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Iran's Launch of Shi’ite Army Threatens to Escalate Sectarian Tensions

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the graduation ceremony of army university in May.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the graduation ceremony of army university in May.

The Iranian government's launch of a United Shi’a Liberation Army is sending signals that Tehran wants to expand its political and military role in Middle East conflicts along sectarian lines, according to analysts.

"Using a sectarian Shi'ite identifier with the title of the new army will inflame sectarian tensions in the region," said Tallha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute. "Iran is asserting itself as a regional or even an imperialistic power."

The new force, announced on August 25 by a veteran military commander who leads Iranian forces in Syria, is designed to fight in Arab countries and would recruit heavily from non-Iranian Shi'ite Muslims across the region.

In an interview with Mashregh news agency, Mohammad Ali Falaki, a leader in the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard's (IRGC), said the focus of the new force would center on three fronts: Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. He said the IRGC already leads Shi'a-dominated forces in Syria comprising fighters who come from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

"The forces that belong to this army are not Iranians only. In any place where there is a fight, we organize and recruit local people of the area," said Falaki, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He retired but then returned to command Iranian-led forces in Syria.

Declaring War

By forming a sectarian army, Tehran is declaring a war on its regional neighbors -- such as Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. Riyadh had long been at odds with Tehran’s clerical regime over religion and politics -- as well as preaching its ideology to Shi'a across the globe, analysts say.

"It is an announcement that they are basically declaring that they are going to continue to use foreign fighters to spread sectarian violence, extremism, and terrorism across the region," Abdulrazaq added.

The Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, has accused Iran of inciting sectarian violence and conflicts in the region, including Iran's backing of Shi'ite Houthi rebels in war-torn Yemen. Saudi Arabia has not commented publicly on the Iranian move.

"Tehran and Riyadh have locked horns for months now, and this could be a muscle-flexing gesture by Iran, giving a signal to Saudis that Iran might use all of its potentials in that fight," says Rasool Nafisi, a Middle East affairs expert in Washington.

‘Exacerbate The Conflict’

Houthi rebels are at odds with the Sunni-dominated Yemeni government. The Houthis have been seeking greater rights for the Shi'ite minority in Yemen and already receive support from Iran.

"The formation of such an army would only exacerbate the conflict in Yemen. Houthis are one of the most organized groups in the Yemeni war, and any additional support would empower them on the ground," said Cairo-based Yemeni affairs analyst Maysaa Shuja Aldeen.

Iran would also widen its influence in the Syrian war, where Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have been fighting for years in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has allegedly sent thousands of Afghans living in Iran to the Syrian front lines and has recruited Pakistani nationals as fighters.

"Iranian commanders lead the battles in defending the Damascus regime. Syrians and other fighters from Lebanon and Afghanistan are fighting under their command," said Sardar Kazemi, an Afghan fighter who defected from Syria and sought refuge in UAE.

In Iraq, the Iraqi's People's Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, is supervised by Qasim Soleimani -- an IRGC commander who went against Iranian involvement in Iraq, according to Yasser Haidari, a former Iraqi provincial government adviser.

A larger Iranian-led force in Iraq will also likely inflame regional tensions, analysts say.

"Putting a new badge on this army as an independent army from IRGC with wider goals … could be more than a provocative act to Saudis and other Sunni states in the region and could be in line with Iran's further ambitions in the region," Nafisi said.

So far, though, Iran's announcement is short on specifics and, in the long run, may amount to little more than posturing on Iran's part, some analysts say.

"Saudi Arabia and the region's Sunni states are fully aware of Iran's foreign agenda," Abdulrazaq said. "The GCC countries are not going to be surprised by this announcement. … They would not do anything more than what they are already doing to counter Iran's regional ambitions."

Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this story from Washington. Reported by the Voice of America.