Iran’s investment in arming, training and equipping proxy forces across the Middle East accelerated significantly in the years following the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran, the top U.S. commander in the region told Congress.
Efforts by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force, the Corps’ directorate responsible for advising Shia paramilitary forces throughout the world, have seen an “enhanced investment” from Tehran’s hard-liners once the the nuclear deal — known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JPCoA — was inked, U.S. Central Command Chief Joseph Votel said Tuesday.
“Despite an agreement regarding its nuclear program, Iran remains a designated state sponsor of terrorism, and it exerts destabilizing influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen,” Gen. Votel told members of the House Armed Services Committee.
From facilitating military support to Shia militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, to pro-regime paramilitaries loyal to President Bashar Assad battling U.S.-backed forces in Syria, Tehran’s efforts to expand its vast network of proxy forces from Iran to Lebanon has expanded at breakneck speed, the four-star general said.
While Gen. Votel did not draw a direct line between the concessions granted Tehran in the nuclear deal — which included a cash payout of millions to the Iranian regime — to the expansion of Quds Force operations, he did note evidence of that acceleration is best seen in Iran’s backing of Houthi forces in Yemen.
Iran “is attempting to do in five years with the Houthis in Yemen” what it took “20 years with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he told members of the House defense panel during Monday’s hearing, focusing on the regional threat posed by Tehran to U.S. and allied interests.
The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been engaged in a grueling war with a Saudi-led coalition, with the implicit support of Washington, since the Shia separatists declared war on the central government in 2015.
But Riyadh’s heavy-handed strategy to defeat the Houthis, punctuated by an devastating aerial campaign — which has reportedly included the use of cluster bombs, which have been banned under the international rules of war — has prompted Washington to keep the conflict at arms length.
Despite its overwhelming military advantage, Riyadh has not been able to dislodge Houthi fighters from their strongholds in Yemen, due in large part to increased levels of military support from Tehran. The Iranian regime has also reportedly provided advanced weaponry to the Houthis, including mid-range missiles and high-tech coastal defensive weapons, Gen. Votel said Tuesday.
“We know these are not capabilities that the Houthis had,” he said. “So they have been provided to them by someone. That someone is Iran.”