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July 3, 2018
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July 12, 2018

Exporting the Revolution: Iran’s Sectarian Tactics and the Rise of Afghan and Pakistani Shia Militias

A bullet ridden painting of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the late founder or Iran’s Islamic Republic. Source: Getty

Iran and its growing number of loyalists are out to remake the Middle East. Its influence extending through a growing network loyal regimes, political parties and militias, Tehran now holds sway over an increasingly large portion of the region, a fact that is causing increasing alarm in the Middle East and around the world.

The regime’s cunning use of sectarian tactics has been crucial in realizing its expansionist agenda. Armed Shia groups from across the region have been aligning themselves with Iran, with Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi PMF and Yemeni Houthis[1] all enjoying bilateral relations with Tehran. Since 2013, two lesser-known Iranian proxies have also arisen, with the Afghan Fatimiyoun and the Pakistani Zainabiyoun joining the Iranian axis and the fighting in Syria.

While loyalist armed factions have emerged from diverse socio-political contexts and geographical locations, the cases all share striking similarities. These commonalities illuminate the shrewd nature of the way in which Iran has used sectarian tactics at particular times to serve its expansionist political agenda.

By comparing examples from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and the aforementioned Afghan and Pakistani militias, this paper aims to demonstrate how Iran has successfully exploited instability and sectarian divisions in order to construct a narrative of transnational sectarianism in which Tehran is positioned as both the leader and protector of Shia communities throughout the broader region.

Raising Shia Militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen

Since the Shiite Islamic Republic was born in 1979, Iran has focused on ‘exporting the revolution’ to Shia communities in the broader region. There are now numerous examples of this strategy’s successful execution.  Each case has its differences, however they all share two key similarities, namely: that Iranian intervention occurred at a time of chaos and instability, and that the Shia communities in which intervention occurred had been subjected to marginalization and subjugation as a result of their sect. By examining the historical, social and political backgrounds that precede Iranian intervention, these similarities become apparent, and illuminate a considered Iranian strategy.

The now ascendant Lebanese Hezbollah and the context from which the group emerged offers a pertinent example of the way in which Iran is able to turn sectarian division and instability to its advantage. Like the Sunnis and the Druze, the Shia of Lebanon were sidelined during the years in which Lebanon existed under the French mandate, with the mandate authorities favoring the Lebanese Christians both politically and economically.[2] Despite the fact that the post-independence parliamentary system saw the position of speaker reserved for a Shia in an effort to distribute power between sects, the experiences of most Lebanese Shiite communities, who lived in poor rural areas and urban slums, continued to be one of marginalization and relative disadvantage.[3]

Israeli aggression against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Southern Lebanon during late 1970s disproportionality affected the predominately Shiite communities who inhabited the area, a fact that purportedly drew little sympathy from other parts of Lebanese society.[4] The subsequent Israeli invasion and protracted Israeli presence in Lebanon gave Iran a window of opportunity to intervene and militarize the Lebanese Shia. While the idea of Hezbollah predates the Israeli occupation of Lebanon,[5] it was as a resistance force that the militia raised to power and notoriety. Decades after they successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon, Hezbollah remains a major regional actor and maintains close ties with Tehran, from whom it continues to receive weapons and financial support, and whose interests it represents politically in Lebanon and the broader region.

A billboard in Lebanon shows the images of Hezbollah secretary-general Nasrallah, Iranian supreme leader Khamenei and founder of the Islamic Rebupblic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeni. Source: DW.

Despite being a majority, the Shia of Iraq also have a history of oppression. The group suffered horrific atrocities for decades at the hands of the Sunni-backed Saddam Hussein regime, being subject to economic marginalization as well as massacres and forced displacement. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the democratic system that was hastily imposed by the US after Saddam Hussein’s downfall saw a collation of Shiite parties gain significant influence over Iraq. However the rushed and poorly planned system quickly gave way to sectarian violence, as Sunni militias waged a guerilla campaign against the occupying US forces and the newly established Shiite-majority government, in a bid to regain the power they had held under Saddam Hussein.[6]  

The protracted period of fighting that ensued saw the sectarian division between Iraqi Sunni and Shia deepen, with both factions committing atrocities against the members of the other sect, and Sunni militants destroying the Shiite al-Askari Shrine in Samarra in 2006.[7] The 2014 emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS), a Sunni extremist group that saw all Shia as apostates, and the subsequent escalation of violence in Iraq led the Iraq-based Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to issue a fatwa, a religious edict, which called for armed resistance against IS. Those that rose to the call were overwhelming Shiite men, who formed numerous militias which came to be known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF).[8] Many of these units were armed, trained and financed by Iran.[9] Like Hezbollah, the PMF has remained a prominent regional actor after the conclusion of their campaign against IS, which was their raison d’être. Many PMF units enjoy continuing support from Iran and are demonstrating their enduring loyalty by fighting alongside Iranian forces in Syria.

