Iranian military leaders are elevating their proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen to a new and dangerous stage, funneling more money, weapons and advisers to Shia militias in those nations in an attempt to further cement Tehran’s growing influence in the post-Islamic State Middle East, a former high level American diplomat in the region said Wednesday.
Iran has successfully pressed the initiative in Iraq via the Shia-majority Popular Mobilization Units, whose role in the counter-IS fight swayed Iraqi public opinion in their favor, said Ryan Crocker, who served as Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon and Pakistan during and after his 37-year tenure with the State Department.
Similarly, Mr. Crocker said that Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters battling anti-Assad regime forces in Syria have effectively opened the door for Tehran to forge a long-sought land bridge that could militarily connect the Iranian homeland all the way to Lebanon.
Without question the Iranians are now poised to expand on their gains through the establishment of a de facto proxy army in across the Middle East, he said, adding that “it’s important to know your adversary’s strategies and why.”
Mr. Crocker, now a visiting professor and diplomat in residence at Princeton University, made the assertion during a panel discussion hosted on Capitol Hill Wednesday by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based think tank known for its aggressive criticism and scrutiny of the Iranian government.
“What we’re seeing right now is phase two or phase three of Iran’s strategy in Iraq and Syria,” the former diplomat said. “Why settle for one Hezbollah when you can have many?”
David Adesnik, the director of research for FDD who also appeared on Wednesday’s panel, added that the fostering proxy forces across the Middle East has long been one of Iran’s major strategies for expanding its influence across the region — and that the proliferation of these paramilitary groups has ramped up dramatically in recent years.
In an analysis published by FDD Wednesday, Mr. Adesnik and Amir Toumaj, another researcher with the think tank, asserted that the majority of the Iranian-backed militias “hail from countries across the Muslim world and have varying motivations and interests, but they have one thing in common, [to] project the Islamic Republic’s power and promote its revolutionary ideology.”
While the bulk of these proxy forces’ successes have come in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria “all the groups have expressed a readiness to wage war against all enemies of the Islamic Republic,” they wrote.
Aside from Hezbollah, most of the militias mentored by the Iranian military have not been blacklisted by Washington as officially designated terror groups.
But the FDD analysis argued that the militias have direct affiliation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force — the IRGC’s directorate responsible for advising Shia paramilitary forces throughout the world. Since both of the groups are categorized by Washington as terrorist organizations, the analysis argued that many of Iran’s newer, proxy militias “likely meet criteria for designation as well.”
The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, warned Congress on Tuesday that “enhanced investment” from Tehran’s hardliners into the militias has been seen in the wake of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, which freed up billions in once-frozen cash assets for Tehran.
While Gen. Votel, who testified before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday, did not draw a direct line between the sanctions relief granted to Tehran under the nuclear deal and the expansion of Quds Force operations, he suggested there may be a connection.
The four-star general said Tehran’s accelerating regional activities can best been seen in Tehran’s backing during recent years of Houthi forces in Yemen.
Iran, Gen. Votel told lawmakers, “is attempting to do in five years with the Houthis in Yemen” what it took “20 years with Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Critical of Trump
Mr. Crocker, meanwhile, argued that the Trump administration is failing to take an aggressive leadership role on the world stage, asserting that President Trump — a year into his tenure — is following the same path the Obama administration did of “backing away” from such a role in various geopolitical arenas, including the Middle East.
After World War II, the U.S. “envisioned” and “led” the new world order, Mr. Crocker said. “With the election of President Obama, we started backing away,” he said, asserting that the former administration’s posture became one of, “we can’t fix everything,” which in turn “became an excuse for not trying to fix much of anything.”
“The Trump administration seems to be following the same path,” Mr. Crocker said. “Are we going to lead in the world or are we going to step back and let the world look out for itself? If it’s going to be the latter, we should have some very serious public discussions about that.”
• Guy Taylor contributed to this article.