Teheran has created a network of allies among more than a dozen major militias across the region, some with their own political parties, which challenge local and neighbouring governments.
London: Last Monday, the US military conducted air strikes against Iran’s proxies, Teheran-sponsored armed groups, at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq. These came just a day after the proxies, Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, had carried out drone and rocket attacks against US military bases in Iraq, where 2,500 US troops remain deployed. This was the second time since President Joe Biden took office that he ordered strikes against Iran’s proxies in the region. The timing was notable. This latest military action came shortly after Ebrahim Raisi won the Iranian presidential election, and after the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, had discussed Tel Aviv’s “serious reservation” about the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord possibly being salvaged in Vienna. Predictably, the Iranian and Syrian governments, together with various Shia militias, condemned these US attacks against the facilities used by Iran’s proxies.
Iran has built up a huge network of its proxies through which it wields influence across the Middle East, posing a more direct threat to US targets in the region than Iran itself. It all started in the 1980s when Iran supported Shia militias that opposed Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government in Iraq. It was President George Bush who gave Iran an enormous gift when he invaded Iraq in 2003 and removed Saddam, in an illegal war based on fake intelligence. This unlocked an obstacle to the spread of Iran’s influence and was an “own goal” for the US. Iran would not have the influence it has in the region today had it not been for the ill-conceived, tragic decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Sadly, each of the past four US presidential administrations have failed the Middle East in their own way, each attempting to reshape a region which has its own dynamics and characteristics that are not going to be simply moulded by a foreign entity.
Teheran has created a network of allies among more than a dozen major militias across the region, some with their own political parties, which challenge local and neighbouring governments. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the elite Quds Force, the branch of the IRGC which specializes in unconventional warfare and military intelligence, has provided arms, training and financial support to militias and political movements in a number of countries, including Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Yemen. While successive US administrations have struggled to deal with Iran’s proxies, using a range of sanctions, these have never fully succeeded. In 2020, for example, the US State Department estimated that Iran gave Hezbollah, its most important proxy, $700 million a year. Historically, Teheran has given $100 million annually to Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region”, said the White House in 2017.
In Iraq, the Kataib Hezbollah (Party of God Brigade), formed in 2007 and trained by Iran’s IRGC, carried out perhaps the most sophisticated and effective attacks against US forces and coalition allies in recent years. With Iranian backing this proxy group launched a rocket attack on a US military base near Kirkuk which killed US contractors and wounded US service members and Iraqi security forces. It was this attack which led directly to the US retaliating with the Reaper drone strike on General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force in Baghdad. Asaib Ahl al Haq (League of the Righteous), a Shia militia founded in 2006, is also trained, armed and funded by the IRGC. Between 2006 and 2011 it launched more than 6,000 attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq. Reports suggest that since the withdrawal of US forces in 2011, it has been attempting to recast itself as a mainstream player, opening offices in Baghdad and in Iraq’s predominantly Shia south. But “it is no secret that Iran supports all the militias in this area and we are obviously one of them”, said Qais al Khazali, the group’s leader, in 2015.
Ansar Allah (the Houthis), a Zaydi Shia movement, was founded in Yemen in the early 1990s and has been fighting the Yemeni government since 2004, capturing the capital, Sanaa, in 2014 when it ousted the President, Abed Hadi. They have been trained and supported by the IRGC since at least 2011 and received a massive increased arms shipment from Iran following the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen’s war in 2015. The United Nations on 15 June this year characterised Yemen as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis, with its population living every day under violence, insecurity and fear.
Among the many other Iranian proxies in the Middle East, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Territories, Saraya al Mukhtar and Saraya al Ashtar in Bahrain, proxies all trained and funded by Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon has become the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor and the most successful terror group in history. “Hezbollah’s budget, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran”, said Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in 2016. Since Israel’s crushing defeat of the combined Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War, no one thought an Arab force could do more than just terrorise or harass the Israelis. Hezbollah proved them wrong.
Since its founding in 1985, Hezbollah has fought Israel for almost 40 years, its most famous victory being in May 2000 when it expelled the Israeli Defence Forces from the “security zone” it had occupied in South Lebanon for nearly two decades. As Thanassis Cambanis comments in his defining book A Privilege to Die, Hezbollah has “convinced legions of common men and women that Israel can be defeated and destroyed, not just in the distant future, but soon”. Defining countries like Egypt and Jordan as the “Axis of Accommodation”, and those such as Iran and Syria as the “Axis of Resistance”, Cambanis continues: “Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, regularly reminds his millions of listeners across the Arab world that Hezbollah and its allies, the Axis of Resistance, have wrung more concessions from Israeli by force than the pro-Western Axis of Accommodation has won through decades of negotiation.”
And this is why the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, is so dangerous for peace in the Middle East. Nasrallah’s preaching that only war will solve the problems in the region is warmly welcomed by millions of Arabs who consider themselves persecuted by the Israelis, with little hope for the future. For them, Hezbollah is essentially an Iranian brigade in Lebanon, but for Iran this proxy force gives it not just an expanded footprint, but something almost as valuable: deniability. Israelis, of course are not fooled and consider Hezbollah to all intent and purposes as a forward Iranian base that poses the greatest threat to its national security and arguably the toughest foe the country has ever faced. Hezbollah’s extensive combat experience gained in fighting an ultimately successful 15-year insurgency against Israel, is now complemented by almost a decade of fighting in Syria. Their soldiers are battle hardened to a degree that Israel’s other border enemy, Hamas, simply cannot match.
Within its territory on Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah controls an estimated 150,000 missiles, mostly Iranian made. This huge asset gives the Party of God the capability of striking deep into Israeli territory with a force well beyond the ability of Israel’s anti-missile system, Iron Dome, the system which recently protected Israel from Hamas’ few thousand rockets. Hezbollah has become Iran’s primary means by which it can deter and respond to Israel in the event of war. But a new and highly effective weapon, even more threatening than ageing rockets has appeared on the scene.
In recent years, drones have played an increasingly important part in Iran’s strategy in its activities in Yemen, Iraq and Syria in support of its proxies. Small, explosive laden drones fly too low to be picked up by normal defensive systems and can fly for hours, sometimes days in dangerous airspaces without risking a pilot’s life. It was Iranian drones that the Houthi proxies used to great effect in a mass strike against Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facilities in November 2019. Last week, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s IRGC, Hossein Salami, boasted that “we have unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) with a long range of 7,000 kilometres that can fly, return home and make landing wherever they are planned to”. These drones, carrying up to 30kg of explosives and even armed with air-to-air missiles, will provide Iran with a mini air force and will greatly magnify its power projection in the region.
Today, Iran’s proxies are deeply embedded in the fabric of society in many countries in the Middle East, marbled throughout ruling institutions. If US’ “maximum pressure” has succeeded at its narrow objective of damaging the Iranian economy, it has failed at its broader aim of changing Iranian foreign policy. As the US reduces its footprint, Teheran is slowly moving closer to its goal of establishing a land bridge that stretches across the Middle East. Should this dream become a reality, the mullahs will be able to move weapons and personnel back and forth between Iran and its growing army of proxies wherever they are located, building bases and depots throughout the area—one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world. Any prospect of peace is an illusion.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.