The fate of the Iranian militias in the Middle East

The Iranian militia is strong right across the Arab states. (Photo by Shutterstock).

The Arab League affirmed its adherence to end the role of Iranian militias and to limit the role of Iranian state security in the Gulf states, writes Ahmad Abdul-Rahman.

Many in the Middle East, and especially in the Arab world, are wondering about the fate of the militias supported by the Islamic Republic (which in Washington is called the Iranian militia) and which control, in whole or in part, four Arab countries -Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. The question arises with two recent developments, namely the Saudi-Iran agreement and the decisions of the recent Arab summit in Jeddah. Arguably, Iran had a clear principled position on this issue.

The Beijing summit laid the rules for regional disengagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries, including Syria. Saudi Arabia stopped the Houthi strikes on its lands and the lands of its allies. Riyadh gave Tehran a period of two months, which will be extended, to prove Iranian good intentions and solve the problems of other militias such as the Revolutionary Guards. These mean that the authority in Iran must choose between urging the militias to continue their attacks on Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia the biggest target, and losing the economic gains promised by the Chinese deal. The Chinese deal provides for Iran obtaining economic gains from Arab countries and signing trade cooperation agreements with these countries. So far, it appears that Iran has chosen the path of normalisation with Saudi Arabia rather than terrorism. The second question remains, however. Will Tehran implement its agreement with Riyadh in the other three Arab countries: Iraq, Syria and Lebanon?

In its closing statement, the Arab League affirmed its adherence to solutions that would end the role of Iranian militias, and "limit the role of state security to its armies and security forces," which constitutes a declaration towards all militias in the region and those associated with Iran. All militias must eventually disappear in favour of states. Questions remain: Will Iran accept the dismantling of the militias, disarming them and lifting their hegemony over the various countries it controls? Will Tehran deal with the status of each Arab country in isolation from the other?

The Iranian strategy

Speculation based on past practices and the apparent reality on the ground, in addition to the composition of the regional power of the Islamic Republic, necessitates two things. The first is Tehran's continued adherence to its network of militias in the Middle East. These are summed up in the fact that Iran is unable to abandon the ability to control four countries and wants to expand towards the Gulf. It's current strategy also means it has access to the Mediterranean Sea too which will allow it to confront Israel, through Syria and Lebanon, and its position on the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait across Yemen. If Tehran loses these branches, it will lose its position as a regional power, and if it retreats to its national borders, pressure will follow and its regime will weaken, according to Walid Fares, Secretary General of the Atlantic Parliamentary Group based in Washington DC . Fares added that when the Iranian state is prosperous and the sanctions are lifted and its people benefit from the state of peace, it will relinquish regional control and will become a country that has no ambitions in the region. However, the current reality of the Iranian regime is completely different.

The foundation of Khomeini's republic is ideological, strategic, and elitist. Itis not based on striving for a better economic future or human rights. The regime knows that deep reforms in the style of Perestroika and Glasnost launched by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union will bring down the incumbent regime. The only mechanism that might enable Iran to implement reforms is cooperation with the opposition. However, the Islamic Republic will not reform, and is unable to give up its protections. Indeed,the militias are among its most important defences. Therefore, there is not any likelihood that Iran will disband its militias in the region or withdraw them to the interior. Tehran knows that failure to implement the Saudi-Arab request will affect the process of normalisation of relations and its benefits.

Strategically, Tehran will begin to reduce its influence in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Yemen, and then it will seek to improve relations with the Gulf States.  Tehran's goals do not conflict in depth with the demands or interests of most Arab countries. The Iranian leadership believes that the Arab capitals will not be angry if its militias continue their presence without undermining the Arab national security .

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Saturday, 30 September 2023