Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has initiated a vast public relations campaign both domestically and across the Middle East to promote Iran’s expansion, experts warned in a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing Wednesday. The IRGC is a highly ideological, powerful branch of Iran’s military, created with the intent of “guarding the Revolution and its achievements.” The U.S. State Department labeled it “the armed guardian of Iran’s theocracy” and classified it as a “specially designated global terrorist.”
The face of the PR drive is Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit within the IRGC. Journalist Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker called the Quds Force “the sharp instrument of Iranian foreign policy.” Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute asserted on Wednesday that Suleimani is in “charge of a lot of the military operations that are going on in Iraq and Syria, especially by militia elements.” He said that there is a “conscious and deliberate campaign by the IRGC commanders to build him up.” Ilan Berman, Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, stated that the campaign “has cast Suleimani in the light of a savior of the Islamic Republic.” Berman further declared that “one of the things the regime is trying to do is rally public opinion around Iran’s expeditionary forces [Quds Force].” Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that Suleimani “was popping up in pictures everywhere, on every front.”
The Quds Force, responsible for the IRGC’s external operations, is the spear-tip of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, which also extend to Yemen. Iranian cultural centers have opened in provinces under the control of the Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, who have taken over the government and forced the closure of Western and Saudi embassies. One of the cultural centers is located in Hajjah province, which borders Saudi Arabia. The Saudis fought against the Houthis in late 2009 and early 2010, alongside the Yemeni government and are reported to be anxious about the Houthis’ recent successes. Ali Reza Zakani, a hardline member of the Iranian parliament who is close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last September, after the Houthis captured Sanaa, “The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend, following its success, into Saudi territories. The Yemeni-Saudi vast borders will help accelerate its reach into the depths of Saudi land.”
Badran explained, “The ability to export its revolutionary model to willing Arab groups allowed Iran to embed itself in Arab societies and project influence, which otherwise would have been far more constrained.” Statements by Iranian officials seem to confirm this analysis. Ali Shirazi, a representative of Supreme Leader Khamenei in the IRGC’s Quds Force, stated in January that “the Houthi group is a similar copy to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Khamenei, stated in October that he hoped the Houthis would play a role in Yemen analogous to Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon.