia militancy in the Middle East.
To dismantle the threat of Shia militancy in the region, a full-scale hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency effort is necessary. This requires, among other measures, a coalition of alliances that understand the complex local dynamics through which the Iranian regime has won local allegiances. It also means sustaining a campaign to gain popular support in Iran’s sphere of influence alongside a concerted effort to disrupt the institutions through which the regime permeates societies on a day-to-day basis.
Beyond the Middle East, this will require governments and policymakers to monitor and potentially sanction organisations like Al-Mustafa International University and the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, which Iran uses to support its militancy. These soft-power outfits not only play critical roles in recruiting and radicalising foreign fighters but also enable the Quds Force to have a presence abroad under a supposedly legitimate guise for its covert operations, including assassinations and terrorist plots.