Tony Badran

Exporting the Islamic Revolution

Iran’s hegemonic model is being reproduced in Iraq, Syria and Yemen by setting up shop the same way Hezbollah did in Lebanon

Iranian soldiers chant anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans during a ceremony marking the 36th anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini on 1 February 2015 in Tehran. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

At a rally last month on the occasion of the 36th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani gloated: “We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.” Although the subject of the “export of the Islamic Revolution” is often discussed, it’s seldom properly defined and understood.


Most people tend to focus on the “Islamic” in “Islamic Revolution.” Thus, they look for the imposition of strict religious norms in society and for movement toward the establishment of an Islamic system of government. However, when Iranian officials speak of exporting the revolution, they have a more comprehensive model and specific structures in mind that they look to clone abroad. It’s these structures, now visible from Yemen to Lebanon, to which Soleimani was referring.


As the Iranian-backed Houthis marched on in Yemen, an Iranian site affiliated with the IRGC illustrated this point. It did so by laying out Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s plan for securing the victory of the “revolution” in Yemen. This strategy drew on critical elements of the Iranian revolutionary model. Namely, the Iranian site underscored the role of “popular committees” in “protecting the revolution” and “strengthening the foundations of security” by going after those who “act against the revolution.”


These “popular committees,” the function of which is to control the streets and help consolidate the nascent revolution, recall the various revolutionary instruments in Iran, like the “revolutionary committees,” but also the Basij paramilitary force. The latter organ, also known as the “people’s militia,” was formed in 1980 and is a hallmark of the Islamic Revolution. It is the template the Iranians are cloning in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. 


In remarks made last year, IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani stated that “by establishing the Basij, the third child of the revolution is being born in Iraq after it was mobilized in Syria and Lebanon.” Hamedani was referring to Iraq’s “Popular Mobilization Forces,” or hashd which is Arabic for basij. These units, which are led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis—perhaps Qassem Soleimani’s closest lieutenant in Iraq and the head of the Kataib Hezbollah militia—form the second parallel structure to the Iraqi Security Forces, next to the IRGC-banner, Hezbollah-style militias. 


“Popular committees” were likewise established in Syria in 2012, as was the “Popular Army”—both instruments modeled directly after the Basij, as openly acknowledged by Iran. “We fundamentally believe in popular defense,” said the IRGC’s Hamedani. “When the people entered alongside the military in Syria, the situation turned in favor of the resistance.”


The juxtaposition of “the people”, “the military,” and “the resistance,” in that last sentence echoes the mantra of “the Army, the people, and the resistance,” which Hezbollah insists represents the foundation of security in Lebanon. “The people” in this equation represent, in reality, “popular mobilization,” that is: the Basij. So, in successfully imposing this equation, Hezbollah has in fact only erected a fundamental structure of the Islamic Revolution.


This exported model of revolutionary organs acting parallel to the regular military, and at the same time determining its operations, was of course first implemented and perfected in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Indeed, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy advisor to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, recently expressed to a Houthi delegation in Tehran his desire to see the Ansar Allah group “play a role similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” How so? By operating “alongside” the military. And this way, the army “sides with the people.” 


This is the model that the revolutionary clique sought to clone abroad since the very birth of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This is precisely how Hezbollah came to be—as an extension of revolutionary instruments that emerged in Iran between 1979-1981. These instruments were followed by others, such as the numerous Iranian cultural and economic institutions that were copied in Lebanon, such as Construction JihadNow, Construction Jihad is seemingly coming to Syria on the back of the Basij, as the IRGC’s Hamedani recently announced: “Construction Basij has been established in Syria.” 


Soleimani’s boast, then, is not rhetorical. When he talks about exporting the Islamic Revolution, Soleimani is referring to a very specific template. It’s the template that the Khomeinist revolutionaries first set up in Lebanon 36 years ago by cloning the various instruments that were burgeoning in Iran as the Islamic revolutionary regime consolidated its power. As a result, Hezbollah remains the most comprehensive and developed export of the Iranian model. And it is in this sense that Hezbollah was and remains “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon.” Now the Islamic revolutionary model is being reproduced in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as well, by setting up those same structures. The “Army, People (Basij), Resistance” formula is not a mere slogan. It’s an Iranian blueprint dating back to the birth of the Islamic Revolution. And that’s what’s now being copied across the region.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Iranian soldiers chant anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans during a ceremony marking the 36th anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini on 1 February 2015 in Tehran. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

