Emily Stranger is a PhD student in IU’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies. Here she talks about her evolving interest in Iran-sponsored militias and the role of social media in extending Iran’s sphere of influence.
In 2017, I was invited to participate in the International Policy Scholars Consortium (IPSCON), a bi-annual conference which was created to “bridge the gap” between academia and foreign policymaking. The consortium brings together professors and students from IU and several other top American universities known for their international study programs including Duke, Johns Hopkins SAIS, MIT, and Stanford. I met with an interesting group of doctoral students and practitioners during the weekend conference in Syracuse, NY, and it was through networking that I was introduced to the topic of Iranian-supported militias. A friend I met there was interested in U.S. foreign policy and terrorism, and it was through the course of our informal conversations that she suggested to me, based on my interest in Iran, that I explore this topic further. She told me that there were few academic studies written about these militias and mentioned one specifically that piqued my interest: the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
When I returned to Bloomington, I ran the idea by my advisor (Prof. Feisal Istrabadi) who also thought the idea was interesting, and we began to narrow down research ideas for my master’s thesis. I have always been interested in how social media is used by various groups to propagate ideology, so I decided (with my advisor’s approval) to create a research account to follow Iranian-supported militias, their fighters, and their supporters. I was surprised to discover that these groups, and Iran intelligence in general, have an incredibly proactive presence on the internet. Even though my research initially began with a focus on the Fatemiyoun brigade, I soon found myself following many different groups and affiliates. It seems they are all tied to a larger network of Shi’ite resistance propagated by Iran, and it is this network that will likely be the focus of my doctoral dissertation. I am interested in how Iran and its affiliates use social media to widen their sphere of influence. At the time of the writing of this article, I had not narrowed down my dissertation research topic, but it will likely head in that direction.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has been very busy inserting its influence throughout the world. Even though it mostly focuses on the Middle Eastern region, Iran also has supporters on other continents, including Africa and South America. Many have heard of Iran’s most well-known proxy, Hezbollah (Prof. Istrabadi would argue that “ally” is a more appropriate term), but there are many other groups that Iran supports both monetarily and militarily. Of interest to me are the groups composed of Afghan and Pakistani foreign fighters which are the Fatemiyoun and Zeinabiyoun brigades, respectively. Fighters for both brigades are recruited from both inside and outside of Iran and join the militias for money, prestige, and a shared ideology. Members of both groups were initially sent to Syria to allegedly defend the Seyyed Zainab shrine in Damascus, which was consistently targeted by ISIS assailants throughout the Syrian Civil War. However, they have since become part of Iran’s grand strategy for hegemony in the Middle East, and it was this concept that became the focus of my thesis. I argue that John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism explains why Iran seeks to be regional hegemon, and how these militias contribute to this effort. I also introduce a theory that I called “Fire Ant Warfare,” which describes how these militias could be used in an offensive manner.
It has been over a year since I completed my thesis, and my research continues to grow. I continue to check in on my research account to collect data, and I am currently nearing the end of my doctoral coursework. I am looking forward to exploring Iran’s online presence much more in-depth when I begin writing my dissertation next year.