Inside Iran’s Shadow War for the Middle East
As the sun set on this special forces training site all the surrounding neighbourhoods started burning their trash. Thanks guys, you really know how to set the ambiance. All photos taken on a Sony RX1R. All photos and captions: Jake Burghart

Inside Iran’s Shadow War for the Middle East

A VICE crew including VICE founder Suroosh Alvi gained unprecedented – if highly monitored access – inside Iran, and Iraq.
June 16, 2021, 7:37pm

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.

This is the Moto-Taxi driver from the opening scenes in Tehran. We were out shooting and needed to get across town quickly, getting a few shots from the back was just a bonus.

This is the Moto-Taxi driver from the opening scenes in Tehran. We were out shooting and needed to get across town quickly, getting a few shots from the back was just a bonus.

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's monument with the mosque reflected in the background.

Fakhrizadeh's monument with the mosque reflected in the background.

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.

Fakhrizadeh's car, enshrined at the Martyrs Museum.

Fakhrizadeh's car, enshrined at the Martyrs Museum.

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.

Women hanging at the mosque. Women not in full head to toe coverings have to grab one of these at the entrance.

Women hanging at the mosque. Women not in full head to toe coverings have to grab one of these at the entrance.

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.

You can’t smell when the delicious street meat is finished if you’re wearing a mask.

You can’t smell when the delicious street meat is finished if you’re wearing a mask.

Suroosh met with Fereydoon Abbasi, a scientist who survived a car bomb attempt on his life back in 2010.

Suroosh Alvi.

Suroosh Alvi.

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 had amazing drivers in Baghdad, I'm pretty sure they were a lot more than that, but let’s just call them drivers. The middle guy was called the Iraqi Soprano.

We had amazing drivers in Baghdad, I'm pretty sure they were a lot more than that, but let’s just call them drivers. The middle guy was called the Iraqi Soprano.

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.

Kourosh Zarei, a “Jihadi” movie director in Tehran.

Kourosh Zarei, a “Jihadi” movie director in Tehran.

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.

Lots of long blast wall corridors in Iraq.

Lots of long blast wall corridors in Iraq.

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. 

Completely unprepared to see any combat, we were told 5 minutes before we arrived at this base it was the front lines with ISIS. Luckily they neglected to mention it was the front lines with ISIS last month.

Completely unprepared to see any combat, we were told 5 minutes before we arrived at this base it was the front lines with ISIS. Luckily they neglected to mention it was the front lines with ISIS last month.

When Suroosh was offered access to Soleimani’s biggest and most prolific militia in Iraq, the Badr Organisation, we were amazed again.

These guys were all pretty pumped on striking serious poses with their guns, then coming over to check them out. No one wanted my contact to get any photos, they were just happy to have them exist.

These guys were all pretty pumped on striking serious poses with their guns, then coming over to check them out. No one wanted my contact to get any photos, they were just happy to have them exist.

The crew took a road trip from Tehran to Baghdad, and ended up meeting with Hadi Al Amiri, the group’s leader. 

The guy at the outpost was all hush hush when it came to Iran, then this guy at the base was quite happy to tell us everything they have comes from Iran.

The guy at the outpost was all hush hush when it came to Iran, then this guy at the base was quite happy to tell us everything they have comes from Iran.

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.

Hadi Al Amiri, most famous for allegedly power drilling people’s skulls, had a lovely yard filled with birds and cats.

Hadi Al Amiri, most famous for allegedly power drilling people’s skulls, had a lovely yard filled with birds and cats.

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.

Not exactly sure what’s happening here, but when Suroosh turned around he scolded these guys like children.

Not exactly sure what’s happening here, but when Suroosh turned around he scolded these guys like children.

 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.

Just a couple of buddies at the end of the day

Just a couple of buddies at the end of the day

After a difficult year in which the Iranian economy has been brought almost to its knees, that might be catastrophic. 

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