The Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy is largely based on its revolutionary anti-Western rhetoric and hostility toward the US and some of Washington’s close allies in the Middle East. Since 1979, Tehran has relied on local proxies in the region, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as a dynamic disinformation campaign to enlarge its sphere of influence throughout the Islamic world.
The Achilles’ heel of that effort is the fact that the major Muslim holy sites — Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Karbala — lie outside Iran. Additionally, not even among Shia Muslims, let alone Muslims writ large, is there a consensus behind the official interpretation of the Muslim jurisprudence school adopted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Wilayat al-faqıh. For example, Abu al-Qasim Khui, Sheikh H. Fadlallah in Lebanon and Ayatollah Montazeri in Iran itself, in addition to other prominent Shia clerics, contested Khomeini’s interpretations.
A multitude of vectors enforce the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. In parallel to regular diplomatic activity, many agencies, political and media organizations, and even local paramilitary groups are responsible for different independent tasks. These local proxies are trying to gain access to political power or at least influence the public sphere in their countries, and they are often involved in terrorist activities. This violence is presented as a legitimate patriotic act that aims to oust the “imperialist aggressors.”
Although the international community has paid close attention to Tehran’s nefarious activities in the Middle East, a well camouflaged and hidden Iranian effort has been at play in Africa, particularly in the Maghreb. Furthermore, Iran’s activities in Africa are extremely important to the regime, especially considering how Tehran’s proxies on the continent support its bellicose conduct in other regions too, such as Latin America and Europe.
The multitude of paramilitary groups that exists in Iran is instrumental for the Islamic Republic’s power. While the Basij militias are responsible of law enforcement and internal security, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an ideologically indoctrinated military structure that is parallel to the regular military. It has an international component, the Quds (Jerusalem) force, which serves as the international arm of the IRGC’s intelligence organization (IOIRGC). Created in 2009, the IOIRGC is a contender of the Iranian official intelligence ministry, the MOIS or Ettelaat. The third component is the Hezbollah chapters in different MENA countries, which also include a large network of non-Islamist political parties that mainly adhere to Arab nationalist and left-wing ideologies.
The first significant IRGC activities in North Africa started in the early 1980s. During that decade, when Iran was at war with neighboring Iraq, the Iranian regime was actively searching for French-speaking recruits in order to conduct assassinations and terrorist operations in Western Europe, and in France in particular. These operations were coordinated with the help of North African, Middle Eastern and European communist groups. They were designed to put pressure on French authorities to stop delivering weapons to Iraq and to pay back the shah’s participation in the EURODIF joint nuclear program from which Iran was excluded after the Islamic Revolution. These operations went in parallel with terrorist activities that included the kidnapping of Western nationals and the introduction of suicide bombings in Lebanon despite Islamic law prohibiting the practice. In fact, the same contraband networks of North African immigrants were recently found to be involved in the support of Islamic State (IS) operations in Europe.
The recruiting process that is still enforced today started by targeting the youthful Marxist and Arab nationalist groups in North Africa, including their diaspora in Europe. These groups often have a deep divergence with local traditional Sunni religious schools and identify themselves in the anti-Western revolutionaries promoted by the Iranian regime. The recruits adhere to Khomeini’s ideology but do not necessary convert to Shia Islam. This “international terrorist joint venture’’ between Marxists and Shia extremists continued in the early 1990s in Sudan, where Osama bin-Laden personally supervised the participation of his group of Sunni extremists, later known as al-Qaeda.
Threat to Spiritual Security
Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic narrative represented an inspiring militant activism that also helped Islamists in their traditional rivalry with the Marxist left in local politics of virtually all Maghreb countries, save Algeria. This activism is marked by its clandestine nature. The first organization inspired by that ideology in North Africa was Jund al-Islam (JaI) that was founded in Morocco and should not be confused with the IS chapter in the Egyptian Sinai or the Kurdish-jihadist group that share the same name.
