Wall Street Journal on March 4, 2015 reported on Iran’s growing international clout and economic problems. Not long ago, wrote Bill Spindle, Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite troops known as the Quds Force, was one of the spy world’s most covert operators. Excerpts below:

Now, his smiling face is everywhere: arm-in-arm with Iraqi officials on TV, rubbing shoulders with the militiamen fighting Islamic State across social media, and in public meetings with Iraqi families liberated by Iran’s allies.

Mr. Soleimani surfaced this week in Samarra, Iraq, to bolster the morale of Iraqi troops and militiamen embarking on a fight to free the nearby city of Tikrit, now controlled by Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Mr. Soleimani’s high profile underscores Iran’s transformation in the way it does business in the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which failed to export its 1979 revolution, now claims an arc of influence that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, say allies and enemies alike.

“Iran is more powerful than any time in the past 30 years,” Alaeddin Boroujerdi said from his office in Iran’s parliament, where he heads the foreign policy and national security committee.

But Iran’s new clout comes with commitments that strain a domestic economy devastated by sanctions and mismanagement. And the sectarian backlash Iran has triggered risks further entrenching the region’s religious divides.

Iranian military advisers openly direct militias abroad. In Iraq, Iranians coordinate as many as 100,000 Iraqi fighters mobilized by Iranian-allied Iraqi clerics with a religious order to confront Islamic State. In Yemen, a Shiite movement styled on Hezbollah, a group Iran midwifed in Lebanon in the 1980s to confront Israel, ousted the Yemeni president and the government with the help of Iranian-provided weapons and money.

In Syria, as the regime’s strength wanes under a grinding four-year conflict, Iranian military advisers help defend President Bashar al-Assad by coordinating a mix of paramilitary groups that include Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, Shiite militias from Iraq and fighters from Afghanistan, say rebels and regime-aligned fighters.

These mounting commitments abroad further strain Iran’s economy. In Syria, for example, Iran has spent tens of billions of dollars in loans, weapons and subsidized fuel to prop up the Assad regime, according to Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Security Studies.

With Iraq’s finances devastated by falling oil revenues, Iran may now have to step up assistance to Iraq…

Beyond cost, Iran’s involvement stokes sectarian tensions that deepen regional conflict: Its Shiite allies fight Sunnis who, in turn, feel threatened by Iran’s growing influence. That has made Sunni regional powers Saudi Arabia and Turkey anxious, and may be fueling support for, or at least acquiescence to, Sunni extremism in both Iraq and Syria.

“Iran is both the fire brigade and the arsonist,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

The militias have been organized into a quasigovernmental military force by Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mahdi Mohandes, close allies of Iran. Mr. Ameri has long been a fixture of Iraqi politics, serving as transportation minister under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a position he used to help arrange for the carriage of weapons and fighters to Syria, Iraq and U.S. officials said. He now heads Iraq’s largest militia, the Badr Brigade.

Mr. Mohandes emerged in public view several months ago at a news conference inside Baghdad’s closely guarded Green Zone. He announced plans to organize the Shiite militias under a special Iraqi government office.

Mr. Mohandes also is overseeing efforts to return displaced Sunnis to Iraqi cities reclaimed by the Shiite militias and government forces, a sensitive task since many Shiites and Kurds accuse Sunnis of having acquiesced to or cooperated with Islamic State fighters, Iraqi officials said.

Messrs. Mohandes and al Ameri couldn’t be reached for comment.

As the Iraqi government began a major military offensive this week in the city of Tikrit—-using Iranian-backed Shiite fighters in the Sunni-dominated city—sectarian tension is sure to rise, people on both sides said.

Messrs. Soleimani, Ameri and Mohandes are now targeting a string of Sunni towns and villages, paving the way for a planned offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which is controlled by Islamic State.

Dana Ballout in Beirut and Suha Ma’ayeh in Amman contributed to this article.


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