There’s a reason Star Wars always is one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time, and it’s not only for the love of light sabers. Everybody loves a good resistance story that pits the forces of good against the forces of evil, especially with a plot like Star Wars: a resistance movement of likeminded heroes consistently battling against an evil empire and its imperial plans for universal domination and oppression.
If you want to understand how Iran and its allies view their cause, Star Wars offers a useful parallel from the world of fiction. Think of Iran as the leader of the resistance, and America as the empire. Iran regularly identifies itself as champion of the “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East -- and ideally, in the world. In addition to Iran’s notorious proxy Hezbollah, Tehran has also funded, recruited for, trained, and deployed a sophisticated system of militias throughout Syria and Iraq that all identify as an integral part of Iran’s axis.
In my graduate program at Indiana University, I began to track this appeal to resistance. It had become a consistent theme as I studied some of these militias, namely the Fatemiyoun and Zeinabiyoun brigades. I created a research account to follow several of these groups and their fighters, and what struck me the most in their posts often was the degree to which they cling to the idea of resistance. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani not only was a highly effective military strategist, but also savvy in contributing to this narrative of a brotherhood of resistance -- a resistance in which he himself took part. In pictures from the battlefield, Soleimani is almost always seen as sharing tea with his men, joining them in prayer, or comforting them before battle.
Iranian intelligence has spent considerable resources in propagating the brotherhood ideal. I recently analyzed several pages from an August 2018 propaganda piece commemorating the assassination of slain Pakistani Shiite leader Aref Hosseini, who was killed at his home in Peshawar in 1988. The title of the booklet, Aref’s Soldiers, gave descriptive stories of soldiers currently fighting for the Zeinabiyoun in Syria. One of the stories, titled “Our Brotherhood with the Iranians is Exceptional,” tells you all you need to know about the relationship between the fighters and their comrades in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The dedication of these fighters and their willingness to die for Iran should not be ignored. In one of the articles from Aref’s Soldiers, the fighter being interviewed says he will follow in the footsteps of his father, a Pakistani recruit who died during Operation Mersad in the Iran-Iraq war. The fighter is quoted as saying “…after 30 years of the martyrdom of my father, I will follow his path with my presence in the battlefield of resistance, and I will stay on this path until my father’s will is realized and I am martyred.”
Stirring up the swarm tactics
This brotherhood of militias is not without its strategic benefits. The militias that Iran supports are numerous, and the ramifications of their presence inside Iraq and throughout the region have the potential to be messy. In my thesis, I coined the phrase “Fire Ant Warfare.” Anybody who has grown up in the U.S. South has probably tangled with fire ants before, and it is the nature of how fire ants attack that lays the foundation of my theory. Fire ants don’t attack their prey immediately; instead, they overwhelm their victim and wait for a chemical signal to be released before launching one massive attack.
This sort of swarming tactic has its advantages. Not only does it cause immense pain to the prey all at once, but it also causes confusion. As anyone who has been attacked by fire ants knows, it usually comes as a complete surprise to the victim; one minute you’re standing on a golf course and lining up for the perfect putt, the next you’re running and screaming across the green. When you are in that much pain, your only option is to run. What Iran has been doing is similar to this tactic. It has been building mounds throughout the Middle East that are waiting for the signal to attack. When that signal will come from Iran is anybody’s guess right now, but one thing is certain: The United States has stirred up the ant mound.
Emily Stranger is a PhD student in Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. The views expressed are the author's own.