After considering itself as a local Sunni organization, JaI started to adopt a mixture of Marxist ideology and the Iranian government’s Islamist narratives, and became a Shia group. This unique path that is described by its members as a “theory of change” was imitated by many other Sunni groups through politics, education, media and what Moroccan analysts call “intellectual influence in society.”
Following Morocco’s adoption of the 2011 constitution that guarantees religious freedom, a group of Moroccan Shia announced the founding of the Ressali Line (Al-Tayyar Al-Risali). This faction was led by Kamal al-Ghazali and Isaam Hmaidan. Despite its initial commitment to public participation, the activities of this group followed the same pattern of secrecy due to the strong antagonism with the Sunni majority and persecution from Moroccan authorities who consider Shia activism as a “threat to the spiritual security” of the country.
North Africa is also a platform for smuggling drugs coming from the Brazilian side of the three-border area — shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, where Hezbollah maintains various degrees of control — to Europe. The recent discovery of a massive shipment of cocaine coming from Brazil to Oran, Algeria, via Spain, uncovered a large network of high-ranking security officers, politicians, governors and judges who were collaborating with the smugglers. The link between contraband gangs, Islamist terrorists and Iran was discovered by Algerian security services in the late 1990s, and former President Lamine Zeroual mentioned it when Algeria cut its diplomatic relations with Iran.
Beginning in 2015, pro-Iranian groups in North Africa started changing their legal denomination to become commercial entities instead of political parties, civil society organizations or religious groups. This initiative raised concerns about money laundering and clandestine activities. During the pre-election period this summer, an interesting leak from left-wing Tunisian politicians accused some local communist leaders of having received illegal funding from Tehran through money laundering of Iranian products, particularly pistachios. According to the same sources, this “pistachio scandal’’ looks like a systematic policy and not an isolated case.
The controversial activities of the Iranian cultural attaché Ameer Musawi in Algiers in 2017 and the alleged links to the Polisario Front, an independence movement in Western Sahara, efficiently used by Tehran in 2018 showcased the versatility of Iranian policy toward Arab states.
The best example of this versatility took place in Libya. In fact, during the prelude of the Iranian Revolution, the Libyan regime participated in the assassination of Imam Musa al-Sadr, one of the most influential Lebanese Shia clerics, whose death opened the door to Qom-based Iranian clerics, to gain influence over the majority of Shia Muslims throughout the Middle East. Al-Sadr was the founder of the Supreme Islamic Shia Council and co-founder of the Amal militia, a longtime Shia rival to Hezbollah.
Ironically, the Islamic Republic’s proxies used al-Sadr’s assassination to justify their support for the anti-Qaddafi insurgency that took off in 2011. At that time, both sides of the conflict acknowledged the presence of Hezbollah operatives in the city of Misrata. Tehran’s support for Sunni Islamists in Libya, plus other factors such as the rise of anti-Shia Salafist groups in post-Qaddafi Libya, as well as Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria all contributed to widespread rejection of Iranian influence in North Africa on the part of many Libyans.
However, the most interesting case of Iran’s nefarious activities in North Africa remains in Tunisia, where the political, militant and media components of the IRGC activities are present. The influence of pro-Iranian proxies like Attayar al-Chaabi, the Party of Communist Workers, the union of journalists, the leftist defectors of the Nidaa Tounes party and the pro-Iran wing among the Nahda Islamist party led by Sahbi Attig forced the Tunisian government through an intensive media campaign to delay talks on purchasing advanced weapons from its strategic partners like the US. These weapons are desperately needed in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and IS in the western mountainous areas of the country.
The political component consists of the same pattern of alliances between radical leftists and radical Islamists in high-ranking positions. Their influence forced the government to refuse to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization despite the fact that it was one of the early recruiters of Tunisian radicals. Moreover, during a public hearing session last year, the Tunisian parliament passed a resolution that concerned “the role of the US in the transfer of ISIS operatives from the Levant region to the Caucasus and north Africa.” Ultimately, this statement relayed official Iranian, Syrian and Russian political propaganda rooted in complex conspiracy theories.
