The Trump administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and the subsequent economic sanctions that the U.S has imposed on Iran has had a crippling effect on the Iranian economy. According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) most recent report on Iran, the 2019 inflation rate will rise to 37.2%, and GDP is projected to fall by 6%. Additionally, currency traders report that Iranian currency has lost almost 60% of its value against the U.S dollar since sanctions were reintroduced. Whilst exact figures on Iran’s funding of its allies are not easy to obtain, evidence suggests that the economic situation has forced Hassan Rouhani’s government to curtail their financial support for their proxy groups in the region. The decrease in Iranian funding has forced two of Iran’s most significant proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, to adapt their financial and political strategy, and has raised questions over the fate of these groups as U.S – Iran tension continues to rise and threatens to destabilize the region. This paper shall inspect the ways in which Hezbollah and the PMF are responding to the financial difficulties presented by U.S sanctions, and shall answer the question of whether U.S sanctions are having their desired effect of dismantling two of the major pro-Iran groups in the Middle East.
Since the 1980’s, Iran’s funding of Hezbollah has been estimated at $140 million – $200 million annually, and has recently increased hugely following the group’s support of Iranian interests in the Syrian Civil War. In 2018, U.S officials estimated Iran’s funding of Hezbollah to be approximately $700 million annually. Despite Iran’s efforts to bypass U.S sanctions and continue to covertly fund Hezbollah, it has become clear that the Islamic Republic has been unable to maintain previous levels of funding. The cuts were made evident in early March, after Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, admitted that the group were facing ‘financial difficulties’, and appealed to Hezbollah supporters for donations. Following the British listing of Hezbollah’s political arm as a terrorist group, ending the distinction between the organization’s military and political wings, Nasrallah stated that ‘the sanctions and terror lists are a form of warfare against the resistance and we must deal with them as such’, and indeed, Hezbollah are finding ways to deal with the sanctions.
Aside from donations from their Shia support base, Hezbollah will hope that their control over the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health can help to lower the pressure on their finances in the face of foreign sanctions. The group secured control over the Ministry following the parliamentary elections in May, which gave Hezbollah and its allies considerable influence in Lebanese Parliament. Despite the powerful position Hezbollah was put in after the election, the party only insisted on being given control of the Ministry of Health, whilst allowing its allies control of sovereign ministries including the ministries of finance, defense and foreign affairs. Although it may seem strange that Hezbollah would not aim to directly control more government ministries, the decision to focus on the Ministry of Health is in fact a highly tactical move. Through control of the health sector, Hezbollah now have control over the fourth most-highly funded ministry in the Lebanese government. Whilst most government ministries’ budgets are used on salaries, the majority of the Ministry of Health’s budget goes directly to the public. This will make it far easier for Hezbollah to direct the Ministry’s funds to its supporters, thereby reinforcing its clientelist system, and counteracting the recent cuts that it has had to make to its social services. Moreover, the Lebanese health sector receives contributions from the EU and the World Bank in order to help it cope with the spill over from the Syrian civil war, and these organizations may be unwilling to cut funding to vulnerable Syrian refugees, even if Hezbollah does control the money. The U.S will also be faced with a moral dilemma over whether or not it will sanction Lebanese state-controlled hospitals, and Hezbollah will doubtlessly use their status as providers of health care to defend themselves against further U.S sanctions.
Despite Nasrallah’s claims that state funds will never be used for Hezbollah’s own benefit, analysts are skeptical of the group’s intentions. Control of the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health has previously been used by ruling parties to provide subsidized or free healthcare for their supporters, and many believe that Hezbollah will do the same, perhaps even using the $338 million of government money allocated to the Ministry as a means to help the Hezbollah fighters wounded in the Syrian civil war. Whilst Hezbollah has in the past distanced itself from political racketeering, and is currently in the midst of an anti-corruption campaign, the party’s anti-corruption credentials have come under fire. More light has recently been shed on Hezbollah’s Latin American drug-trafficking network, money-laundering practices, spying, and involvement in a prostitution ring, raising yet more questions about the legitimacy of the Shi’ite organization.
More evidence of Hezbollah’s financial difficulties has come through reports of pay-cuts to Hezbollah fighters in Syria and to employees in the medical, educational and media branches of the party. Married fighters are now receiving less than half of their normal salary ($600 – $1200 per month), whilst single fighters are only receiving $200 per month. In order to quell internal dissatisfaction with the salary reductions, Hezbollah have reportedly told the allied Amal Movement leadership that they shall take responsibility for assigning 50% of the government jobs that are constitutionally given to the Shiite population. Hezbollah are likely to place loyal party supporters in these jobs, thereby giving them a government salary. The group will hope that this alleviates pressure on their own finances, and better integrates Hezbollah supporters into the state system.
