Iran’s power has historically resided not in its military, economy, or politics, but beyond its borders in proxy militias. By funding and arming groups across the world, from Latin America to Africa, Tehran spreads its influence and power. That influence is at risk of beginning to wane, however, as Iran is slowly losing the ability to keep proxy groups funded.
Soleimani’s Assassination Created a Power Vacuum
This is most evident in Iraq where Iranian-backed proxy militias were expecting payment earlier this year but didn’t receive it, as the Associated Press reported. Instead, the general who replaced Qasem Soleimani arrived in Baghdad with silver rings, not cash. On another visit, Esmail Ghanni was required to apply for a visa, a formality that Soleimani was never subjected to.
In Iraq, militias that once dutifully responded to Tehran’s beck and call are now at risk of slipping from Iran’s control. When Soleimani was in-charge, there was a strongman to keep the groups in line. He commanded respect and Tehran never tried to swindle its way out of paying proxy groups.
Soleimani also boasted a diplomatic nature capable of bridging the gap between rival groups, Iraqi officials said. Critically, the slain general was fluent in Arabic, whereas his successor Ghanni is forced to rely on a translator.
The assassination of Soleimani aligned with a sharp economic downturn in Iran, both designed by Washington. In a sign that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is working, Ghanni informed militia leaders in April that there would be no money flowing form Tehran for the near future.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — the parent organisation for Iran’s various proxy groups based in Iraq — is paid through the Iraqi government and received $2 billion in the 2019 fiscal year. However, groups count on Iran to give them extra cash which can be as much as $9 million. For smaller groups, this cash is critical to maintaining operations and securing the loyalty and support of members.
Leadership Crisis Snuffs Out Iranian Loyalty
Simultaneous to Iran’s woes, the PMF is undergoing a leadership crisis. Its top leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed alongside Soleimani in the American drone strike in January.
“With al-Muhandis gone, there is an absence of an anchor around which (PMF) politics revolves,” said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq researcher.
The death of al-Muhandis opened the door for PMF militants to openly challenge what they perceived as pro-Iranian leadership. They often complained that pro-Iranian groups were treated better than Iraq-aligned militias; thus they seized the opportunity to forge their own path.
“Hajj Abu Mahdi made us an official group, it’s the most important thing he did,” said Mohammed al-Mousawi, a PMF commander. For the years ahead, he had planned greater training for fighters, academies and recruitment to improve management, according to al-Mousawi. However, al-Muhandis’ vision died with him, and so too have Iran’s plans to establish regional supremacy via proxy.
Some militants broke away from the PMF forming their own forces. One, the Usbat al-Thairen, allegedly attacked US troops in March. Another four groups decided they would no longer answer to the PMF, instead choosing to listen to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
“They are basically saying we do not want an organ that takes its orders from Iran,” said Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute.
Turkey and Russia Stand to Benefit
For Iran, the development in Iraq could not come at a worse time. It arguably would have happened without the economic turmoil; Soleimani and al-Muhandis were integral in keeping Iraq-based proxy militias aligned with the common goal of supporting Tehran’s interest. Without them, the groups would have faced a problem of leadership regardless of Iran’s economic situation.
However, lacking funds to pay them puts Tehran in an unfamiliar position. For decades it has cultivated militants and spread its message far and wide to recruit volunteers. For the most part, Iran has been widely successful with this strategy. To make it continue to work though, it demands funding to secure loyalties or at bare minimum, strong leadership to explain why the funds are temporarily delayed.
Right now, Iran has neither and this threatens Tehran’s regional influence at a time when Turkey and Russia are making gains. With the US pulled out of Syria and soon Iraq and Afghanistan, the major power broker is leaving the region. Iran’s tactics are not like those of Russia and Turkey. It doesn’t send its troops on excursions into neighboring states. Instead, it consumes them from within through proxy groups.
Without them, Tehran is powerless to influence its neighboring states. Instead, groups will begin to fall in line with their own governments or simply become rogue militias with their own agendas. In Tehran’s place, Ankara and Moscow will predominately guide Middle Eastern policy.
Iran could never be expected to entirely retreat from the world stage or abandon its strategy of growing proxies worldwide. The struggles it now faces could be only temporary. If American presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the election in November, Washington may take a softer stance on Tehran, thus enabling money to once again flow to proxy groups.
In the interim, however, groups will slowly slip from Tehran’s grasp as its power and ability to fund them wanes.