This resolution was introduced by Aida Ben Arab, a senior fellow at the government funded Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies. It was approved by the pro-Iranian group of deputies led by Sahbi Ben Fradj, Leila Shettaoui (who publicly admitted having unauthorized meetings with Syrian intelligence in Damascus) and Mbarka Brahmi, who leads the pro-Hezbollah group in parliament and whose son is the chief of the Tunisian volunteers battalion engaged with pro-Assad regime forces in Syria since 2015.
Although the involvement of hundreds of Tunisians with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State was extensively covered in the media, an unknown number of Tunisian fighters trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon and engaged in the Syrian conflict — especially the returnees — remained under the radar. A Tunisian unit, the Brahmi battalion, is part of the al-Haras al-Qawmi al-Arabi (the Arab Nationalist Guard), which is a multinational paramilitary force joined by fighters from other Middle Eastern and North African countries under the supervision of Syrian military intelligence and the IRGC.
This complaisance with Iranian proxies is due not only to their infiltration of Tunisian government institutions, in particular the Ministry of Interior, via the security forces labor unions, but also to the favorable atmosphere created by a complex network of media agencies and civil society organizations, including the largest labor union in Tunisia, the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The first objective of this media network is to gain the status of a major source of news and information for Arabic and Muslim audiences through a multitude of satellite and radio channels that broadcast the official Tehran narrative. This status allows Iranian agencies to run efficient influence campaigns targeting public opinion in the MENA region.
The public statements made by Iranian officials in their Persian-speaking media outlets contradict their narratives broadcast in Arabic, English, Dari or Urdu. The most hostile statements to Arab neighbors, like the ones made by the deputy commander of the IRGC who declared that Iran already controls five Arab capitals, or by the editor-in-chief of the semi-official Kayhan newspaper who wrote that the kingdom of Bahrain is an Iranian province, are never broadcast in English-speaking Iranian media outlets. The latter adopt a narrative of tolerance and dialogue specifically designed for Western audiences.
This difference goes far beyond a simple translation problem, and this tactic of using conflicting narratives allows the regime to play on ambiguity and deception. In time of crisis in particular, Iranian official media and their supporters claim that any pressure on the regime will weaken its moderate wing. But in reality, the so-called moderate elements are wholly adopting that hawkish policy.
After Iran’s initial strong support for the Arab revolutions that started in 2011, Tehran’s involvement in sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in both Syria and Iraq led the traditional pro-Iranian media outlets to lose a significant part of their audience. Their programs became politically polarized and switched to a clear partisan narrative. Pro-Iranian media morphed into a complex network of social media news outlets relayed by traditional media agencies.
The main role of local Iranian social media proxies is to provide an updated influx of local news that is relayed by news agencies. The information is broadcast in a tailored version of local news that corresponds to the Iranian policy based on logical fallacies and false news. This position is successfully used to influence local public opinion. When an Algerian IL76 military cargo plane crashed in 2018, local pro-Iranian proxies circulated a video of the crash of a US contractor Boeing 747 that took place in Afghanistan, which spread suspicion about the official version of facts.
This parallel foreign policy aims to fan the antagonism between MENA countries and the major international powers, which allows Tehran to play a mediating role between them, talking in the name of all Muslims.
Next door in Tunisia, where the union of journalists is also controlled by pro-Iranian leftists who publicly support the Assad regime, local media claimed that Tunisian IS operatives are responsible for the chemical attacks against civilians in Syria. This information that lacks proof was quickly relayed by both Iranian and Syrian media in order to deny any responsibility. Iranian official agencies established numerous partnerships with local media institutions, like Nessma TV, which has a large audience in Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.
This channel was used to broadcast Iranian religious media content, series and films. It is managed by Nabil Qarwi, a media mogul and presidential candidate who was imprisoned in late August, and is co-owned by Tarek Ben Ammar, an international movie distributor and the cousin of the Tunisian prime minister, Youssef Chahed, and whose Iranian affiliated company (LTC Iran) could have provided audiovisual equipment to Tehran’s media agencies.