Hezbollah is also becoming embedded in the Syrian state. The group’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been costly, with an estimated death toll of 1,200 fighters, and they are now looking to reap the financial benefits of their role in securing Bashar al-Assad’s power. In areas under Hezbollah control in Syria, the group has increased its wealth in terms of tangible assets through claiming land and possession of property on behalf of its fighters and their families, once more alleviating pressure on the group’s finances. Reports have also stated that Hezbollah are creating jobs for their Lebanese supporters in Syria through construction projects and hospitals for the wounded. By establishing a clientelist support network in its territory in Syria, Hezbollah is consolidating its influence around the Syrian-Lebanese border, and thereby securing the continued trade of goods between Iran and Hezbollah. Although the U.S has a great deal of control over the world’s financial markets, it has largely withdrawn from Syria, and as such, Syria is a crucial channel for Hezbollah and Iran to exploit in order to maintain their mutually beneficial trade relationship.
Another benefit of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has been the acquirement of a large number of advanced weapons. According to Israeli estimates, the number of Hezbollah owned surface-to-surface missiles during the 2006 conflict was around 20,000 – 30,000, but today, estimates are around 100,000 – 150,000. Tanks, rockets and unmanned combat aerial vehicles have also been added to Hezbollah’s arsenal. In the face of financial uncertainty, Hezbollah has accumulated weapons, and has therefore obtained tangible assets that help it to secure non-monetary wealth, and will reduce its spending on arms in the short term.
Whilst Hezbollah is perhaps the Iranian proxy that is being most targeted by U.S sanctions, other groups are also suffering during the ‘economic war’ being waged by the Trump administration. Iraq is proving to be a highly competitive area in the conflict between the U.S and Iran, and as such, Iran is increasingly looking to its supporters in Iraq’s PMF to ensure Iranian influence in Iraq. At the same time, Iran can no longer provide financial support to the PMF as it did during their struggle against ISIS, and thus the PMF are being forced to become financially autonomous.
After Iraq’s army collapsed in the fight against ISIS in 2014, Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa, calling Iraqi citizens to take up arms and join the fight against the armed extremist Sunni group who had taken control of large parts of northern Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens responded to the religious decree by joining militia groups to receive arms and training. These militia groups came under the umbrella of the PMF, and while the militias consist of fighters from a range of religious backgrounds, including Christian and Sunni Muslim, the majority of the militias are Shia, and many of them are loyal to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The strong relationship between the PMF and Iran has been made clear by the PMF’s leaders. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy Commander of the PMF, praised Hezbollah and Iran’s support for the group in the struggle against ISIS, stating that “the support of the Islamic Republic (of Iran) has been essential, and the youth of Hezbollah had an essential role in training, planning, and supporting (the PMF factions),”. With Iranian backing, the PMF were highly effective in the Iraqi struggle against ISIS, and the credibility that they gained from their successes, combined with external pressure from Iran, led to the government’s decision to recognize them as a legitimate, state-affiliated entity under Law Number 40 (2016).
Following the legalization of the entity, some of the PMF’s largest Shia militias have moved from the military in the political realm, hoping to capitalize on the popularity gained through the defeat of ISIS. In the 2018 elections, pro-Iran PMF groups including the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq formed the Fatah Alliance which won the second largest number of seats in parliament. This success gave the Fatah Alliance the traction to form a national government through a surprise coalition with Muqtada al-Sadr’s nationalist Sairoon Alliance. By securing their role in the government, the PMF has moved into a strong position from which it will hope to achieve two key goals in relation to Iran:
1) Guarantee access to Iraqi government funding, and thereby decrease pressure on Iran’s under-pressure finances.
2) Maintain Iranian interests in Iraq’s domestic policy-making. This will include the continued import of Iranian gas, the maintenance of trade routes between Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and guaranteeing Iranian financial benefit from the reconstruction of Iraq.
Whether or not these goals will be fully realized remains to be seen, as the U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put pressure on Iraq to gain control of the PMF and decrease Iraqi dependency on Iran’s natural gas resources. Nonetheless, as things currently stand, the PMF is expanding its influence, gathering funds and integrating into the Iraqi state in order to sustain the Iran-Iraq relationship.
Government funding for the PMF has increased significantly since the 2018 elections gave the group strong influence in the Iraqi Council of Representatives. Under a decree issued in March 2018 by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, PMF troops receive state military salaries and other benefits enjoyed by military personnel under the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Furthermore, they shall be able to enroll in the state’s military colleges and institutions. In addition to these measures, the 2019 Iraqi government budget allocated $2.16 billion to funding the PMF, a huge increase from the $1.6 billion received in 2017. This gives the PMF two and a half times the funding of the Ministry of Water Resources, three times the budget of the Counter Terrorism Service, and 18 times the budget of the Ministry of Culture. Given the decrease in the PMF’s costs following the end of the conflict with ISIS, it seems that their increased demands for funding may be motivated by the lack of Iranian financial support available. Indeed, questions have been raised over the budget, as analysts have criticized the government for allocating too much to state salaries, whilst falling short in infrastructure and reconstruction projects.
