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Sectarianism: Iran’s proxies target Sunnis

A core pillar of Iran’s foreign policy, which aims to achieve regional hegemony, is anchored in sectarianism. Since Iran knows it cannot wage direct warfare with other regional or global powers, it engages in asymmetrical warfare. Having become masterful in the latter, it tries to infiltrate and dominate the political and security establishments of other nations in the region.

In the first phase, Tehran finances, arms, advises and trains militias, primarily focusing on Shiite groups to pit against Sunnis. Then it tries to integrate them into the political process of that nation and make “legitimate” political realities out of them. In the next phase, the groups act as proxies, impacting the politics of the nation to better serve Tehran’s interests. Its agenda is to widen the gap between Sunnis and Shiites in an attempt to divide and conquer.

For example, one of the latest militias that Tehran is significantly relying on is the People’s Mobilization Units (PMU). The PMU has close connections to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), specifically Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign paramilitary group whose official mission is to export Tehran’s revolutionary ideals. Iran’s intelligence service also has significant control over the PMU.

With the IRGC’s financial, political, advisory and military help, more than 40 Iraqi militias created the PMU. This conglomerate, which is controlled by IRGC commanders, includes groups that are on the US terrorist list. The PMU’s deputy commander is also on that list.

To gain legitimacy and make it a political reality, the PMU became an integral part of Iraq’s armed forces due to influence and pressure from Tehran and some Iraqi politicians. Soleimani recently referred to the PMU’s evolution as being similar to that of the IRGC and Iran’s paramilitary group the Basij. “The Iraqi army is moving as a national, powerful Islamic army. This is due to popular forces. Something similar happened in our country,” he boasted.

According to Amnesty International, several Shiite militias have committed crimes against humanity. In Iraq, this occurs while the government remains silent. 

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Without Iran’s support, Shiite militias, such as the PMU, cannot continue operating. Several militia leaders have acknowledged that. Once militias are set up, they help form others. For instance, Hezbollah played a critical role in establishing the PMU, which along with other terror groups became integral to Iran’s fight in Syria in support of dictator Bashar Assad, and to help set up and organize new militias in Syria.

According to Amnesty International, several Shiite militias have committed crimes against humanity, particularly against Sunnis. In Iraq, this occurs while the government remains silent. According to a UN report, the PMU continues to recruit children and force displaced people to join it. Reuters reported that Shiite militias in Iraq have “detained, tortured and abused” Sunni civilians. 

“According to interviews with more than 20 survivors, tribal leaders, Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats… men were shot, beaten with rubber hoses and in several cases beheaded. Their accounts were supported by a Reuters review of an investigation by local Iraqi authorities and video testimony and photographs of survivors taken immediately after their release.”

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.