In the Middle East, the U.S. Shouldn't Resort to Sectarian Thinking | Opinion

Press briefings at the Pentagon seldom attract much attention. Yet a March 3 briefing by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby proved an exception. As Newsweek reported, Kirby came "under fire for his apparent hesitation to link Iran to Shia militias operating in Iraq and launching attacks against U.S. and allied troops." The Pentagon's comments blaming attacks on "Shia-backed militias" are reflective of some mistaken—and dangerous—assumptions.

There is no such thing as a "Shia-backed militia." It was both bizarre and offensive for Kirby to imply that adherents of an entire religious sect—with an estimated 150-200 million followers worldwide—support the actions of these militias, which are in fact backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The regime in Tehran has a long history of using proxies throughout the Middle East for its own ends. In Iraq, for example, Iran created and aided militias like Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH), Asaib Ahl a-Haq, the Badr Corps and others that have launched attacks on U.S. and allied forces, and brutally repressed Iraqis.

As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis noted in September 2016, the atrocities perpetrated by these groups have long escaped attention from major U.S. news outlets. However, in the last year or two, this has changed.

The Jan. 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani—the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, which trains many of the militias—and KH secretary general Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis led to increased media coverage. The U.S. strike itself came in response to Iranian-backed militias attacking the American embassy in Baghdad, murdering an American contractor and reportedly planning more attacks.

In recent months, Iran's proxies have ramped up attacks on American forces in Iraq—including carrying out the March 3 attack in western Iraq that killed an American contractor and was the subject of Kirby's briefing. In the briefing, Kirby even reaffirmed that he meant "Shia-backed" and not "Iran-backed" militias. Yet while the Pentagon spokesperson chose—or perhaps was instructed—to be imprecise, many major media reports were accurate in describing the perpetrators.

John Kirby
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby speaks to the press as he waits for incoming US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC on January 22, 2021. - The US Senate voted 93-2 to confirm Austin as the first African American to lead the Pentagon. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP/Getty Images

The Associated Press hinted at a possible reason for the Pentagon's decision to say "Shia-backed" instead of "Iran-backed," pointing out that "heightened tensions with Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq could lead to more attacks, complicating the Biden administration's desire to open talks with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal."

A Feb. 16 Voice of America dispatch also reported that a "Shi'ite militant group calling itself Saraya Awlia al-Dam claimed responsibility" for a Feb. 16 rocket attack in Irbil which murdered a U.S. contractor and wounded nine others. Citing Philip Smyth, an expert on Iranian-backed popular mobilization units, VOA noted that "these groups are fronts for the Iranian proxies." The Iranians, Smyth observed, are using "front groups that utilize a number of different networks."

Unfortunately, the Pentagon's decision to use the phrase "Shia-backed" is more than misleading and offensive to many Shia. It also affords Tehran plausible deniability—effectively sparing the regime from being held responsible.

Perhaps worse still, such word games also encourage an inaccurate and sectarian reading of the Middle East. While Shia Islam is the dominant sect in Iran, and the regime's ruling clergy hold an extremist interpretation of it, the Islamic Republic has a long history of supporting Sunni terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Indeed, while Tehran has fought Islamist groups of the Sunni variety like ISIS, it also has an extensive track record of aiding them in order to frustrate the West and further its own imperial ambitions.

The mullahs who lead Iran have, for example, reached agreements with al-Qaeda and provided passports and communications equipment to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-deceased head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. As Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour observed, "Under Soleimani's command, Iran became the only country in the region capable of harnessing both Shiite extremism and, at times, Sunni radicalism too. His sinister genius in bridging sectarian divides has given Iran an enormous asymmetric advantage over its great Sunni Arab rival in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia."

Indeed, the Islamic Republic's ambitions go far beyond the particular sect of its rulers. The regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exhorted: "Our revolution is an Islamic Revolution and not an Iranian one." Khomenei, the scholar Ray Takeyh noted in his 2009 history Guardians of the Revolution, "was seeking to transcend two propositions that had historically denied Iran a leading role in the Middle East: Persian ethnicity and the Sunni-Shiite divide." The Pentagon spokesman's unfortunate decision to use the phrase "Shia-backed militias" speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran's objectives.

The Islamic Republic is a revisionist, imperialist power that seeks regional hegemony—and is willing to aid, equip and often control terrorist groups and violent militias of all stripes to achieve its ends. That truth should not be obfuscated.

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.