Iran and the US are fighting a shadow war for influence in the Middle East, and it’s a war that Iran seems to be winning. In March VICE sent a crew, including VICE founder Suroosh Alvi to Iran.
We wanted to do a story on the rash of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists – most recently Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the apparent head of the country’s nuclear programme.
Fakhrizadeh was killed in early 2020, allegedly by Israeli spies using an AI-controlled machine gun mounted to a car, which exploded after the job was completed.
Iran was already a difficult place for US crews to gain access to, but particularly during the pandemic – Iran has suffered the Middle East’s worst COVID outbreak – the country hasn’t been allowing many journalists in.
We were stunned when our visa applications were granted, and our crew ended up getting unprecedented access.In Tehran we were granted an interview with an alleged ISIS fighter who had been captured by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq – the first such interview by a foreign news outlet.
Suroosh met with Fereydoon Abbasi, a scientist who survived a car bomb attempt on his life back in 2010.
The interview took place at an exhibition to his destroyed car and after we stopped shooting Abbasi told the crew he was scared to even be out in public.
We even got an interview with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the former right-hand man of Qassem Soleimani, the general and spymaster who was killed in a strike ordered by President Donald Trump at the start of 2020.
Soleimani, who according to the US had the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands, used militias in Iraq and across the region to project Iranian power with terrifying effectiveness.
Most recently, those groups have been fighting ISIS. According to Amir-Abdollahian – also known as “Mr Shadow” – and many others the crew met, Iran isn’t trying to control the Middle East but is simply filling a vacuum left by the US invasion of Iraq and the nearly 20 years of chaos that has followed it.
When Suroosh was offered access to Soleimani’s biggest and most prolific militia in Iraq, the Badr Organisation, we were amazed again.
The crew took a road trip from Tehran to Baghdad, and ended up meeting with Hadi Al Amiri, the group’s leader.
That Iran is filling a vacuum left by the US in the Middle East is not new, but what came across on this trip was just how complete that process is, at least in Iraq.
The US and its ally Israel are still waging a shadow war of elaborate assassinations, but for the time being Iran has a solid grip on its neighbour.
This Friday, Iranians will go to the polls in a presidential election that could well see a hardline anti-US politician elected. If that happens, relations between the West and Iran are likely to get even worse.
After a difficult year in which the Iranian economy has been brought almost to its knees, that might be catastrophic.