What is the significance of Iran’s ‘Resistance Front’ in South Asia?

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has reached 55 days, with no breakthrough in sight. Tensions are expanding beyond the Israel-Palestine border, particularly where Iran-supported militias are forming a’resistance’ narrative. Recent attacks on commercial ships through the Red Sea by Houthi militants backed by Iran and operating out of Yemen demonstrate the scope of the ongoing crisis.

The Iran-Iran rivalry is further fueled by Tehran’s promotion of an ‘Axis of Resistance’. Esmaail Qaani, Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, reiterated support for Hamas, stating that their resistance will not allow the enemy to achieve its goals in Gaza and Palestine. This resistance is seen as a collective effort across Iraq, Syria, and Yemen supported by Iran.

While groups like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, and Hamas in Gaza are often considered part of this Iran-backed resistance, there are smaller influence zones that Tehran can potentially tap into if the crisis expands. In Afghanistan, the Fatemiyoun Brigade and in Pakistan, the Zainabiyoun Brigade are Shia militias formed during the Syrian civil war, fighting against the Islamic State. The Zainabiyoun’s logo is similar to that of Hezbollah, and the US placed it on its financial blacklist in 2019.

The Zainabiyoun can also be seen from the lens of fundamental differences between Iran and Pakistan, particularly on issues such as Baluchistan, an insurgency-ridden province where both Islamabad and Tehran often accuse each other of allowing cross-border terrorism.

Iran has utilized the Shia population in Afghanistan to support its fighting force, with the Fatemiyoun Brigade formed in 2014 to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The brigade consists of Afghan Shia refugees who have moved into Iran for safety and recruits from the Afghan Shia Hazara community, a minority group that is particularly targeted by the Taliban. As of 2018, over 2,000 Afghan Shias died fighting in Syria, with over 20,000 combatants active. However, many Afghan Shias have complained about not being paid enough by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for their participation.

The Fatemiyoun was seen as an already trained group capable of taking on the Taliban and securing Iranian interests in Afghanistan. The US also saw the Fatemiyoun as a strategic depth for Iran, fearing that these combat veterans could be used to attack American troops and interests inside Afghanistan. However, these security concerns were inherited by the Taliban.

Despite the limited employability of both the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they successfully demonstrate Iran’s capability to mobilize Shia ecosystems in the Middle East and on its ‘other’ border. India, with a Shia population of only 13-15 percent of its Muslim population, is the second-largest Shia population globally after Iran. Shia organizations have protested against the US assassination of Soleimani and are known to favor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) due to its strong stance against Salafism within Sunni Islam.

Hamas’ success in promoting a war against Israel has blurred the line between terrorism and resistance. Iranian leadership has publicly met with leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Fatah, demonstrating that Tehran is using the Palestinian cause to mobilize its anti-Israel and anti-American stances. This risk of the Gazan war expanding into a regional and ideologically global conflict is being witnessed in various contexts, including the US college dorm rooms and European parliamentary debates.

The resistance block is diverse, with Iran-backed actors like al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates also looking to ride the narrative and bolster their own interests. For example, the emir of Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, Sirajul Haq, hyphenated the Kashmir issue with Palestine, calling for Muslims to take practical steps for freedom of Kashmir and Palestine. However, there are groups within this mobilisation that do not serve Iranian interests, as Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi attended an OIC meeting on Gaza with his Arab counterparts in November.

The current crisis is a mix of geopolitical and geostrategic calculations, with Iran prioritizing the protection and preservation of its current regime. Countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan provide fertile grounds for others to fish for their individual interests, as demonstrated by the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun brigades. These unconventional tactical operations are not one-offs and will only gain strength in an increasingly chaotic global order.

GazaHamasIranIsraelIsrael-Palestine borderSouth AsiaWhat is the significance of Iran's 'Resistance Front' in South Asia?