This March, Iran committed a vast fortune, funneled through its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), to supporting six armies fighting in four wars in four Middle East lands, which are targeted for embrace in the Islamic Republic’s expanding sphere of influence.
Month after month, Tehran forks out close to half a billion dollars – and sometimes more – to keep those conflicts on the boil – spending all in all, a grand total of $6-8 billion dollars a year.
How Iran manages to keep this war chest flowing so abundantly from an economy crippled by international sanctions has never been explained.
DEBKA Weekly finds the Iranian military thrusting for dominance in an increasing number of Middle East war arenas:
Four Iranian command centers run Assad’s war
As the Syrian war enters its fifth year, Iranian Revolutionary Guards are found running it from four command and control centers, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report:
1. In Damascus, the IRGC operates as a part of the Syrian General Staff, with two imported pro-Iranian militias at its independent disposal. This command center has three tasks: To oversee the Syrian general staff and monitor its operational planning; to guard President Bashar Assad’s regime and his family; and defend key locations such as the military airport and Shiite shrines.
2. In the Aleppo region of the north, IRGC officers are engaged in drawing up plans for the impending general offensive to rout rebel forces out of positions they have captured in the city. Tehran attaches prime importance to a peak effort for the recapture of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The IRGC command has transferred large-scale Hizballah forces from Lebanon to this arena, along with Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias. Thousands of these combatants underwent training at specialist IRGC bases.
3. In the Qalamoun Mts., which are situated athwart the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, Tehran has given high priority to flushing rebel forces, including the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, out of the pockets they have seized on the mountain slopes, so as to clear the mountain roads for the passage of Hizballah units.
4. In South Syria, Iranian officers have been leading a large-scale offensive for more than a month to drive rebel forces out of the area they hold between Deraa and Damascus, in order to position Iranian-led Hizballah and pro-Iranian militia forces face to face with the Israeli army on the Golan.
Tehran establishes – and pays for – new Syrian army
Iranian officers have established, trained and equipped a new 70,000-strong fighting force called the Syrian National Defense Force. Its operations, including the soldiers’ wages, are financed from Tehran’s pocket.
Iran runs airlifts day by day to re-supply the Syrian army with weapons systems and ammunition, and the Syrian Air Force with bombs and ordnance for attacks against rebel forces. Intelligence sources estimate that Iran’s expenditure in the Syrian conflict now hits $200 million per month – around $2.5 billion a year.
Iran bankrolls Hizballah from top to bottom
The 25,000-strong Lebanese Shiite Hizballah operates under the direct command of IRGC officers. All its military equipment comes from Tehran, which also draws up its annual budget. Each month, Iran transfers to Beirut $150-200 million, as well as paying for all the Lebanese militias’ expenses in the maintenance of an expeditionary force in Syria. Hizballah costs Tehran an approximate $2 billion per annum.
An all-Shiite “people’s national army” for Iraq, re-supplies for Yemen
Iran’s deep military intervention in Iraq (which has been covered in detail by DEBKA Weekly) includes the creation of an all-Shiite “people’s national army.” If follows the same template as the Syrian National Defense Force and consists of the same number of fighters – 70,000 troops.
Tehran has also invested in barricades to fortify Baghdad against invasion from the north and the west.
The offensive to retake the Sunni town of Tikrit from the Islamic State is led by Iranian officers, and fed constantly with high-quality weapons systems, including missiles and tanks.
All the war materiel required by the Iraqi army and Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State is airlifted to Baghdad, some directly from Iran.
There is no reliable estimate of the Islamic Republic’s current contribution to Iraq’s war budget (estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars per month) because part of the cost is carried by the Iraqi government from oil revenues.
In Yemen, Iran is directly involved in the civil war as the champion, sponsor and moneybags of the Zaydi Houthi rebels. Tehran runs military supplies by air and sea to the Houthis and their allies, Yemeni army units who have thrown in their lot with the insurgency.
This year alone, Iran has so far invested an estimated half a billion dollars in a Houthi victory.
Sanctions are no deterrent to Iran’s ambitious
This arithmetic attests to Iran’s mysteriously deep pockets and the inefficacy of US, European and UN sanctions as levers for deterring Tehran’s military push to the pinnacle of power as hegemon of the Middle East and Gulf regions, no matter how many billions of dollars of national treasure this may cost.
The crushing burden of this aspiration plus sanctions on the economy weigh heavily on the lives of ordinary Iranians. The partial relief from sanctions offered Iran for signing an interim nuclear agreement (the Joint Plan of Action) last November has not eased daily living conditions. Businesses are hamstrung by restricted access to international banks. Galloping unemployment hits university graduates hard and the housing market is stagnant.
President Hassan Rouhani, who won election on a pledge to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians by getting international economic sanctions lifted, finds his government has to struggle to pay out regular cash subsidies to citizens.