Since the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Iran has used its power and influence in the Middle East to attack, resist, and challenge its regional adversaries. Although its armed forces are powerful and well-equipped, Iran has created a system of proxy militias and organizations throughout the region that can carry out its many objectives.
Iran’s regional goals include destabilizing countries where it can spread its influence and power while countering American, Israeli, and Saudi influence. In other words, Iran adopts an offensive defense strategy to ensure that conflict never touches its soil. According to New America, this strategy is known as “forward defense” or offensive defense. This doctrine asserts that it is more strategically viable for Iran to confront its adversaries on foreign territory and avoid conflict on Iranian soil. Furthermore, by deterring a direct conflict in Iran, the regime disguises its direct involvement behind the cover of proxies.
After the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Tehran adopted a strict religious and ideological government and distanced itself from America and its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran’s longstanding regional rivals. While Iran’s quarrel with Saudi Arabia represents a centuries-long sectarian struggle for dominance of the region, it sees American and Israeli strategies as contradictory to its own. Despite previous military and economic cooperation, strict Iranian clerics began to view Israel as a barrier to the Shia Islamic Revolution that Tehran hoped to further throughout the Middle East. Furthermore, America’s growing regional presence in the early 2000s alarmed Iran, as it sought more friendly governments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and other nations. As a result, Iran believes it can use its proxy forces to counter and eventually deter its adversaries in the hopes of increasing its regional dominance.
The New York Times explains that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), the elite military and intelligence branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, oversees and manages Iran’s proxy groups. Under the former leadership of IRGC-QF Major General Qassem Soleimani, many of Iran’s proxies coordinated and worked with one another to further Iran’s objectives. However, General Soleimani was killed in an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq on January 3rd, 2020. His death was a significant blow to Iranian regional strategy and the uniformity of Iranian proxy groups. General Soleimani’s influence and control over these groups were profound, as his presence was felt in every conflict and country in which Iran had puppet forces.
Along with General Soleimani, the airstrike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an influential Iraqi politician and militia leader instrumental in carrying out Iran’s missions in Iraq. Despite recent Iraqi protests against Iranian influence, Iran maintains a significant political and military foothold in Iraq. Politically, Iran has the backing and rhetorical support of many Iraqi politicians. Militarily, Iranian proxy militias are critical to the security of Iraq and provide a security blanket for many Iraqis in areas where the government cannot. An example of Iran’s political and military influence can be seen with Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is an umbrella group once headed by al-Muhandis and comprised of Shiite militias – adherents of the Shia denomination of Islam – that came together after the rise of the Islamic State (IS). The group operates in Iraq and receives direct funding from the government in Baghdad.
The PMF also receives financial and military support from the Iranian government, as many Shiite militias comprising the PMF have close links to Tehran and the IRGC. Voice of America explains that one of these groups in the PMF is Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), a prominent Iranian proxy and Shiite militia founded by al-Muhandis and considers Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei to be its spiritual leader. KH is a powerful militia in the PMF – its fighters were among those who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in response to American airstrikes. As a result of their continued efforts in replacing American with Iranian influence in Iraq, the U.S. State Department designated the group a terrorist organization in 2009.
Another Iraq-based group that receives funding and support from Iran is the Badr Organization. According to the Counter Extremism Project, the Badr Organization is Iran’s oldest proxy in Iraq and the most powerful group within the PMF, as it has sought to bring the Islamic Revolution to Iraq. Like many Iraqi militias, the Badr Organization effectively took advantage of the power vacuum left by Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iran saw an opportunity to capitalize on the chaotic security atmosphere post-Hussein and did so with the Badr Organization, KH, and many other proxy militias. Iran not only successfully countered the new American presence but also made it difficult for the United States to stabilize Iraq’s government and armed forces.
Iran’s approach to increasing its influence in Iraq is multi-faceted. Along with integrating friendly proxy militias into Iraq’s security system, Iran supports political movements that are friendly to and supported by Tehran. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has increased its support for Shiite Iraqi politicians and political parties. Most notably, Iran has long backed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has a standing militia and active politicians. According to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, Iran understands the need to support such Iraqi politicians and proxies to avoid a hostile government in Baghdad and counter growing American influence in the country.
Iran’s proxies in Iraq are critically important to its regional strategy. Not only does Iran want to have more influence in the country and avoid another Iran-Iraq war, but also gains from Iraq’s strategic position. The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point adds that Iran views Iraq as crucial to ensuring its security and strategic concerns by using the country as a gateway to Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea as well as a buffer between itself and adversaries like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s implementation of a forward defense in Iraq is evident from its opposition to its adversaries in the country. Along with the continued battle against the Islamic State (IS), Tehran hopes to keep any hostilities with the United States on Iraqi soil. While averting a war with the United States is seen as a strategic priority, any American encroachment onto Iranian territory would threaten the survival of the Iranian regime and also signal a loss of territorial integrity.
Tehran’s proxy groups are also active in Syria. Iran’s objectives inside Syria are to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to maintain its Shiite proxies, thus giving it substantial influence over the country. Iran sees Syria as significant to its long-standing policy of resistance against Israel and serves as a pathway to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Given the Syrian regimes’ Shia background, Iran also sees Syria as a means to increase Shia influence in the region.
Iranian support for Assad represents a pattern of maintaining Shiite influence in the Middle East in the sectarian struggle with Sunnis, who follow a different denomination of Islam. Since Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam, Iran has a pretext to support the regime out of mutual defense.
BBC News reports that throughout the Syrian Civil War, Iran mobilized its proxy militias in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to fight alongside pro-Assad forces and the Syrian army. Voice of America explains that since 2011, Iran has recruited and deployed Shiite Afghan fighters from the Fatemiyoun Brigade and Shiite Pakistani fighters from the Zeinabiyoun Brigade to fight with the Assad regime.