The Yemeni story is not so dissimilar. The Zaydi of Yemen enjoyed relative autonomy for centuries, but their ascendancy was overturned following the 1962 Republican Revolution and subsequent civil war.[10] The Zaydi, who follow s divergent sect of Shia Islam, were seen as a threat to national unity by the predominately Sunni republican government that came to power following the revolution. Zaydi communities experienced repression and exclusion during the latter half of the 20th century. For a time the Republican government denied that the Zaydi existed at all, and they endured attempts to forcibly convert them to Sunnism[11].

The Yemeni Zaydi have experienced a revival of sorts over the last two decades with the formation of the Houthi movement, which has emerged as the key Yemeni political movement following the popular uprisings in 2011. Their participation in the ongoing Yemeni civil war has been backed by Iran, from whom they continue receive weapons and training.[12] Whether or not the Houthis will demonstrate enduring loyalty to Tehran as Hezbolllah and the PMF have done remains to be seen, due to the ongoing nature of the Yemeni conflict in which the Houthis are embroiled. However the way in which Iran has capitalized upon the conflict and grievances of the Zaydi and used these factors to construct a narrative of transnational sectarianism certainly bears a marked semblance to the aforementioned examples from Lebanon and Iraq. The fact that Iran is willing to overlook the fact the Zaydi are from a sect that is considered by most to be distinct from Shia Islam demonstrates Tehran’s willingness to adjust its tactics in order to further its political agenda.

Shiite militants at a training camp in Iraq. Source: The Irish Times

The Shia oPakistan and Afghanistan

A cursory glance at the history of both Pakistani and Afghan Shia reveals similar narratives of marginalization and oppression.

The Shia of Pakistan have been a sectarian minority since the state’s creation in 1947, and today constitute around 20% of the overall population.[13] General Zia-al-Huq, who saw the Iranian Revolution as a threat to the Sunni majority in Pakistan, set about remaking laws, policies and state institutions to reflect Sunni principals in the early 1980s.[14] This included the erection of imposing Sunni mosques in Shiite-majority regions,[15] which led to the Pakistani Shia feeling increasingly marginalized.

The 1980s saw a series of violent crackdowns bought against Shia communities in Pakistan. Government-sponsored Sunni militias formed and began to wage a murderous campaign against the Shia. The militias also attempted to suppress Shia culture by destroying Shiite symbols and shrines in several regions.[16]

The Shia mounted a disproportionately small armed resistance, and sporadic violence continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. However the fighting became increasingly one-sided, especially following the rise of violent Sunni fundamentalist groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), whose stated objective is to “rid Pakistan of all Shia Muslims”[17]. The group, which makes no effort to differentiate between civilian and military targets, has claimed responsibility for atrocities that include bomb attacks on Shia places of worship and public markets and the execution of Shia civilians on public busses.[18]

Pakistani authorities have consistently failed to respond to the attacks, and even in the few cases where arrests have been made, they have rarely led to prosecution.[19] This culture of violence and impunity, as well as economic marginalization has effectively ghettoized many of Pakistan’s Shia communities, who are now widely regarded as the victims of an ongoing genocide.[20]

Protest against LeJ violence in Pakistan. Source: Qantara

The Shia of Afghanistan have also been subjected to a history of oppression on account of their sect. Constituting around 10% of Afghanistan’s population,[21] most Afghan Shia are ethnic Hazara, an group that has been relegated to the lower echelons of society for centuries, while predominately Sunni Tajiks and Pashtuns dominated societal positions of privilege and power in Afghanistan.[22] The Hazara’s situation worsened significantly following the emergence of the Taliban in the early 1990s. The Afghan Hazara were subjected to a series of orchestrated atrocities at the hands of the Sunni fundamentalists, who maintained that the Shia Hazara should either convert to Sunnism or be killed.[23] The Mazar-i-Sharif massacre of 1998 saw Taliban insurgents murder over 2000 Hazara Shia, most of whom were civilians.[24]

The horrors of the Taliban’s tyranny and protracted instability has led to a mass exodus of Shia Hazara from Afghanistan. A significant number have fled to Iran, where Afghans represent the vast majority of the 1 million refugees that the Islamic Republic is currently hosting.[25] While Iran was initially welcoming of Afghan refugees, attitudes have slowly changed. The 1990s saw refugees’ access to education and other essential services become subject to greater and greater restrictions, and in 2007 Iran announced that it would no longer register Afghan refugees, making their presence in Iran illegal[26]. More than a decade later, this has meant that many Afghan refugees in Iran live in poverty and often struggle to find employment. The population is vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, particularly those who are undocumented.[27] Deportations of Afghan refugees has been on the rise since the turn of the century, despite the fact that the security situation in Afghanistan remains critically unstable, with the Taliban still controlling a significant amount of the country. 

