Iranian revolution at 45: How Tehran's parallel army exported influence across the region

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp's reach in Middle East has been on display since the Gaza war

An IRGC parade in Tehran on September 22, 2019. Iranian Presidency / AFP.
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Syrian retiree Elham Ali was making midmorning coffee last month when a huge explosion shook her apartment in the upmarket Mazzeh district in Damascus.

“It was so close that I thought it was in my building,” Ms Ali said by phone.

From her balcony, she saw the rubble of a nearby building destroyed by what turned out to be an Israeli air strike.

It was one of many buildings in the area “taken over by Iranians” who have paid a premium to rent or buy in the area over the last decade, she said.

The January 20 strike killed five operatives in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian official media said. Among them was the head of Iranian intelligence in Syria and his deputy.

The IRGC presence in Mazzeh indicates how much more powerful, and wealthy, the organisation in Syria has become since Iran intervened on the side of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria’s civil war, in the years following the 2011 uprising.

Back then, the IRGC and militias under its control formed in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere were mainly stationed in rundown southern parts of the capital, such as Sayyida Zaynab, where a Shiite shrine is situated.

Over time, the IRGC and other Iran-backed militias have expanded into other parts of Damascus and Syria.

“Sayyida Zaynab became no longer good enough for them,” said Ms Ali. “They had to come here and endanger the whole district.”

Impact of Gaza war

The prolonged IRGC presence in Syria, where some high-level Iranian commanders are based, underscores the enduring nature of Iran’s influence over the region throughout the decades.

Formed 45 years ago, the force was initially intended as an internal security organisation, supporting the new theocracy and stopping counter-revolutionaries.

It has since grown to a force of hundreds of thousands, a parallel army more powerful than conventional state forces, the Artesh.

With a business empire – almost entirely sanctioned by the US and Europe – the force has gained notoriety for spreading Iran's brand of Shiite Islam through allied militias across the Middle East.

In particular, Hamas’s attack on southern Israel on October 7 has set off a broader regional conflict that has demonstrated the extent of the IRGC's power.

In the last four months, this has translated into attrition warfare by IRGC-linked groups against Israeli and US targets in the Levant.

In an attempt to alleviate pressure on Hamas, Yemen’s Tehran-aligned Houthis have also launched a shipping blockade in the Red Sea. In Iraq, militant groups have stepped up attacks on US military installations in the country. And in Lebanon, the powerful Hezbollah group has waged an intensifying border conflict against Israel.

Ideology and alliances

Since 1979, when a revolution brought the Islamic Republic of Iran to existence, Tehran has aimed to export its brand of theocracy by investing in close alliances with Shiite constituents in nearby countries.

It has also forged alliances with Sunni militant groups, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Over the last 45 years, Iran has consolidated a zone of influence stretching through Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean – presenting itself as a counterweight to the mostly Sunni, Western backed political order in the Middle East.

At the same time, Tehran has tried to portray its struggle against the West and hatred of Israel as Pan-Islamic, as opposed to a narrow policy espoused by a Shiite elite in Tehran.

The attempted portrayal of a Pan-Islamic revolution continued despite growing sectarian division in Iraq, that spiked in the aftermath of the US invasion as Tehran backed a number of hardline Shiite militias.

Those divisions have been at a low ebb in recent years as sectarian tensions in Iraq have fallen in the wake of the war on ISIS, and regional countries have doubled down on rapprochement efforts.

But Iran's regional projects, decades in the making, remain deep-rooted.

Early regional efforts

In Lebanon, in the early 1980s, a contingent of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were sent to Lebanon to train and organise Shiite militants.

Those groups eventually consolidated into Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese political party and paramilitary that dominates Lebanon’s politics.

Iran forged early links with Syrian President Hafez Al Assad, who came to power in a 1970 coup, through setting up charities and schools linked to the new Alawite elite in the country. The minority Alawite sect in Syria is an offshoot of Shiism that has dominated Syria since the 1960s.

In Iraq, the IRGC became de facto supervisor in the last decade the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella grouping of mostly Shiite paramilitary groups.

The emergence of Shiite militias in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion – which led to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime – was a response to the security void, aligning with Iran's interests.

Their transformation into a significant force gained momentum during the ISIS onslaught in 2014, when the extremists overran large areas of Iraq.

Over time, Iran’s proxies and allies came to be referred to as the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – a coalition of militant groups throughout the region defined by their antagonism to the West and Israel.

Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said that this approach “has created a large front from Afghanistan to North Africa that is undermining the interests of the US and its allies in the region, as well as those of many Arab countries”.

The pro-Iran coalition, long in the making, has especially come to be felt in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. Israel vowed to eradicate the group, a longtime Iranian ally, in response to the attack.

Iran and its axis immediately jumped to Hamas’s aid while the US came to the defence of Israel, setting off a series of events and retaliations that have sucked the region into turbulence.

Appeal of revolution

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, now a prominent Lebanese Sunni cleric, was 26 years old on the eve of Iran’s revolution in 1979.

A devout Muslim and political activist at the time, he said the emergence of the revolution on the region’s geopolitical scene filled a void for those who were unsatisfied with apolitical Islamist movements and ineffective leftist ideologies that dominated the period.

“The Islamic movements at the time didn’t have a political vision. We felt there was a shortcoming in these movements,” he told The National. In Lebanon, he said that the Iranian revolution “covered that deficiency.”

The Iranian revolution came about at a key time in Lebanon’s history, four years into a 15-year civil war that saw the small country used as an arena by foreign powers.

At the time, Lebanon’s political and sectarian spheres were also heavily shaped – and split – by the entrenchment of Palestinian fighters in Lebanon. The Palestinians, along with Lebanese allies, used Lebanon as a launch pad against Israel from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

Lebanon and Hezbollah comprise the external “crown jewel for the Islamic Revolution”, said Mr Kahwaji.

“Hezbollah is the model upon which the IRGC tried to replicate in the region,” he said.

Hezbollah has also acted as Iran’s proxy in neighbouring Syria. Its strength has allowed Iran to leverage its power in the Middle East by creating a corridor through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is seen as a subject for Iran, however, it also yields a lot of influence,” Mr Kahwaji said.

Fragile states

The group’s victory in forcing Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 helped Hezbollah attract Palestinian factions, leftist groups, and Lebanese offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood as allies.

Sheikh Hammoud, now 71, said Hezbollah has turned Lebanon into a regional resistance “hub”.

Although he is a Sunni cleric he said the Iranian revolution’s ideology appealed to him because it “had clear and unambiguous political slogans” – namely defining itself as a transnational Islamic movement with a clear objective to defeat Israel and the US.

Hezbollah’s presence has exacerbated Lebanon’s eternal struggle for full sovereignty: a weak state caught in the struggle between Western and Eastern influence.

“Hezbollah, not the Lebanese state, controls the decision for war and peace in Lebanon,” Mr Kahwhaji said.

Nada Homsi reported from Beirut and Sinan Mahmoud reported form Baghdad.

Updated: February 20, 2024, 10:26 AM