Although the government may be falling short in the reconstruction sector, the PMF are expanding their operations in rebuilding an Iraq that has been severely damaged by the conflict with ISIS. According to recent reports, the PMF have recently taken control of al-Mu’tasim state constructional contracting company, a move which will help the group to benefit from state and foreign investment in reconstructing Iraq. This involvement in construction also keeps Iranian interests at the heart of the PMF’s activities, as the Iran-backed engineering arm of the PMF will undoubtedly take counsel from Iranian technical experts and give preference to Iranian investors. Other state sectors that PMF groups are taking control of include the national waste company in Basra and the taxi business in Kerbala. By taking control of these previously state-controlled operations, the PMF demonstrates the incompetency of the state, secures its legitimacy, and creates a clientelist network through its employees. This strategy mirrors the tactics used by the Basij (part of the IRGC), who organized civil reconstruction and cultivated loyalty to their institutions by offering tangible benefits to people through the ‘Jihad-e Sazandegi’ outreach scheme after the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. It therefore seems that the PMF is receiving Iranian strategic counselling as part of the group’s attempt to consolidate its newly-obtained power. By helping the PMF to develop in this way, the Iranian regime is ensuring the protection of its future interests in Iraq, reducing the PMF’s need for Iranian funds, and ensuring that Iran will profit from the reconstruction of Iraq.
According to Article 1 of Law Number 40 (2016), the PMF is officially “an independent military formation and part of the Iraqi armed forces, and is linked to the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces”. This status of being both “independent” and “part of the Iraqi armed forces” allows the PMF’s militias to exist as both state and non-state actors, and is crucial to the PMF’s efforts to finance itself without Iranian backing. Although the PMF’s independence has recently been threatened after prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a decree ordering their integration into Iraq’s armed forces, there remains considerable doubt over whether the militias political ties will be affected. Currently, the PMF remains somewhat separated from the Iraqi state, and it is therefore able to run a number of illegitimate financing channels. Amongst these is smuggling oil from Basra, taking control of the scrap metal trade in Mosul, smuggling goods from Syria and Turkey, and illegally levying taxes on vehicles passing through PMF checkpoints. It is estimated that one PMF militia is making $300,000 daily in just one Iraqi town through these checkpoint taxes, and is using this money to pay its fighters and followers. Whilst this illegal activity may not prove to be popular amongst the people of Iraq, it is clearly an enormous source of income for the PMF, and perhaps will be used to finance the group’s growing social services network or media channels, again emulating the strategy of Hezbollah and Basij.
In spite of the similarities between the PMF, Hezbollah and the IRGC, it is important to not attribute all PMF action to Iranian puppet-masters. Analysts have proposed the idea that the PMF is more motivated by self-interest than we think, arguing that the PMF’s priority is its own survival, and that Iran’s benefitting from their actions is simply an incidental biproduct of the PMF’s growing power. Whether they are acting out of self-interest or not, the relationship between the PMF and Iran is undeniable, and PMF expansion in Iraq will help Iran to maintain a financial network in a bordering country, whist also allowing trade between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to continue. With U.S sanctions putting the entirety of Iran’s global network at risk, Rouhani’s government will be relying on the PMF to adapt, expand, and assist the Iranian economy in its time of need.
Iran’s proxy groups in the Levant have responded to U.S sanctions by cutting their financial dependence on Iran, expanding their alternative financing networks, and better integrating themselves into their state institutions. Although the sanctions have caused difficulties for the Shia groups of the PMF and Hezbollah, the unstable nature of the political systems in both Iraq and Lebanon combined with the two groups’ political clout has allowed them to retreat to within the security of government funding. Their increased integration into state institutions raises questions over whether economic sanctions are truly the best way to diminish Iran’s role in the Middle East.
Recent research by the World Trade Organization has casted doubt over the effectiveness of economic sanctions as a diplomatic policy, as past successes of economic sanctions in opening negotiations have been affected by factors such as domestic politics or the influence of a third party. Iran’s agreement to the JCPOA in 2015 was not merely a capitulation to U.S sanctions, but was the outcome of a multi-faceted international diplomatic effort, spearheaded by Barack Obama’s willingness to engage in negotiations, and supported by the election of a more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran. It therefore seems that the current U.S attempt to alter the Iranian regime and reduce their regional influence is flawed in its approach. Rather than weakening the relationship between Iran and its proxies, U.S sanctions have in fact fortified their connection by giving the ‘Axis of Resistance’ a further reason to demonize their common enemy. Of course, financial pressure on Hezbollah and the Shia militias of the PMF has increased, but both groups have political strength within their respective states that allows them to access government finance. The more that the U.S pushes, the more both groups will integrate themselves into the state sector, thereby gaining legitimacy and influence – the opposite of what Trump’s foreign policy measures aim to achieve.References
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