Afghan refugees wait at a UNHCR registration center. Source: RFE/RL

The Rise of Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun

Iran’s support for Shia militancy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan dates back as far as the 1980s,[28] as groups in both countries arose to resist foreign occupation and sectarian violence. However concerted attempts to raise serious proxy militias did not occur until the recent years, when Iran needed to rally support for its campaign in Syria. 

Employing the same tactics that has already proved effective in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, Iranian recruiters intervened into chaotic and desperate situations: the Pakistani Shia being subjected to genocidal campaign the LeJ, and the Afghan Shia refugees in Iran having fled the chaos of Afghanistan to Iran, where their situation remained critically unstable.

In both cases, recruiters purportedly drew on the groups’ histories of oppression and marginalization, emphasizing the sectarian nature of their struggles and drawing parallels with the conflict in Syria.[29] Recruiters pointed to the so-called Islamic State’s attempts to destroy the Shiite Mosque Sayyidah Zaynab in Damascus in 2013, emphasizing that the conflict in Syria was representative of Shia oppression everywhere. Portraying the conflict as sectarian was made easier by the fact that both Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda entered the fight in the name of Sunni Islam, and after many Pakistani Sunni departed for Syria in order to join the ranks of opposition groups and IS.[30]

Iranian recruiters also offered incentives to those who signed up to Fatemiyoun and Zaynabiyoun, which included salaries of up to $1000 US per month, and the chance to resettle permanently, along with their families, in either Iran or Syria following the conclusion of the war.[31] In Iran, where Afghan refugees are often undocumented, there have also been reports of more coercive tactics being used to encourage fighters to join. It is alleged that Iranian recruiters offered prisoners a pardon if they joined,[32] threatened potential recruits with deportation to Afghanistan,[33] and even recruited children as young as 14.[34]

While the recruitment tactics, a mix of incentivization and coercion, are certainly morally dubious, Iranian recruiters successfully raised two formidable militias that are serving Iranian interests in Syria. Fatemiyoun is reportedly comprised of as many as 20,000 fighters,[35] while Zaynabiyoun is estimated to number up to 5000.[36] Both the militias were dispatched to Syria under the assumption that they were going to defend Sayyidah Zaynab in Demascus, but have ended up fighting in places as far flung as Palmyra, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo.[37]

A Fatemiyoun fighter plants his militia’s flag near Deir al-Zour, Syria. Source: FARS

Fighters were provided with a hasty three-week training course in Syria, before being dispatched to fight. Reports indicate that both brigades were used in some of the toughest and casualty-heavy and battles against IS and opposition forces,[38] which explains the lack of recourses expended on their training. The groups’ use as ‘cannon fodder’ has meant that they have incurred heavy losses, but have saved regime and Iranian forces from being depleted by the most grueling confrontations.

Interestingly, members of both Fatemiyoun and Zaynabiyoun who are killed in battle have reportedly been buried in Iran.[39] Given the domestic unpopularity of Iran’s military adventures in Syria, this move is perhaps intended to reduce the number of Iranian coffins arriving home and to create the perception that it is mainly foreign fighters dying in Syria.

As the Syrian war begins to ebb, the remaining fighters from both Fatemiyoun and Zaynabiyoun have reportedly been returning home. However they remain part of the expanding Shiite axis, and it is not unlikely that the groups be called on again should Iran find itself embroiled in regional conflict in the future.


Iran’s expanding influence and network of proxy militias is causing considerable alarm both in the Middle East and further abroad. At such a time it is important to seek an understanding of the numerous factors that have led to the situation in which we now find ourselves.

A comparison of the Shiite communities from which pro-Iranian militias have been raised reveals a common narrative of marginalization and subjugation, and Iran’s determination to capitalize on these sectarian divisions. Similarly, the cases compared in this paper reveal that Iranian intervention most often occurs at times of chaos and instability.

Policies that seek to address current Iranian expansionism need to take into account the regime’s shrewd employment of sectarian tactics, and more importantly the nexus of historical, social and political dimensions that have rendered this strategy an effective one. The rise of Iranian-backed Shiite groups across the Middle East perhaps heralds a new era of ethno-sectarian marginalization. Policymakers should thus learn from the current situation and seek to implement long-term strategies that address marginalization and the associated grievances and inequalities. Failure to do so could see future actors employ the similar tactics to those of Iran, and perpetuate cyclical sectarian division, oppression and violence.

Funeral for Fatemiyoung fighters in Iranian City of Qom. Source: Farda.

