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Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the Tehran funeral of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps member who died in Syria in 2017. Photo: Iranian Leader's Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Trump administration on Thursday took its first significant move against 2 of Iran’s non-Arab Shiite militias in Syria with two different executive orders — one related to human rights and the other to terrorism. Both groups, the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun, support Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which was sanctioned over a decade ago but remains active across the Middle East.

Why it matters: The U.S. Congress has attempted several times to get the administration to designate Iran-backed militias, whether in Iraq or Syria, as terrorists, given their ties to the IRGC-QF. The administration’s voluntary designation of the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun therefore represents a paradigm shift, adding Iran’s agents of influence to the U.S. Treasury's financial blacklist and subjecting them to sanctions.

Background: The Fatemiyoun is an all-Afghan militia group chiefly composed of Iran’s Afghan refugee population, comprising mainly Hazara and Tajik ethnic groups. The Zeynabiyoun is an all-Pakistani militia group recruited from abroad and within Iran. Both militias were formally organized and announced several years into the Syrian War.

  • In addition to being deemed "martyrs," members of the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun killed in action receive the same honorific that Iran’s IRGC receive if killed in Syria: "defender of the shrine," a reference to the Islamic Republic’s sectarian religious mission.
  • Families of fallen Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun members have also received special attention from Iran's supreme leader and commander-in-chief, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The big picture: In an ongoing evolution of its use of proxy forces, Iran is marshaling zealous and disaffected Shiites from South Asia to fight for its larger ideological and strategic goals in Syria. While Tehran has traditionally relied on Arab Shiites to engage in terror attacks or subvert governments, the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun are serving a different purpose — helping Iran support the allied Syrian government.

The bottom line: Washington is continuing to rely on coercive economic measures as its chief policy tool against Tehran. Some in the administration framed the designation as but one move in the larger "maximum pressure" campaign. But given that the vast array of Iran-linked Shiite militias in Iraq have not yet been targeted, the move also signals that, at least for now, the "pushback" against militias is limited.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Go deeper

Reports: CIA finds "Havana Syndrome" unlikely caused by foreign campaign

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill last April. Photo: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

A preliminary CIA report rules out a foreign global campaign as the cause of American and Canadian diplomats affected by a mysterious illness known as "Havana syndrome," per multiple reports.

Why it matters: Some lawmakers had suggested the sometimes debilitating illness was due to directed energy attacks. But CIA officials told the New York Times that most of the 1,000 cases reported to the government could be "explained by environmental causes, undiagnosed medical conditions or stress." This finding has angered some victims, per the NYT.

Jan. 6 panel subpoenas 2 far-right "America First" activists

The House panel investigating the Capitol riot, from left; Reps. Bennie Thompson, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger and Jamie Raskin on Capitol Hill in December. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The House select committee investigating the Capitol riot issued subpoenas Wednesday for far-right leaders Nick Fuentes and Patrick Casey, who allegedly encouraged followers to go to D.C. and challenge the 2020 election results.

Why it matters: The action underscores the panel's increasing focus on rallies held ahead of the Capitol attack and how extremists were drawn to former President Trump's baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, per the New York Times.

Democrats fail to change Senate rules to pass voting rights bill

Senate Majority Leader during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats failed Wednesday night to change Senate filibuster rules to pass the voting rights bill, with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) voting with Republicans.

The big picture: The failed effort came after Senate Republicans blocked the voting rights measure from coming to a final vote earlier Wednesday.