The Iranian regime has built a vast network of proxy militias, with an estimated 200,000 fighters spread across the region, in an effort to further its influence and expansionist ambitions, experts told Al-Mashareq.
Through this network of militias, they said, Iran has sought to dominate and exploit the import and export activity and oil and investment sectors of the host countries, in order to reap rich profits for itself.
But instead of improving the lot of the Iranian people, they said, the profits of this economic exploitation are funneled directly into the coffers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), and back to the militias themselves.
The primary objective of Iran's proxies is to "seize control" of national resources under various pretexts, former Iraqi MP Mithal al-Alousi told Al-Mashareq.
Iran has been building and supporting militias across the region to tilt the balance of power in its own favour, Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Dhabyani told Al-Mashareq.
It has sought to destabilise the region by sowing chaos, hijacking the sovereignty of its neighbours, and producing a political class whose loyalty is primarily to Iran, he said.
In addition to reaping profits from abroad, he said, the Iranian regime has appropriated public funds to finance its affiliates and advance its agenda in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The regime underwrites these expenditures "while the Iranian people live in extreme poverty", al-Dhabyani said.
"The ultimate objective of these militias is not to serve the countries in which they are present but to serve Iran," he said.
"Consequently you see the members of these militias being isolated and ostracised by their people and treated as agents of Iran," he added.
'Merely proxies for Iran'
A former member of Iran-backed Iraqi militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who defected in 2017, told Al-Mashareq the militia’s members in Iraq "receive higher salaries from Iran than Iranian doctors and engineers receive in their country".
"They pay between $700 and $900 to each militia member, not counting weapons, equipment and aid," said the former militia member, who asked to be identified simply as "A.B."
In return for the money it pays, Iran gains the loyalty of militiamen in other countries that carry out its orders and facilitate its interests, he said.
In Iraq and Syria, for example, he said, these militiamen have been known to pressure business entities to import goods only from Iran.
"They recently established financial and commercial arms that help move foreign currency from countries such as Iraq and Lebanon to Iran," he said.
"I left the militia when I discovered the truth," he added. "People shun us now. In their eyes, we are no longer who we used to be: we have become merely proxies and tools who do what Iran wants."
Militias rely on public funds
The Iranian regime built a large network of militias in Syria and spent large sums of money to put its hands on Syria’s resources, monopolising its markets, reconstruction projects and oil, said security expert Ahmed Rahhal.
But Iran is now using public funds to support these militias, he told Al-Mashareq.
In practice, he said, Iran-backed militias in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq "threaten the security and stability of the entire region and consume expenses that Iran could direct towards the prosperity of its people".
Instead of propping up militias across the region, these funds could be used to improve infrastructure and the educational system within Iran, he said.
Meanwhile, in countries where Iran supports militias, there is greater awareness of the problems they can cause, he said, which "may torpedo Iran's efforts".
This has become clear during recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon, where anti-Iran slogans have been chanted, he said.
"It is imperative that efforts continue to expose [Iran's] projects and to raise awareness among the people of these countries about the danger of the Iranian regime," Rahhal said.