While there is no real evidence to support this theory, the regime’s attempt at promoting transnational Shia solidarity is a public relations fiasco.
The crisis began as heavy rains and flash flooding in March affected 28 of 31 provinces in Iran, killing 78 people. An estimated 10 million people were directly affected by the floods, 2 million may need some form of assistance and approximately 300,000 people reportedly remain displaced.
Widespread damage to road and transportation networks has left many villages and small towns inaccessible, which compounds the problems.
Tehran responded to the natural disaster by mobilising government agencies to provide relief to affected areas but that effort was anything but concerted. Those parts of the government bureaucracy under the control of Iranian President Hassan Rohani and the agencies under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are engaged in parallel aid efforts but do not appear to coordinate efforts and blame each other for shortcomings.
As if that inter-agency rivalry between the government and the IRGC was not enough, on April 7, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the extraterritorial operations al-Quds Force of the IRGC, started an aid-and-relief operation under his command.
Visiting Khuzestan province and speaking Arabic with members of Iran’s Arab community, Soleimani said: “Those who were too young to fight during the ‘Sacred Defence’ [Iran-Iraq war 1980-88] and those who insist on fighting as defenders of the shrine [in Syria and Iraq] should, in my opinion, come to Khuzestan. [Providing aid] under such a calamity [amounts to] defending the shrine and nothing is more important than securing human dignity.”
Soleimani extended an invitation to foreign Shia militias to contribute to al-Quds Force’s operation in Iran. Responding to Soleimani’s call, Kayhan daily reported that the Iranian Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) convoys entered Khuzestan to help Iranians in the affected areas.
In a separate report the same day, Fars News Agency said the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba militia was distributing aid among the flood victims in Iran.
Soleimani has not publicly explained the logic behind his invitation to Iraqi and other foreign Shia militias and his invitation does not appear to have been coordinated with Rohani and the rest of the government bureaucracy. There may have been several motives behind the invitation to the foreign Shia militias:
Soleimani may believe the IMIS participating in the aid-and-relief operation in Iran, promotes transnational Shia solidarity. He may also believe such an effort legitimises the Iran’s financial support to foreign Shia militias, a policy the Iranian public largely considers illegitimate and wasteful.
Also, Soleimani’s and the IRGC’s invitation to the IMIS may be seen as a response to the US Department of State’s designation of the IRGC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation.” By publicly cooperating with the IRGC, the IMIS, which is a part of the Iraqi state, defiantly demonstrates its disregard for Washington.
Soleimani, however, may have underestimated the deep sense of distrust of the Iranian public towards the IRGC as reflected in social media speculation about foreign Shia militias being used to suppress future uprisings against the regime, a scenario that cannot be ruled out as Iranians, frustrated with the government’s uncoordinated crisis management, may start a new round of anti-regime protests. In that light, Soleimani and the regime’s use of the militias is already a public relations fiasco.