by Ali Rizk
As tensions flare up between the Trump administration and Iran, many observers have been quick to point out that Iran is no Iraq and that war with Iran will have far more devastating consequences. Iran, for instance, has far stronger conventional military capabilities compared to Iraq.
Another factor that would make war with Iran far costlier is “Iran’s regional ideological alliance.” Iran can count on “ideological allies” to come to its aid if war were to break out. These allies extend from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen and have all proven themselves to be formidable forces. By contrast, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had no such ideological soft power, and Saddam was basically a regional outcast after the first Gulf war and his attempt to seize control of Kuwait.
Iran’s number one ideological ally is Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Trained by the Iranian revolutionary guards, Hezbollah is considered today as one of the most capable fighting forces in the region, particularly after it fought Israel to a standstill in 2006. More recently, Hezbollah also played a pivotal role in fighting extremists in Syria, thereby gaining valuable offensive combat experience in the process.
The Lebanese movement will most certainly not stand idly by during any war against Iran. Its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah made his stance clear in a recent speech to commemorate International Al-Quds Day (initiated by the Islamic Republic of Iran back in 1979). During this speech Nasrallah delivered a stern warning that the “entire region will burn” if war is launched on Iran. He also warned that such a war would lead to the annihilation of U.S. forces and interests in the region and that Washington’s two major regional allies—Saudi Arabia and Israel—would not be spared.
Iran has also succeeded to a large degree in replicating the Lebanese Hezbollah model in both Iraq and Yemen.
In Iraq, the Iranian “Al-Quds force” led by Qassem Soleimani played a vital role in training the popular mobilization forces (PMF) to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The PMF includes many groups with close ideological connections to Iran, such as the Badr organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and others. The defense of holy Shiite shrines in Iraq against IS has created an unbreakable ideological bond between these Iraqi groups and Iran.
In Yemen, meanwhile, commanders from the Lebanese Hezbollah have been assisting in training the Houthi fighters that have been battling Saudi Arabia and its allies since the aggression on Yemen began in 2015. Houthi leader Abdul Malik Baderdinne Al-Houthi is often seen as the Yemeni version of Lebanon’s Nasrallah. Since his rise to prominence, Al-Houthi has given speeches on the occasion of Ashura (the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of prophet Muhammad and one of the most sacred occasions for Shiite Muslims).
Recent events offer a glimpse of how Iran’s allies could react if war were to be launched on Iran.
On May 19, as tensions increased between Washington and Tehran, a rocket landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Just days earlier, Yemeni Houthis launched an armed drone attack against Saudi oil-pumping stations, causing the state-run Aramco oil company to cease using one of the pipelines. The Houthis simultaneously targeted the airport in the Saudi city of Najran.
Iran’s ideological influence will prove to be a major advantage in any possible future war. The United States for its part lacks this ideological element. U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are much more like client states for Washington. At the same time, their militaries have not succeeded in Yemen despite support from Western powers. Furthermore, Arab countries in the Persian Gulf are divided in their stances towards Iran, with Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman adopting more conciliatory positions. Sunni heavyweights Pakistan and Turkey have also made it clear that they don’t intend to be part of an anti-Iranian bloc. Israel, meanwhile, will have its hands full confronting Hezbollah in the event of a war with Iran.
The only parties truly ideologically indoctrinated against Iran and its regional allies are Wahhabi-inspired groups like IS and al-Qaeda. However, here as well the Iranian-led alliance has succeeded. Iran and the Iraqi PMF have largely defeated IS in Iraq, while Hezbollah was pivotal in defeating groups like IS and Al-Nusra in Syria (with the assistance of the Syrian army and Russia). In Yemen, meanwhile, the Houthis have proven a very effective fighting forces against al-Qaeda, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has thus far failed to defeat the Houthis.
Ali Rizk has been working in the field of journalism since 2003 including five years in Iran. He is a contributor to Al-Monitor and Al-Mayadeen and has written for other outlets including the Lebanese dailies Assafir and Al-Alakhbar. He is the former Beirut correspondent for Iranian PressTV.