Caravanserai
Analysis

Soleimani's legacy to Iran: diverting citizens' money to costly proxy wars

By Caravanserai

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Slain Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iranian leader Ali Khamenei are shown in 2018. [Leader.ir]

The Iranian regime's insistence on upholding the legacy of slain Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani comes at the expense of the Iranian people, analysts say.

Before he was killed in a US strike in Baghdad on January 3, Soleimani led the IRGC's expansionist agenda through a number of proxy wars throughout the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan.

These initiatives have been costly, showing time and again Tehran's misplaced priorities, while Iranians grow more and more dissatisfied with the government and the spiralling economy.

"For years, the IRGC has claimed that Iran's active presence in the region is rooted in religion and in the spiritual influence of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei," said political expert Karim Samadian.

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Iranian Culture Minister Abbas Salehi presents a painting of Qassem Soleimani in the arms of a Shia imam to Soleimani's daughter Zeinab in May 2020. [Jamaran.ir]

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A telling image. While addressing the Iranian regime's effort on improving the economy in January 2020, young girls living in squalor ran behind where Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was speaking. [File]

The reality is that the IRGC is "struggling financially, and there is not as much cash to fill the pockets of IRGC commanders and regional allies", he said.

That lack of funding, due in part to the US government's sanctions against Iran and the IRGC in particular, is behind a recent escalation in discord and discontent among Iranian proxy groups, he said.

This proves that money, not religion, has in fact been the IRGC's "ideology" all along, Samadian said.

Divisions have been on the rise in eastern Syria, primarily between Iraqi militia Kataib Hizbullah and IRGC commanders as well as other proxy groups vying for power and influence in the region.

These fissures are mainly due to the frenzied competition for leadership and sources of wealth and influence among the dominant militias on the ground, who saw their monthly salary go down from $1,500 to less than $300 per fighter, according to Sheikh Mudar al-Asad, a member of the Syrian Tribal Council.

In Yemen, there has been a noticeable increase in recent months in the amount of drugs smuggled to parts of the country controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah).

This increase is due, at least in part, to the Houthis' need to find alternative revenue streams as Iran cuts back its support to its proxies.

Misplaced priorities

Despite its dwindling funds, Tehran has continued to prioritise its spending on exporting terrorism, sectarianism and disinformation over the daily needs of the Iranian people.

On December 2, Iran's government presented to parliament a draft state budget of about $33.7 billion for the next fiscal year which starts March 21, Iranian media reported.

The value of the draft budget is set at about 8,413 trillion rials -- up 74% from last year's figures in rial terms but about $5 billion lower in hard currency terms because of the sharp fall of Iran's currency.

The budget includes 80.5 billion rials ($327,000) to the Foundation for the Preservation and Publication of Qassem Soleimani's Works, generally referred to as the "Qassem Soleimani Foundation", which was set up after his death.

Soleimani's 29-year-old daughter Zeinab Soleimani heads the organisation.

Zeinab issued a statement December 5 saying she would not accept the money, which would be better utilised if diverted to meeting the public's needs.

However, further reporting revealed that the foundation received $400,000 in funding from the government this year, and the money was allocated to the Qassem Soleimani Foundation as a sub-category of this year's IRGC budget.

For the IRGC itself, funding abounds.

In March, Khamenei increased next year's funding for the IRGC by 33% more than the government's suggested allocation.

In another sign of misplaced priorities, the IRGC has been bankrolling monuments and painting murals of IRGC commanders. These include the "Beauty of Victory" mural at the entrance to Baghdad Airport, inaugurated June 19 by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

The mural shows Soleimani and PMF deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both of whom were killed in the US strike near the airport, saluting a crowd of Iraqis.

A widely-derided new statue of Soleimani was erected in the city of Jiroft in his home province of Kerman in June, amid the coronavirus crisis, with social media users criticising the Iranian regime's priorities.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Iran-aligned and funded Hizbullah unveiled a statue of Soleimani in the southern town of Maroun al-Ras.

Siphoning money from the Iranian people

While the Iranian people grapple with a worsening economic crisis, Khamenei also doubled the budget for the Basij, which is under the IRGC's control and is mostly used to crack down on domestic dissent.

Basij paramilitary forces were deployed during mass protests last November following a shock decision to hike the price of gasoline by up to 200%.

At least 304 men, women and children were killed by Iran's security forces during the crackdown, according to Amnesty International.

Tehran clearly deems the IRGC's interventions and crackdowns on protests more essential than medicine or food.

In March, Khamenei pledged to pull €1 billion ($1.2 billion) from Iran's National Development Fund to fight COVID-19, yet Iran's Health Ministry has received only 27% of those funds and cannot pay health care workers' salaries, IranWire reported, citing local news sources in Iran.

"A billion dollars has been withdrawn from the fund but has been spent somewhere else," Hossein Ali Shahriari, chairman of the parliament's health committee, told local news. "The government must come clean and respond to the just demands of health workers."

Rather than supporting Iran's healthcare workers with essential equipment and medicine as the pandemic swept the country, the IRGC in April unveiled a ridiculous contraption designed to "detect" COVID-19.

That was among many examples of the regime spending untold resources and precious time on improving the IRGC's tarnished image after a number of deadly mishaps before and after Soleimani's death.

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