[1] The author acknowledges that the Yemeni Houthis are Zaydist, which is distinct from what is commonly referred to as ‘Shia Islam’. This point is discussed further below.
[2] Dr. Yursi Azran, The Shiite Community of Lebanon: From Marginalization to Ascendancy, Middle East Brief, 37 (2009): 2.
[3] Ibid: 2.
[4] Ibid: 2.
[5] For more information see: Tony Badran, The Secret History of Hezbollah, The Weekly, 2013: https://www.weeklystandard.com/tony-badran/the-secret-history-of-hezbollah
[6] James Fearon, “Iraq’s Civil War”, Foreign Affairs, 68:2 (2007): 5.
[7] Benjamin Isakhan, The Legacy of Iraq: From the 2003 War to the ‘Islamic State’, Edinburgh University Press, 2005: 188.
[8] Yousef Kalian, Iran’s Hezbollah Franchise in Iraq: Lessons from Lebanon’s Shiite Militias, The Washington Institute, 2016: www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/irans-hezbollah-franchise-in-iraq-lessons-from-lebanons-shiite-militias
[9] Ibid.
[10] James Robin King, Zaydi revival in a hostile republic: Competing identities, loyalties and visions of state in Republican Yemen
, Arabica 59, 2012: 405.
[11] Ibid: 411
[12] Jonathan Saul, Parisa Hafezi and Michael Gregory, Exclusive – Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s civil war – sources, Reuters, 2017: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-iran-houthis/exclusive-iran-steps-up-support-for-houthis-in-yemens-war-sources-idUSKBN16S22R
[13] Khuram Iqbal and Zubair Azal, Shiite Mobilization and the Transformation of Sectarian Militancy in Pakistan, Middle East Institue, 2017: http://www.mei.edu/content/map/shia-mobilization-and-transformation-sectarian-militancy-pakistan
[14] Vali R. Nasr, International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998, Comparative Politics, 32:2 (2000): 175.
[15] Ibid: 177.
[16] Uzair Hassan Rizvi, The Rising Threat Against Shia Muslims in Pakistan, The Wire, 2016: https://thewire.in/politics/the-rising-threat-against-shia-muslims-in-pakistan
[17] Uzair Hassan Rizvi, The Rising Threat Against Shia Muslims in Pakistan, The Wire, 2016: https://thewire.in/politics/the-rising-threat-against-shia-muslims-in-pakistan
[18] Phelim Kine, Pakistan’s Shia Under Attack, Human Rights Watch, 2014: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/07/pakistans-shia-under-attack
[19] Ibid.
[20] Matraza Hussein, Pakistan’s Shia Genocide, Al-Jazeera, 2012: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/11/201211269131968565.html
[21] Amin Saikal, Afghanistan: The Status of the Shiite Hazara Minority, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 31:1 (2012): 80.
[22] Ibid: 81.
[23] Human Rights Watch, Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan, 2001: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/afghanistan/afghan101.htm#P67_654
[24] Ibid.
[25] Human Rights Watch: Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights, 2013: https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/11/20/unwelcome-guests/irans-violation-afghan-refugee-and-migrant-rights
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Harsh V. Pant, Pakistan and Iran’s Dysfunctional Relationship, Middle East Quarterly, 16:2 (2009):  214.
[29] The Associated Press, Iran Recruiting Thousands of Afghans, Pakistanis to Fight in Syria, Haaretz, 2017: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/iran-recruiting-thousands-of-afghans-pakistanis-to-fight-in-syria-1.5451312
[30] Ibid.
[31] Hashmatallah Moslih, Iran ‘foreign legion’ leans on Afghan Shia in Syria War, Al-Jazeera, 2016: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/iran-foreign-legion-leans-afghan-shia-syria-war-160122130355206.html
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ahmad Suhja Jamal, Mission Accomplished? What’s Next For Iran’s Afghan Fighters in Syria, War on the Rocks, 2018: https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/mission-accomplished-whats-next-irans-afghan-fighters-syria/
[36] Khuram Iqbal and Zubair Azal, Shiite Mobilization and the Transformation of Sectarian Militancy in Pakistan, Middle East Institue, 2017: http://www.mei.edu/content/map/shia-mobilization-and-transformation-sectarian-militancy-pakistan
[37] Waleed Abu al-Khair, Use of Pakistani Brigade Reveals Iran’s Sectarian Tactics in Regional Conflict, Pakistan Forward, 2017: http://pakistan.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_pf/features/2017/03/16/feature-01
[38] Unknown Author, Russia Trains Iran-Sponsored Shia Militias in Syria, Afghanistan Analysis, 2017: https://afghanistananalysis.wordpress.com/2017/12/01/russia-trains-iran-sponsored-shia-militias-in-syria/
[39]  Waleed Abu al-Khair, Use of Pakistani Brigade Reveals Iran’s Sectarian Tactics in Regional Conflict, Pakistan Forward, 2017: http://pakistan.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_pf/features/2017/03/16/feature-01