Many of these militias have been instrumental in recapturing Syrian cities such as Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, and the surrounding areas of Damascus. The New York Times explains that these militias were fighting the Syrian rebels and IS. Currently, Iranian-backed militias, not the Syrian army, control much of the recaptured territories. Iran’s efforts to recruit and mobilize fighters from all over the Middle East underscores its lengthy efforts to secure a stronger foothold in Syria and maintain a presence closer to Israel’s borders.
Along with its desire to maintain Shiite influence and support the Assad regime, Iran has also deployed its forward defense strategy in Syria. While Iran may see Iraq as a stage for its opposition to America’s presence, its influence in Syria is part of a large-scale effort to deter, counter, and attack Israel.
The most powerful and closest Iranian proxy assisting Tehran and Damascus in Syria is the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, Iran’s earliest and most successful proxy according to Axios. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has seen Hezbollah as a means to achieve its goals of countering Israel and the United States while furthering Iranian influence with plausible deniability. To avoid the public backlash and economic sanctions from the international community, Iran believes it can use its proxies as camouflage while still seeking out its objectives. Because Iran strategically uses offensive defense on foreign soil, it can cover its military and political tracks. Despite Tehran’s use of Hezbollah as a disguise and public scapegoat, the terrorist group has consistently pledged loyalty to the Iranian Supreme Leader.
As a result of Iranian support for Hezbollah and its growing popularity throughout the 21st century, the group has integrated into Lebanon’s government and security structure. The implications of Hezbollah’s rise are profound given their close relationship with Tehran: the stronger Hezbollah becomes the stronger Iran’s regional presence. A stronger Iranian regional presence is threatening to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Not only does Iran see the strategic advantages of influencing in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but its support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen highlights its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf states. The long-standing Iranian-Saudi contention has sectarian roots and stems from the struggle to become the region’s hegemon, as shown in Yemen’s Civil War.
Yemen’s conflict began as a struggle for power after the Arab Spring uprisings but quickly escalated into an international conflict BBC News reports. Both Yemeni and Saudi governments have accused Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels with funding and arms. Because of the shared Saudi-Yemeni border, Riyadh became increasingly concerned by a greater Iranian influence and presence on their perimeter.
According to Arab News, in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition intercepted and seized Iranian arms shipments en route to the Houthis. Salam Al-Khanbashi, the deputy prime minister of Yemen, claims that this “is concrete proof of Iran’s involvement in Yemen.” Despite Iran’s lack of transparency about providing funding, its leaders have expressed support for the Houthis rebels. Whether Iran’s involvement in the conflict is as profound as the coalition claims it to be, it seems that the rebels’ conflict with one of Tehran’s greatest enemies is reason enough for Iran to involve itself.
In contrast to other Iranian proxies throughout the region, support for militias in the Palestinian territories is noteworthy given the sectarian differences. While Iran sees itself as the leader of the Shia Muslim world and champions Shi’ite groups throughout the Middle East, it also funded and equipped Sunni Palestinians in their struggle against the “Zionists” in Israel.
Iran supports several Palestinian military groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which oppose Israel. The Times of Israel reports that in addition to the reportedly 30 million dollars of annual financial support, Iran provides advanced military training for thousands of Hamas activists at Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran and Lebanon.
According to PBS, Iranian military and financial support Hamas began in the 1990s after the start of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Because Iran believed the PLO’s attempts to create lasting peace with Israel did not coincide with its resistance to Zionism, Tehran began to support the PLO’s political rival, Hamas. In addition to this, Hamas violently seeks the destruction of the state of Israel, a policy that Iran also supports.
Despite a recent break in the relationship due to fractured ties between Hamas and Assad’s regime, relations have been mended and Iran continues to provide such assistance.
The PIJ is another Palestinian militia that is financed, equipped, and trained by the Iranians. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the group was formed in 1979 by radical Palestinian students in Egypt and was influenced by the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Since the 1980s, the PIJ has coordinated with the Quds Force while also maintaining close contact with the IRGC in Lebanon and Syria.
Tehran’s support of Hamas and the PIJ represents its ability to overlook sectarian differences in opposition to a common enemy in Israel and highlights how Iran could influence future peace solutions between Palestinians and Israelis. Whether in Lebanon and Syria in the north or Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip in the west, it seems Iranian proxies and influence can extend close to Israel’s borders while still ensuring the battle never touches Iranian territory.
Despite success in propping up proxies to further its objectives in the Middle East, Iran’s regional strategy has faced some complications in recent months. In addition to the loss of General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, COVID-19 has dramatically disrupted Tehran’s ability to support and fund its proxy paramilitary groups. According to Reuters, the sanctions combined with the pandemic and a decline in oil prices have forced Iran, facing a large budget deficit, to limit its military spending, including on the Revolutionary Guards. Iran has long viewed its proxy forces as a means to counter Israeli, Saudi, and American influence in the region, which it may be unable to do if its economic downfalls are prolonged.
Since the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Tehran has pursued a unique regional policy of offensive defense through proxy paramilitary warfare where plausible deniability can be maintained if necessary. Under the leadership of the IRGC and the late General Qassem Soleimani, the country has historically been successful in recruiting and managing proxies and militias around the Middle East.
Iran’s proxy forces have been instrumental in preserving the Islamic Revolution and furthering of Iranian and Shia influence. Even with the recent challenges to Iran’s foreign policy objectives, its proxies will presumably continue to further its regional agenda and give Iran significant influence in many countries. As a result, the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their partners will continue to counter Iranian attempts to advance destabilizing actions and generate sectarian divisions.