This juxtaposition of ‘the people’, ‘the military,’ and ‘the resistance,’ echoes the mantra of ‘the Army, the people, and the resistance,’ which Hezbollah insists represents the foundation of security in Lebanon.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    How come the Sunnis and the Druze of Lebanon, back in 1979-1981, supported and acted in concert with Hezbollah's buildup of this model you describe, using it and the Syrian occupation army to drive the West from Beirut (peacekeeping forces, embassies, schools, murder of UN personnel, assassinations, hijackings, and the detaining of western hostages) and score their "victory" against the heinous political maronitism of the Kataeb, Ahrar, Lebanese Front, Lebanese Army, and Lebanese Forces? Why is there no admission of guilt and no apologies by the Sunni establishment for allying itself with the Hezbollah monster between 1980 and 2005 as it grew and armed itself to finally take control of the country? Where have all the Sunni slogans gone of the liberation of Palestine, Baathism, Nasserism, Arabism, Syrian nationalism, the seditious Arab Army of Lebanon of Ahmad Al-Khatib, etc.... that were used by the Sunnis to dismantle the Lebanese State in order to achieve the meager, and markedly detrimental, gains of the Taef Agreement? Today, the Sunnis want neutrality, moderation, UN forces on the Syrian-Lebanese borders, a dissociation of Lebanon from the Palestine-Israel conflict, a Lebanon-first policy, the Lebanese Army above all, etc... all the principles that the Lebanese Christians begged them to uphold in the early 1970s. All the ills of Lebanon today can be traced back to the perfidy of Lebanon's Sunnis. I do not believe their "conversion" to Lebanese nationalism is genuine. It is merely a temporary camouflage of their treachery as they face their Shiite enemy. The Sunnis of the Lebanese Army will desert the moment the impending fight begins between the Sunnis of Nusra and Daesh on one side, and the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah on the other. Just watch.

    March 6, 2015

  • jrocks

    As usual Hani boy, you talk about something completely irrelevant to the points Tony makes. Thanks Tony. Very clear and explains a lot about the future of the region.

    March 7, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Yup, Jsucks.......up to "Tony". What would "Tony" do without your vacuous endorsement of his even more vacuous ideas?

    March 7, 2015

  • abc2000

    It is historically wrong to consider sunnis as homogeneous block. The mourabetoun were a joke manipulated by Syria, and khateeb was military irrelevant. You know that the main forces were the plo and psp, lcp. Saying that the sunnies collaborated with hesbies is wrong. The fact is that hesbies managed to control the dahie and the south after fierce battles with amal, a Syrian proxy. Hesbies also managed to eliminate jammoul/lcp to be the only “resistance” against sla/Israel in the south. Sunni attachment to leb is not new, and it resulted in the assassination of Hariri. I would be more worry about the dismantlement of the Christian society when I see Christian parties openly defending khomeinism ! however I agree with you about one thing, some sunnis believed in Arabism, without r answering this question:”what is the identity of Lebanon ?”

    March 7, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    1- Khatib, his Arab Army of Lebanon and his PLO, PFLP, DFLP..allies sacked all Lebanese Army barracks east and south of the Litani, except the border strip of Marjayoun and Khiam that managed to resist his sedition and had to open the border with Israel for survival as it became cut off from Lebanese govt-controlled areas. This is not "militarily irrelevant" as it eventually led to the Israeli occupation. 2-Sunnies did collaborate with Hesbies: Between 1990 and 2005, Hariri controlled the country unchallenged. He continued to unconditionally defend Hezbollah's "resistance" even though as a militia Hezbollah violated Taef and wreaked havoc in Hariri's rebuilding scheme. Hariri defended Syria's occupation and never demanded the Syrians to leave. Whether coward, ignorant, or collaborator is for history to judge. But he operated in, and exploited, an anomalous environment until 2004 when he faced the reality he should have foreseen long before, if he had the leadership, the vision or the experience. When he belatedly tried to change course, they killed him. What killed him is NOT his attachment to Lebanon, it is his mercantile business interests that he realized were in conflict with the Syria and Hezbollah he supported for 15 years. Finally, he could have rejected Assad's threats and the forced re-election of Lahoud in Sept. 2004. Instead he obeyed Assad's every order, and cowered to his threats. In my book, a prime minister that does that is a coward. He could have resigned, for example. Had he stood up to Assad, he would at least have died in dignity. But collaborators have no dignity by definition.

    March 8, 2015

  • abc2000

    Ok. it is your right to consider khateeb as a major actor of the civil war !!! . Linking the Israeli occupation to khateeb and not to “fatahland”, is a little bit...strange! . from a psychological point of view, it has yes, destroyed LAF, for sure, but i consider LAF was defeated in 69,73, and after closing the “second bureau”... khateeb was the last blow...anyway back to Hariri: you are actually denouncing the taef agreement. Please check back your historical references, regarding taef and gaegea’s role as well. Hariri was just actually one of the components but not the architect, and it cost him his life though. What do you call ”collaboration” and business, i call it ending an everlasting useless war and soft resistance from inside...just to remind you also that Hariri accepted hesbies as a “resistance” until 2000, and not until 2005...the major blow to Lebanese independence is not Hariri accepting under duress , the presence of a khomeinist militia in 1990, but some Christians building up a counter-nature political alliance with the pasdarans today.

    March 8, 2015