The same pattern is used to provide Iran and its proxies plausible deniability that is a cornerstone of its continuous disinformation effort. One of the masterpieces of influence was the story of Jihad al-Nikah (dubbed Prostitution Holy War by the Arab media) that surfaced after the curious declaration by former Tunisian interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, regarding Tunisian female recruits within Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. This declaration was instrumentalized by the Iranian media to increase the social chasm and antagonism between Shia and Sunni groups in the Middle East.
Although local analysts think that the minister had likely imitated the Syrian regime tactic in order to discredit Islamic terrorists, there was no link between him and his cousin, G. Ben Jeddou, who is the director of the pro-Iranian Al Mayadeen channel based in Beirut that relayed the story. In fact, Beirut hosts an important hub for processing information, where all the news influx from the MENA region Iranian proxies is centralized and relayed. This hub hosts dozens of Arab journalists who are invited for internships, training and exchange programs.
The disinformation effort follows the same news cycle that starts from local proxies who broadcast a tailored and redundant version of facts. They are relayed by traditional media that mention them as reliable sources that serve as a basis for the official narrative and political positions. This information warfare cycle is also coordinated with Ayatollah Khomeini’s calendar, established in the mid-1980s and developed later by the IRGC. It is a series of events and commemorations of various events that ranges from the kidnapping of US diplomats in Tehran to the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. This calendar includes various events related to Palestine and Jerusalem and is in synergy with the Islamic religious calendar.
During every Muslim holiday or religious event, a systematic discreditation campaign directed against Arab governments is organized by Iran to question the decisions of local religious authorities. Since Muslims follow a lunar calendar, Iranian proxies spread serious doubt about the dates of the month of Ramadan and the two major Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Idha. This year wasn’t an exception.
By infiltrating pan-Arab professional organizations, the Tehran regime is able to not only influence local politics in the MENA region, but also to promote a parallel foreign policy designed to replace the official government position. This parallel position will be easily endorsed by local public opinion due to the continuous disinformation campaigns that were never efficiently countered.
This parallel foreign policy aims to fan the antagonism between MENA countries and the major international powers, which allows Tehran to play a mediating role between them, talking in the name of all Muslims. It aims also to counter the influence of the United States and its regional allies by undermining any cooperation program through aggressive propaganda that doesn’t shirk from threatening the lives of diplomats, military personnel and other officials, like the apologetic narratives following the violent attacks on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi and Tunis.
This policy aims finally to take advantage of the human and natural resources of north African countries, like the recruitment of Tunisian engineer Mohamed Zouari, who designed drones for Hamas’ Palestinian military wing, the al-Qassem Brigades, or the attempts to acquire Libyan “yellow cake’’ — a purified form of uranium — stored in the southern city of Sabha.
The number of North African operatives recruited by the different pro-Iranian militias, and especially the returnees, remains unknown. The political and social crisis in the Maghreb and the collapse of state institutions in Libya, where local militias are operating in synergy with criminal gangs and even terrorists in North Africa, the Sahel and Southern Europe, prevents any coordinated effort to track these activities. The increasing clashes off the Libyan coast between Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan boats carrying fishermen, oil smugglers and human traffickers are another warning sign of the potential destabilization front that could be opened by the IOIRGC and lead to a situation similar to what is happening off the Somali coast.
With the devastating effects of US economic sanctions on Iran, the Tehran regime has opted for intensifying its asymmetrical warfare. This choice was also dictated by the weakness of Iran’s conventional military capabilities. Tehran’s reaction to US sanctions veered toward a maximalist and aggressive policy that pushes the region to the edge of a dangerous crisis. Iran’s policy seems to be rushing headlong from one incident to the next, using the same old tactic of denying all responsibility.
*[Gulf State Analytics is a partner organization of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.