Proxy flag stunt betrays Iranian regime’s confusion

Proxy flag stunt betrays Iranian regime’s confusion

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Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh in front of a range of Iranian proxy flags alongside official Iranian flags on state TV. (Screengrab)

In the midst of the ongoing momentous US-Iranian escalation in Iraq, one significant development early in 2020 escaped the attention of many analysts, who were busy focusing on more dramatic developments and their various possible scenarios and outcomes. On Jan. 9, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, appeared on state television to comment on the Iranian missile attacks on two bases in Iraq that host US troops. Unusually, nine flags were used as a backdrop, when past public addresses by IRGC commanders have only ever featured the flags of the IRGC and Iran.

Most of the flags in question were those of Iran’s proxy militias, which the Iranian regime refers to as its “Axis of Resistance” against the US and its allies in the Middle East. The flags were of sectarian Shiite militias that support Iran’s regime from Arab and other neighboring countries. They included the Pakistani Zainabiyoun militia in Syria, the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia in Syria, the (non-Shiite) Hamas movement of Palestine, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) of Iraq, the Ansarullah militia of Yemen (the Houthis), and Hezbollah of Lebanon. The three other flags were those of the Iranian Air Force, Aerospace Force and the flag of Iran.

The significance of this flag display lies in the unspoken, symbolic message conveyed by the Iranian regime: That it is taking its relationship with these particular militias to a new level by publicly offering “official” recognition that they are affiliated with Iran. Although these ties were previously an open secret, the Iranian regime avoided acknowledging that these militias were its proxies in the region. Now, however, the pretense is over and these militias have formally become Tehran’s proxies in the Arab world.

After this flag display, the PMU, the Houthis, Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Syria, and Hamas can no longer claim to belong to the land where they operate, nor can they claim that their identity is intrinsically linked to the land and people where they exist. All of them are now Iranian regime proxies within Arab nations, working to fulfill Tehran’s expansionist objectives by participating in extending and securing Iran’s sphere of influence in the region. With this move, Tehran is expressing open contempt for international law and its principles relating to respecting the sovereignty of other UN member states and non-interference in their internal affairs.

In addition, the Iranian regime has conveyed a number of messages and met certain objectives by undertaking this daring move. Firstly, it is flaunting its control of proxies in the region, which have permitted it to extend its operations beyond its geographic boundaries, providing the regime with a foothold in neighboring Arab countries.

Secondly, Tehran is showing it has moved beyond the previous era of simply providing financial and political support for its armed militias in Arab countries. It is now at a new stage of major participation in making and acting on critical decisions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, despite its proxies not being legitimate national movements. 

Thirdly, it proves beyond any doubt that the real role of these militias is to work for Iran’s regime, not for the cause of their homelands. They have shown that they consider Iran to be their foremost homeland, while Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon are not even their secondary homelands: They are, in effect, nothing but Iranian geographic extensions. These proxies are seeking to protect and expand the Iranian regime’s control of the region.

Finally, the Iranian regime is highlighting that, through its proxies, it can engage in confrontations with its enemies on multiple fronts in an effort to exhaust them.

All this goes to show that the Iranian regime is now officially acknowledging that the foreign armed militias it previously claimed were simply allies are, in fact, affiliates of the IRGC, which is on the US’ terror blacklist. Thus, these proxies could be partially or entirely classified as terrorist organizations in the future. All these militias conducted combat operations under the leadership of the late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was a terrorist, leaving countless people across the region maimed and mutilated, as US President Donald Trump has emphasized. 

This flag display also reflects the Iranian regime’s confusion and lack of understanding of how its move would be perceived in the region, as well as its consequences — potentially adding to the series of setbacks that Tehran has suffered since deploying its militias in Iraq to mount attacks. This blatant expression of contempt for Arabs will also reduce the Iranian regime’s regional influence and will, without doubt, do more harm than good to the country’s reputation, with the long-suffering people of the Middle East already protesting against the Iranian regime and the brutality of its proxies, as well as the international community expressing concern at their destabilizing effect.

The Iranian regime’s flaunting of its proxies also strips them of their veneer of serving their nations, making it clear that they are now nothing more than Iranian henchmen; hired mercenaries whose sole loyalty is to the regime in Tehran, no matter how much this harms the Arab nations. This, in effect, means that these militias cannot be classified as Iraqi, Yemeni or Lebanese forces, but as proxies of the IRGC, thus making them a straightforward target in any military mission. 

This proves beyond any doubt that the real role of these militias is to work for Iran’s regime, not for the cause of their homelands.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

This move also raises questions of utmost importance, such as how can the PMU be an affiliate of the Iraqi army and its political arm have parliamentarians and ministers in the Iraqi Parliament and government while it is an Iranian militia that works for the sake of Iran, not Iraq? How about Hamas, which deems itself to be an Islamic resistance movement, not an Iranian proxy? Doesn’t this move constitute an Iranian admission that Hamas works for the sake of Iran? How can Hezbollah have members in the Lebanese government and Parliament while it is working for the sake of Iran, not Lebanon? How can these countries and their citizens accept entities and parties that work within their political structures and official institutions while they are affiliated to another country? The answers to these questions depend on the positions of the governments of these countries and how far they desire to maintain the Arab civilization and their territorial integrity, as well as their national security as independent and sovereign nations.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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