Iran’s hegemonic model is being reproduced in Iraq, Syria and Yemen by setting up shop the same way Hezbollah did in Lebanon
At a rally last month on the occasion of the 36th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani gloated: “We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.” Although the subject of the “export of the Islamic Revolution” is often discussed, it’s seldom properly defined and understood.
Most people tend to focus on the “Islamic” in “Islamic Revolution.” Thus, they look for the imposition of strict religious norms in society and for movement toward the establishment of an Islamic system of government. However, when Iranian officials speak of exporting the revolution, they have a more comprehensive model and specific structures in mind that they look to clone abroad. It’s these structures, now visible from Yemen to Lebanon, to which Soleimani was referring.
As the Iranian-backed Houthis marched on in Yemen, an Iranian site affiliated with the IRGC illustrated this point. It did so by laying out Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s plan for securing the victory of the “revolution” in Yemen. This strategy drew on critical elements of the Iranian revolutionary model. Namely, the Iranian site underscored the role of “popular committees” in “protecting the revolution” and “strengthening the foundations of security” by going after those who “act against the revolution.”
These “popular committees,” the function of which is to control the streets and help consolidate the nascent revolution, recall the various revolutionary instruments in Iran, like the “revolutionary committees,” but also the Basij paramilitary force. The latter organ, also known as the “people’s militia,” was formed in 1980 and is a hallmark of the Islamic Revolution. It is the template the Iranians are cloning in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
In remarks made last year, IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani stated that “by establishing the Basij, the third child of the revolution is being born in Iraq after it was mobilized in Syria and Lebanon.” Hamedani was referring to Iraq’s “Popular Mobilization Forces,” or hashd which is Arabic for basij. These units, which are led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis—perhaps Qassem Soleimani’s closest lieutenant in Iraq and the head of the Kataib Hezbollah militia—form the second parallel structure to the Iraqi Security Forces, next to the IRGC-banner, Hezbollah-style militias.
“Popular committees” were likewise established in Syria in 2012, as was the “Popular Army”—both instruments modeled directly after the Basij, as openly acknowledged by Iran. “We fundamentally believe in popular defense,” said the IRGC’s Hamedani. “When the people entered alongside the military in Syria, the situation turned in favor of the resistance.”
The juxtaposition of “the people”, “the military,” and “the resistance,” in that last sentence echoes the mantra of “the Army, the people, and the resistance,” which Hezbollah insists represents the foundation of security in Lebanon. “The people” in this equation represent, in reality, “popular mobilization,” that is: the Basij. So, in successfully imposing this equation, Hezbollah has in fact only erected a fundamental structure of the Islamic Revolution.
This exported model of revolutionary organs acting parallel to the regular military, and at the same time determining its operations, was of course first implemented and perfected in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Indeed, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy advisor to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, recently expressed to a Houthi delegation in Tehran his desire to see the Ansar Allah group “play a role similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” How so? By operating “alongside” the military. And this way, the army “sides with the people.”
This is the model that the revolutionary clique sought to clone abroad since the very birth of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This is precisely how Hezbollah came to be—as an extension of revolutionary instruments that emerged in Iran between 1979-1981. These instruments were followed by others, such as the numerous Iranian cultural and economic institutions that were copied in Lebanon, such as Construction Jihad. Now, Construction Jihad is seemingly coming to Syria on the back of the Basij, as the IRGC’s Hamedani recently announced: “Construction Basij has been established in Syria.”
Soleimani’s boast, then, is not rhetorical. When he talks about exporting the Islamic Revolution, Soleimani is referring to a very specific template. It’s the template that the Khomeinist revolutionaries first set up in Lebanon 36 years ago by cloning the various instruments that were burgeoning in Iran as the Islamic revolutionary regime consolidated its power. As a result, Hezbollah remains the most comprehensive and developed export of the Iranian model. And it is in this sense that Hezbollah was and remains “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon.” Now the Islamic revolutionary model is being reproduced in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as well, by setting up those same structures. The “Army, People (Basij), Resistance” formula is not a mere slogan. It’s an Iranian blueprint dating back to the birth of the Islamic Revolution. And that’s what’s now being copied across the region.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.